Savile Row at London – Beau Brummell to Benedict Cumberbatch

It was in 1856 that James Poole’s son Henry inherited his father’s firm.

He earned the title ‘Founder of Savile Row’ when he made the Savile Row-side of his father’s tailoring workshops Henry Poole & Company situated at No 4 Old Burlington Street into an all new grand classical style entrance.

The address became known as No 32 Savile Row.

Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society*

The term “bespoke” is understood to have originated on Savile Row when cloth for a suit was said to “be spoken for by an individual customer “.

The talented ‘bespoke’ tailors who still survive today are much sought after, albeit by a much smaller but just as exclusive as always, clientele.

They are and while they continue to survive changes in fashion, the expansion of well made ‘off the rack’ suits.

An assault on their competitiveness and competency will always be associated with taste, fashion, elegance, sophistication and timeless attitudes.

Richard Anderson combed, cuffed, collared and clad in plaid, as you do

Show me a lobotomist who can work to the sixteenth of an inch using ten inch shears‘, said master raconteur of Savile Row at London, Richard Anderson.

Combed collared, cuffed and clad in what many may think is a very loud plaid, Anderson is a new boy on the block by Savile Row standards.

He opened his shop in 2001 at number 13 Savile Row (the number proves he is a brave man) with the idea of carrying on the old techniques, but with a modern twist.

He must have turned many heads on the street where peerless cut and precision, not peacockery was previously preferred.

British boys have always been fans of big checks.

Their Scottish colleagues wear the tartan, whose origin lays with the migrating hordes of Celts.

Tartan is also known as plaid in North America and, in Scotland a plaid is a tartan cloth slung over the shoulder.

No wonder we are all confused.

Just love the image of Colonel Gordon painted by eighteenth century Grand Tourist artist Pompeo Batoni wearing his tartan at a time it was a crime to do so.

He is posing with drawn sword, kilt and swathed in a length of Huntly tartan resembling a Roman toga. He looks as if he has just conquered the whole world, well the city of Rome anyway, which in a way he had.

There is something so dashing about a man in a kilt, but we digress.

Savile Row is and has always been an internationally renowned epicentre for a gentleman with style and taste for nigh on two hundred years.

The tailors on this famous British boulevard have gained an age-old reputation for hand crafting the best ‘bespoke’ suits.

A bespoke suit is the gentleman’s equivalent of haute couture, requiring some eighty man hours to complete. A set of measurements is taken for each customer’s specific shape, creating a unique pattern individual to the wearer, drafted from scratch. Much of the intricate work is not apparent, yet this is what ensures that the suit hangs beautifully and with utmost comfort‘.

Mark Strong 'Body of Lies' wearing Suit by Huntsman from Savile Row

Over the years when tailors riffs, tiffs and trifles have ensued on the Row, they have reminded me of the antique dealers of Queen Street, Woollahra in Sydney on a good gossip day during the ’80’s.

Then there was the eighteenth century silk makers of Lyon.

They were particularly fierce and feisty, especially when Queen Marie Antoinette wore muslin – they were in fact outraged.

She had fitted out her Meridian apartment with drapes of cotton, not silk trying to cut costs.

However with all the intense pressure of promised riots by the silk merchants she was finally required to order new ones to stop them from doing so.

Ironically the new silk numbers didn’t arrive until after her lovely head was removed, indelicately proving the point that ‘you cannot please all of the people all of the time’.

Hard to surpass Cary Grant in a Savile Row coat

Being an Australian baby boomer my first encounter with Savile Row tailoring of the highest quality first came about when a friend took me to a charitable fund raiser at Sydney during the 1980’s.He was wearing a full length bespoke tailored cashmere coat made on Savile Row, over a very stylish dinner suit.

The story was that he had been in London and had seen a well known ‘Duke’ walking out of a shop on Savile Row wearing one. So he decided then and there he just had to have one too. At the time it nearly broke the bank, he said,  but was worth it, because it was a coat, as my Nan would have said, would ‘see him out’.

It is very hard to surpass images of Cary Grant wearing a Savile Row coat, but you will have to take my word for it that my friend looked a picture of sartorial elegance. It was really quite simply breathtaking how it hung on his body and moved when he walked swooshing low to the ground. Being an interior designer by trade I was fascinated with how it had been cut.

Years later when enjoying a three year sojourn in the world of haute couture I found out just how it had been done from the pattern maker.

His image instantly brought to my mind a quote that I remember my father using a great deal when talking to my brother.

‘Clothes maketh the man’. The ancient Greeks used a similar expression. ‘The garment makes the man”, which turned up in England sometime in the sixteenth century as ‘apparel makes the man’.

By the seventeenth century it was about ‘the tailor who makes the man’, and by the late eighteenth century it meant the tailors in England.

During the nineteenth century the saying became associated solely with the talented tailors of Savile Row.

Napoleon at Arcola by Gros totally dashing in his superbly tailored military uniform

Keeping up appearances was something Corsican born Napoleon Bonaparte’s mother Letitzia believed in.

At least according to one of his many biographers, Vincent Cronin, who said that his mother always encouraged Napoleon to look his best no matter how hard times were.

During his years at military school in France, before he became Consul, his clothes were mostly threadbare but always clean and well pressed.

When he became Emperor of France Napoleon encouraged the art of tailoring at court, inventing ‘court dress’ to help keep those tailors who had previously made uniforms for his soldiers, in work.

Indeed Napoleon always said that he encouraged the lavish style of his court to keep employed all those workers who had originally catered to the needs of the Kings, Queens and Courtiers of the Ancien Regime, whom the revolution had basically left starving.

He also knew that it was people’s perceptions that counted if he was to succeed.

‘If you want to be a success you must look like you know what success is all about’, my Nan used to tell me. ‘Better to buy one superbly tailored suit or black dress each year of fine material and wear it all the time and look terrific than wear a variety of cheaper clothes that don’t fit properly anywhere‘, she used to say. Especially if they don’t flatter the figure.

Stewart Granger (1954) was perfect casting as Beau Brummell, whom the Prince was mad about, a witty chap who encapsulated the whole idea of chic and style

The Regency era’s (c1792 – 1820) top dandy Beau Brummell also played his part.

He built his reputation on the ‘cut of his jib‘.

His lean figure was set off superbly by the peerless perfection of his clothes. They were cut to precision standards.

George Byron Brummell (1778-1840) became the high priest of the art of Dandyism, mastering the art of minimalist masculine elegance and, deciding what the well dressed man should wear.

My first thought is for my cravat…it is our test of good taste….I work for hours in hope that it will appear to be knotted in haste”. Tying the cravat in complicated knots gave rise to his fame. He made it an art form.

Brummell grouped himself around George, Prince of Wales in the early nineteenth century gradually imposing a new style of men’s clothing. He was played on the silver screen in 1954 by the late great Stewart Granger, alongside Peter Ustinov (Prince of Wales) and Robert Morley (George III).

The clothing Brummell aspired to was typified by studied correctness and impeccable fitting, which led English tailors to perfect cut as well as attention to the very smallest detail.

He was also well laced in all the right places to achieve a severe, restrained silhouette.

He remodeled the dress coat, decreeing cravats should be starched and, brought pantaloons into fashion.

Brummell was the first man to wear evening dress of black, denouncing showy materials, fantastic suits, frills and perfume for men.

He was also said to be so fastidious about the cut of his clothes he had one glover make the fingers of his gloves and another do the thumbs.

Brummell embraced the concept of bathing daily, which for the English not known for their attention to personal hygiene would have been quite shocking at the time. He wore absolutely no perfume at all, introducing the scent of freshly laundered linen into polite society.

Lady Hester Stanhope reported he once said to her ‘If the world is so silly as to admire my absurdities – you and I may know better, but what does it signify?. His house, furniture, library and possessions were much admired, as was his agreeable creative style.

Brummell worked with all the best tailors of his day including Schweitzer and Davidson of Cork street, Weston of 34 Old Bond street, Meyer of Conduit street, and Guthrie. His aim was to achieve a sober, exquisite perfection.

Edward, heir to the throne in Dinner Dress

Ultimately Brummell fell out with the Prince Regent, the Prince of Wales when he asked William Arden, 2nd Baron Alvanley of the Coldstream Guards – ‘whose your fat friend’.

All clothing during this period was handmade.

The first functioning sewing machine was not available before 1830 and ladies and men’s clothes would not begin to be mass produced until the 1850s.

It was Edward, Queen Victoria’s eldest son who, as Prince of Wales (King Edward VIII in Waiting) adopted the lounge coat, or jacket, for daily wear during the 1850’s and changed men’s fashion ever since.

He requested that his tailor make another, also in black, but this time faced with silk lapels.

He wanted something special to wear to men-only dinners. So he added a waistcoat and a cummerbund, which was adapted from costume previously worn by British military officers serving in India.

Go figure how this outfit, now known as a ‘dinner suit’ ended up as the favorite among young American men to wear at senior proms or for ambitious men in the antipodes where it was worn to dinner, despite hideous heat.

By 1900 there were some 80,000+ tailors working in London, with those at the top of the tree, working on Savile Row.

Cary Grant wearing his bespoke Kilgour suit

Accordingly the ‘fruits’ of the labours of tailors from Savile Row have clothed customers from royalty to the just plain rich, from the theatre of the West End at London to Broadway in New York and on to Hollywood in California.

The tailors of Savile Row have outfitted many of England and Europe’s most dashing men, royal or otherwise, as well as the silver screen’s most dapper of stars, including Mr Cary Grant.

The stylish, medium grey “Kilgour” suit worn by Grant in Alfred Hitchock’s thriller North by Northwest is considered one of the most famous suits of men clothing in movie history.

I know a crop duster is about to attack me but I will just stand here and look cool anyway

He was shot at, chased in it, rolled around drunk in it, and then still managed to stand on the side of the road in a desert, hands in pockets looking as cool as a cucumber.

Style was an intrinsic part of Cary Grant’s nature and Director, Alfred Hitchcock trusted his choice, giving him free reign to select his own ensembles for this,  as well as in ‘To Catch a Thief’, another movie they had made together four years earlier.

The suit and its accessories were described as…lightweight wool single breasted suit, ventless, with three button fastening and notched lapels. Trousers with forward pleats. ‘Oxblood’ leather derby shoes worn with grey thin ribbed socks. White medium spread collar shirt with double cuff; silver cufflinks, grey silk tie.

The suit bespoke for Cary Grant was by Kilgour French and Stanbury from Savile Row. Most specifically, it was tailored by Arthur Lyons (who also made suits for Edward, Duke of Windsor).

Grant began following the Duke of Windsor’s example in the 1950’s. He had all his suits tailored on Savile Row with much slimmer cut trousers than they made in New York. They suited his long legs well.

It is reported Grant always preferred double vents because he liked to put his hands in his pockets whilst acting. Without vents the jacket of a suit would be forced up onto the hips and crumple in an unsightly manner, and that would never do.

Apparently they made six identical suits for the filming. Cary Grant also particularly liked oxblood shoes. In his movie North by Northwest they cleverly contrasted with the combined colour palette of the rest of the accessories, and importantly the suit.

Taste and fashion are largely synonymous terms, for when it becomes fashionable to profess a taste for something, then fashion often dictates it. This so-called ‘Rule of Taste’ has had a very large part to play through the centuries through peer pressure.

It takes a brave man to turn up in something different to every other…a fact highlighted by Johnny Depp’s character in the 2010 movie filmed in Venice “The Tourist”. He turns up to a Venetian ball wearing a white dinner jacket, while everyone else is in black. Standing out like a tree on one tree hill is not something many men can contend with.

England's Prime Minister David Cameron bespoke by the tailors of Savile Row, his wife Samantha Cameron bespoke by Marks and Sparks or was it designer Alison Mansell - well be generous, at least we can say that they were both buying British

A kerfuffle about the so called ‘perks of position of politicians also ‘ took place in 2010 when Britain’s current Prime Minister David Cameron turned up at a conference wearing a ‘cut price’ bespoke suit from Savile Row by tailor Richard James.

His wife Samantha, on the other hand ordered the latest ‘rage’ spotted number with white polka dots, cap sleeves and a Thatcherite bow at the neck. She was widely applauded for turning up in a frock that cost £65 off the peg from good old Marks & Sparks (Spencer).

So everyone was happy as the right chord had been struck.

Except it suddenly turned out it wasn’t.

The dress had been commissioned by the famous retailer to celebrate the renowned store’s 125th birthday.

However when the P.M’s wife had put in her order it had embarrassingly already sold out putting the people at M & S in a conundrum when they received her request.

So as some would say the staff, using their ingenuity asked Alison Mansell the original designer of the dress would she be able to help. So being supportive and because it was for the PM’s wife, good old Alison hastily ran one up.

Because of her gesture Samantha ended up being bespoke too and at the centre of a kerfuffle. Privilege and all that. What?

Well, we could all be generous and say they were both buying British and supporting their country and its flailing economy at the time.

Benedict Cumberbatch, born to play Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock looks sexy and new age in his tailored coat he's become a style icon... but what about poor Watson?

They are currently calling coats and suits from Savile Row “Sherlock chic”, although there isn’t a deerstalker hat or pipe in sight.

It seems the 2010 show that placed Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective Sherlock Holmes firmly in the 21st century has turned him, and the actor who plays him, Benedict Cumberbatch, into not only a star but also a fashion icon overnight.

Sherlock is definitely Shrewd, Sexy and New Age and he turned heads again during the second season early in 2012. Top designers in London reported a flood of customers queuing to emulate his style, with gentlemen keen to copy his extra-long tailored Milford coat.

It is a modern reproduction of an Edwardian driving coat that is worn by Cumberbatch, who has also been seen around the town wearing his own impeccably tailored Savile Row suits.

At No 1 Savile Row the tailors  have also recently established a Savile Row Archive, curated by James Sherwood.

The Savile Row Bespoke Association founded in 2004, acknowledged the work of Mr Sherwood and his research. It has also resulted in a book about the brief history of the glamour, and sometime squalor of the Row, with the fine attention to detail that characterizes a well dressed man.

The association was inaugurated in honour of the late Robert Gieve, one of the street’s most famous tailors.

Sherwood’s book Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke is quite brilliant and available at www.bookoffers.com.au

Dismayed at the word ‘bespoke’ being bandied about in the first decade of the 21st century the Savile Row Bespoke Association hit back laying down some laws about what can be considered bespoke.

‘A suit must start with an individual pattern created by a master cutter, who will also superintend all production; the tailors will be based in England; and all work will be done by hand and require a minimum of 50 hours. The garments resulting from this time-honored process—and only those—will be worthy of bearing the label Savile Row Bespoke’.

Gieves & Hawkes at No 1 Savile Row made the morning coats worn by the Princes William and Harry to wear at the wedding of their father Prince Charles to Camilla Parker-Bowles (now Duchess of Cornwall). They also made the military uniform Prince William wore at his wedding in April 2011.

Savile Row tailors and their piles of precious 'bespoke' patterns

These days as one would expect Savile Row Tailors also cater for women. The Prince’s mother Princess Diana had a jacket tailored there. And one can imagine a historical woman, who dressed as a man such as author George Sand would have enjoyed to patronize the talented tailors on the row.

But I do digress again! This piece is all about beautiful boys.

The personal relationship that develops between a gentleman and his tailor is a time-honoured part of the service still offered at Savile Row, London.

Its bespoke tailors are Anderson and Sheppard, Dege and Skinner, Gieves and Hawkes, H.Huntsman and Sons, Hardy Amies, Henry Poole and Co, Meyer and Mortimer Limited , Richard James and Norton and Sons

While tradition may have kept its bespoke tailors a cut above the rest, it is the upholding of a standard in excellence in tailoring that makes the clothes fit the man so well that is at the heart of Savile Row and its continuing success.

From Beau Brummell to Benedict Cumberbatch the tailors of Savile Row at London have stood for style by always leading trends, not following them.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2014

* Mark Twain

View the Clothes in an Exhibition of British Style Genius by James Sherwood

Enjoy a Video about Savile Row and its history

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