The English and their City Suit: Part 2
‘Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.
`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least—at least I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know.’
`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’
`You might just as well say,’ added the March Hare, `that “I like what I get” is the same thing as “I get what I like”!’
`You might just as well say,’ added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, `that “I breathe when I sleep” is the same thing as “I sleep when I breathe”!’
When I actually think about the suit I wear and take for granted, I wonder quite a few things. Is it an accident that flannel, worsted and tweed were developed and perfected in Britain? Was it an inevitability that a Brummell would emerge and make uniform many of the details that bind men of style together across the ages and indeed within their own times as well? In a hundred years, will men still wear suits from the same fabrics?
I do not think it an accident, somehow, that the idea of perfecting cloth goes hand in hand with civilization, and that the English perfected the cloths that worked in their climate. It was the Victorian era, the industrial revolution, and the rising importance of her navy that placed the focus on shades of grey, black and darkest blue. It was the great country estate life and hunting that produced the tweeds in colorful, checked patterns.
As for Brummell, perhaps he was inevitable. France had her Sun King and her Napoleon with their silly rules and attention to opulence to keep the nobility or the marshals from infighting, and just as in any true dog vs. cat relationship, the English were destined to adopt an opposite stance to distinguish themselves from those Frenchies.
But will the suit last, and if it does what fabrics will be employed? Only time will tell, but as long as men want to look their best and gain respect for their serious and authoritative mien, the suit will live on with its ingeniously resolute, unrelieved darkness covering up a multitude of sins. However, the suit will continue to be at a crossroads in the public eye; examined, poked, tortured, tweaked, reinvented, declared dead and resurgent all at the same time.
The English seem to be at another continual crossroads with regard to textile manufacture. At any given time, the old- school and the new coexist in terms of fabric qualities. The question is: will they blend or will one prevail over the other? For the moment, the English seem to be content to offer both the contemporary and the traditional rather than promote one over the other. But why, if the English love their traditions, do they bother to make so many innovations in terms of cloth and tailoring style?
The answer might lie in the fact that although the English do indeed cherish their traditions, most of what they make is for export. And to deepen the irony, the rest of the world demands innovation that nevertheless looks traditionally English. Thus, although the English are forced to innovate, they must be careful to retain those elements that the world has come to believe are quintessentially English. As an example, flannels must weigh 8 ounces per yard but still yield to the eye the rich, nubby texture of heavier cloths.
Additionally, the ideal of the “English Gentleman” is very much alive and constitutes yet another English export; although it now blends with the ideal of the American businessman. It is almost as if idle aristocracy and hard-nosed industrialism merged into one super-genre of suit wearing men.
Details like side vents and hacking pockets on jackets and pleated trousers with side adjusters are requested by bespoke customers in every country. Men want to look like Englishmen because they know that perhaps, while not acclaimed ladies men, they are logical, restrained, mild mannered, agreeable, organized (in an old-school club-like sort of way), in control of their language and, above all, proper. The modern world still pays homage to the vision of the respectable, well-bred man, and if one cannot possess an Eton education, one can at least sport the outward language that reveals it to be one’s ideal. It appears the adage that one cannot afford to look ridiculous applies with a vengeance to global suit expenditures.
What do the English make of all of this demand for their traditions and continual refreshment of the same? What words do they employ to explain the changes going on around them and how do they isolate those things that must be maintained to preserve their past in the midst of progress? Here, in their own words, are some of the observations of the English with regard to the state of their cloth manufacturing and tailoring details.
Mr. Haigh at Taylor and Lodge
Taylor and Lodge is an established English woolens mill located in Huddersfield. Although, in recent years, most of what they produce is higher end and more expensive than the English market has a taste for, they still have a feel for what the English like.
They recognize that the finer micron fabrics are very fine to the touch but simply will not wear as well as the sturdier cloths. They won’t collapse, but they won’t perform as well as stronger fibers. Thus, they do not make a lot of it because there simply isn’t enough of the raw materials to make these lighter, finer fabrics; Super 150s and above. Only a limited number of sheep and only limited areas of their fleeces yield the necessary fibers.
Taylor and Lodge produce up to Super 200s wools, often for customers overseas, and these are very expensive. The English are not fond of the finer super cloths (that is, above super 120s). In some ways they wish that the supers labels had never been invented because it skews the quality of all woolen suit fabrics. At one time, all standard suit fabrics contained elements of the finer fibers. Then mills began extracting and segregating the finer fibers to make a more consistent super numbered wool. When the mills removed the finer fibers from the standard cloths, they became dull and lifeless.
This set up an unfortunate self-fulfilling demand and association. Standard cloths were disparaged and supers promoted as more elite. And even the most reactionary of clients could not take exception to these marketing claims when most standard cloths now seemed like cardboard next to the sexier super numbers.
Golden bale is a sensible yarn count at a sensible weight. It’s usually around a 100s. Golden bale has largely been surpassed by the super numbers. However, Golden Bale cloth is still a favorite of the Old Guard Englishman because it has a certain rich heft and increased softness, shape retention and resistance against wear; all qualities the English prize.
Golden bale looks better the more you wear it, and many in England’s most cloistered circles enjoy wearing their suits until they are in tatters.
Taylor and Lodge know something about how cloth performs. They’ve been making the same bunches for H. lesser and sons for over 60 years!
The English bespoke customer likes a very dark, basic cloth. The construction of the cloth must be top notch but the pattern choices are never wilder than the chalk stripe. The stripe itself is rarely any other color but white.
Robert at Dugdale
Dugdale produces a very sensible English cloth in the old, time-honored fashion. The owner writes:
I am a fairly straightforward Yorkshireman, the third generation of my family involved in worsted fabric manufacture in Huddersfield, the home of England`s finest worsted suitings.
I do not think there is any overarching story relating to the Brit and his choice of stripe. I suppose his choice is loosely related to his personality and what he is trying to achieve through his dress.
Pink, mauve, lilac stripes are deemed tasteful for the young / young at heart, confident, metrosexual man who is achieving and wants to achieve more and does not feel bound by conformity or tradition. The stripe is easy to accessorize and makes a strong statement.
Green to the Brits however says nothing, and his only understanding of green is linked to “ECO,” which does not yet bother him. Also it is a tiresome colour to try to accessorize.
Overall we Brits like our eccentric tag and regularly display this in our sartorial choices. We are an island nation that once ruled the world. We like to think we invented everything. As time has moved on, our strength is now housed in the City of London.
Here we still see strength displayed through bold pinstripes, chalks, etc. The bold blue chalk stripe suit, crisp white shirt and toned tie create an incredibly powerful image that speaks of the power and authority of the wearer.
There is another type of Brit who is reserved and makes his statements through stealth and ability. He only wears subdued colours and co-ordinations, will never wear brown shoes, and the cut of his suit means only fellow members of the true bespoke club understand his wealth, position and authority. He is an officer, not a foot soldier, and to continue the analogy, he would probably be special services.
Heavy cloth lends itself to English tailoring. However this is not to say that our tailors cannot tailor lightweight cloths; it is just that it is a very English thing to wear a heavier cloth. Many of our fabrics are semi-milled to give them a much fuller handle, something you will only really see with English cloth.
I have noticed a distinct change in parallel with our climate change, and we are now selling our lightweight cloths over a longer period, as our summers are now longer and warmer. In fact, the average weight of cloth we sell has moved down from 12-13 oz to 10-11oz over a period of 5-6 years.
All this said, we still sell 14-15 oz cloths all over the world to both tailors and designers. In fact, at the moment we are sampling a 16 oz twill trousering to a well-known American retailer and we are currently sampling 14-15 oz suiting to an American gentleman based in Italy who used to design for an Italian company very famous for its shoes and handbags.
At this level it is a peculiarity, as no one else in the world can make cloths like these. I have to say that the Italians are the biggest fans of English cloth, but our biggest sales to Italy are not made up of cloths of this weight.
At another level, the Brit likes to wear these cloths because of budget and attitude. The cloth lasts forever so he doesn’t need to buy as many. It doesn’t crease so he does not have to constantly press the garments or, worse still, pay someone else to do it for him!
Simon Cundey at Henry Poole
Founding Fathers of The Row, Henry Poole have customers from all over the world, some of them 5th generation! Observed changes abound within the historic walls of Poole. For instance, the sort of person who buys suits has changed, and currently the corporate world makes for the largest customer base.
A Poole jacket has a natural shoulder line with a slightly raised sleeve head, some drape in the chest with a high cut waist. A balanced lapel width to complement the customer’s chest size. A high gorge for the lapels and specific sleeve lining in white with blue stripe. Pants are cut to complement your build and go with the type of shoes you wear which includes boot legs for special customers. Only twenty percent of suits sold are double breasted.
The three button suit with the waistcoat is very English, with a side vented jacket, of course, and four buttons on the cuff. This is in contradistinction to the traditional American three button suit with its lapel roll half way between the first and second buttons, its center vent and the two buttons on the sleeve. The American version, although not light years away in terms of design, might as well be for the English who would see the differences immediately.
A bolder approach is taken to stripes for both suits and shirts. Butcher stripe shirt, rope stripe suit and polka dot tie is culturally historical for the English. Whether it is popular or not, it is engraved deep in the sartorial memory.
The current English preference for bold checked shirts in the City may derive partially from lightening and enlarging the wool checked shirts worn by the “gun club” country set.
Poole make shirts too and use either Thomas Mason or Acorn cottons in 100s 2×2 fold. It should be mentioned that their burgundy and blue tie is a signature look for Poole and is attractive to English tastes.
It is odd that the country shirts are never striped but, if patterned, are checked, while city shirts are usually striped but, if checked, are never in country colors.
Birdseye cloth is not a traditionally favored pattern for city suits but it is becoming so now that the Brits are discovering its hard-wearing properties.
Windowpanes are not popular in England for business, especially if there is distinction between the cloth’s background and the pattern. However, if the cloth were, say, a dark navy bird’s-eye with a dark royal blue windowpane, it would now be considered somber enough for the city. While the Americans love the Prince of Wales pattern in black and white (often with a colored windowpane laid over it), this is not to be seen in English business circles.
The English will wear the Prince of Wales pattern suits but for after hours events. Not country, not city, it’s called a “town suit” and includes all sorts of suit cloths in more medium colored cloths, in checks or windowpanes and odd colored stripes.
Style is achieved through discretion. A pattern will be in the weave, which will look like a solid from a distance but, upon getting quite close to the wearer, will be revealed to have an invisible stripe or Prince of Wales check woven into the fabric.
Navy blue suits with blue stripes and charcoal suits with burgundy stripes are acceptable. Navy with pink, lilac or purple stripes are likewise choices, generally for that English dandy or the man who has many suits in many homes and wants something a little different. The pink or lilac stripe must be very pale, approaching white, and the purple must be dark enough not to be readily noticeable from a distance.
When contrasted against American or Italian preferences, the British still prefer heavier weights in cloth, though this has lightened from 13/14 oz to 10-12 oz fabrics. The Americans always like slightly lighter weights.
And speaking of regional taste differences, here are some interesting comments from Poole:
UK Man- Either a bold/beaded pinstripe or chalk stripe with a bold shirt design or even a solid pink end on end with a cutaway collar, pink tie with blue design or blue tie with pink design with a white linen pocket square. Black oxford shoes; maybe red socks or yellow socks although most would wear dark socks. Either a two piece, two button suit with side vents or a 3 piece, 3 button suit, also with side vents; often with colorful linings in petrol blue, purple, burgundy etc..
Heavy worsted fabrics with a hard feel and finish are preferred. Inherited cufflinks are key. Some of the city lads would wear currency or market based cufflinks while the youngest characters would wear silk knots to pick up the pink and blue of shirts and tie. Everything should be a bit disheveled.
USA Man- A suit in super 120s pin dot or nail head in two shades of grey. Two piece, two button jacket with side vents, pale blue or white shirt with a cutaway or button down collar and button cuffs; although cufflinks are catching on. They also wear a black shoe but often either a penny loafer or a variant. A printed tie is standard, although woven ties are becoming more common. Trousers will more often have a belt and will be plain front. Everything a little over pressed and starched.
Swiss Man- They wear gabardine suits in a tan, taupe or olive green color or sport jacket and trousers in mossy colors. The look is semi relaxed, at least on the surface. For shoes, they prefer an oxblood brogue. A White or cream colored shirt with a cutaway collar.
A “cutaway” collar means the 4.5 inch spread used by most Jermyn shirtmakers and not the exaggerated spread which nears a 180 degree angle. Particular attention would be paid to both cufflinks and watch both of which often have an air of streamline, minimalist architecture to them. The Swiss are both experimental and extremely precise in their bearing and turnout.
In terms of cloth qualities, the British like 80s and 100s and the Americans like 120s and finer. When the English do get a suit made in super 150s cloth, Poole recommends that it should be about 10-11 oz to lend the heft necessary to offset the delicateness of the finer fibers.
Some British customers bring in Poole suits that are 30 years old for repair. Sometimes one pair of trousers is sacrificed to save another pair. Apparently, as with their suits, thrift never goes out of style.
Interesting Poole customers
A magician’s pocket placed into the back of the jacket of a City worker who also does tricks at parties as his way to entertain and break the ice.
Another customer gets zips inside trouser waistbands which allow the customer to store currency when he travels to countries where civil rights are not as rigorously defended.
Sport jackets and suits made up for a lord from several different patterns of tweed in a harlequin motif. The idea is to confuse the deer which can still see silhouettes in normal one pattern tweeds but have a hard time discerning an overall shape with patchwork tweeds.
Silhouette, or the basic outline the suit cuts against the horizon, and the details of the jacket are very important to the English. This explains tailor brand loyalty amongst British clients, who associate a certain firm’s style not only as defining the tailor, but also as defining themselves. Consistency is important to the British male’s self image in a country where wearing the same thing every day can cast you in a positive light.
Hacking pockets, originally a custom detail for the country, have become recognized as a custom detail for the City. Peak lapels on suits are fine, a bit dandier but acknowledged as normal.
Mohair suits are experiencing a bit of revival from their last period of popularity during the 1960s and 70s. More acceptable in England than in the US because the polyester popularity craze in America during the seventies [when?] has left a long-lasting aversion to shiny suits. However, reducing the mohair content to 20% (as opposed to the traditional content of 60% mohair) takes a lot of the shine out of the cloth while preserving the coolness. Mohair is easy for a tailor to cut and makes for a nice jacket silhouette because it responds well to shaping and shows off natty tailoring details.
Mr. Cundey likes the semi-milled finish, which is a worsted with a slightly napped finish that takes the shine off of the fabric’s surface and gives it a quasi flannel effect and softness. Smith’s Blue Ribbon or H. Lessers Flannel Worsted are two of his favorite cloth books. The English still enjoy true flannels, with Harrisons and Minnis flannels being popular.
Lumbs Golden Bale is the Bordeaux of suit cloths. The best Merino wool is spun by Lumbs into thread that weaves nicely. This yields both softness and durability. The British would be inclined to choose this quality of worsted as an upgrade in preference to the super numbers.
But you don’t need to get Lumbs Golden Bale. As long as you have a two-fold warp and weft cloth in the 10-11 oz weight and heavier, you will be assured of good performance.
Although the British generally prefer heavier cloths, they will buy summer weight cloths, even some of the lightest. For example, the Airborne range from Hunt and Winterbotham (JJ Minnis) is quite popular with the English for extreme temperatures and high humidity, but they will “stick” to the darker colors. Airborne has a dull finish and some “beef” to the construction, which is why, in spite of it’s light weight, the English like it.
Difference between a well dressed Englishman and a dandy? A well dressed Englishman would combine the English taste with the precision and attention to detail of the Swiss. A dandy would choose bolder colors and designs (even for the English) like pocket squares picking up all colors in a tie rather than just one.
The English separate the specific prescriptions that signal business clothes from after hours. After hours there are a lot more details that can be, and are, used which signal natty individuality and do not threaten the social standing or taste level of the wearer. After hours, cuffs on jacket sleeves, interesting buttons and all sorts of suit cloths are employed to coax out the English dandy seemingly nascent in every man on the island.
Dege and Skinner
Dege (pronounced “Deej”) and Skinner are known for their military cut, which is strong across the shoulder, clean in the chest and fitted in the waist. Dege also makes uniforms for various regiments’ parade dress and other purposes.
How does being military tailors and it manifest itself in the civilian clothing Dege make? A strict shoulder-line (some clients demand roping on the sleeve-shoulder attachment but otherwise it’s a very natural shoulder), nipped in waist and a slight flair in the hips which accentuates the waist even more. It’s a very hourglass shape with an erect posture. Lapel widths depend on the size of the customer’s chest.
Speaking of chests, Dege put more canvassing in the chest than is typical to accentuate it. A white sleeve lining with a pink music stripe in it (5 lines) is the hallmark of a Dege suit. Trousers most often get side adjusters. Recently brace cut trousers with the fishtail back are getting more attention because of renewed interest in that “traditional” English suit. About seventy percent of their customers get single breasted suits.
H. Lesser fabrics are a favorite because they work; the Superfine 11-11.5 oz worsteds are a favorite because they look robust but tailor and feel lighter than they actually are. H. Lesser fabrics have a very finished, refined look.
The English prefer plain blues and greys, and quite dark solids and stripes. When we say solids, we mean charcoals and navies, perhaps with a self-herringbone pattern. This pattern, however, at least in the grey shades, has become a bit stigmatized as too traditional and old fashioned, which, considering the fogeys who constitute some of Dege’s best customers, is quite a statement! For navy solids, a French or slightly more purplish blue (what I refer to as “blueberry”) is becoming more popular with the younger set.
Dege’s English customers are even more reserved with their tweeds and sport coats. The average English client will choose a country fabric that is darker and less colorful than the Americans choose or believe the English wear. Porter and Harding’s Hartwist tweeds carried by Harrisons of Edinburgh and the Alsport tweeds from John G. Hardy are extremely popular both in England and America.
The Glorious Twelfth isn’t quite so popular with their customers. When it comes to tweeds, the Dege Englishman “keeps it real,” so to speak. H. Lesser and Sons cloth bunches are very popular with their English customers, who like their hard-wearing traditional cloth. H. Lesser cloth handles tailoring beautifully and wears like iron. H. Lesser cloth is often referred to as “the tailor’s friend.”
It should be mentioned that many of Dege’s civilian clients are, in fact, ex military or security forces men who now need suits for the City, and their tastes run to Old Guard establishment. Hacking pockets on jackets are popular as a custom detail. As mentioned above, Dege catches men during their military career and provides them with suits for their new life in London. There, in the ebb and flow that is the City, they can recognize each other by their distinctive Dege cut. As a signaling tool, the cut of the suit has its subtle uses.
Colored stripes are not part of their business except for a fine blue or rust stripe on a grey or navy herringbone. Although, one client, looking for something a bit more dandyish in a suit, chose a pink striped navy suit with covered buttons in the same fabric which came out very nicely.
Prince of Wales checks are worn as leisure suits in the country (the country is what we call the suburbs or off hours in places we would consider cities). These checked suit trousers are cut slightly narrower in the leg without turn-ups or cuffs.
Dege’s military men generally prefer hard finished worsted cloths, the hardest finish of any English suit-wearing group. A tighter weave, good basic wool yarn which is not luxury based with a closely cropped surface creates a hard looking, hard finished suit wool. Hard finished fabrics look and react like an army uniform to the rigors of the office and the dry cleaners. Hard finished fabrics in darkest colored wools complete with a clean, fitted erect suit posture make for an imposing paramilitary style.
Flannel suits in a mottled, medium grey are a nostalgic look, but in general the English consider their flannel fabrics a bit too heavy. The English, it would seem, are evolving. They will get worsteds with a flannel look to the fabric or a lighter weight flannel, but those aren’t considered true flannels. Pants for the suits are cut fuller with deeper pleats.
Harrisons cashmere jacketing is also popular with Englishmen because the colors are vibrant and very English in taste. The fabric is soft but wears very well over time and is a favorite for after hours socializing.
Harrisons summer weight suit book “Mystique” gets used a lot as well because the cloth lasts a long time and comes in the same understated patterns as H. Lesser’s but the cloth itself has a fresher look for the shimmer of July and August than does the H. Lesser tropical worsteds.
At Dege, single-breasted three-button suits with notch lapels and slightly slanted pockets on the jacket are most common, with a single reverse pleat on the pants and side straps with a metal buckle. Brace buttons are put in as an option. Trouser turn-ups are standard for the city.
For outer wear, black wool or cashmere overcoats are most often purchased single breasted. Sometimes the chesterfield style with the herringbone fabric and the black velvet collar is requested. Additionally, the traditional “covert” coat in an almond brown, grainy patterned, smooth, impenetrable cloth with its borders of stitching around the coat’s hem and sleeve ends are more popular now. Overcoats aren’t ordered much these days; England, it seems, as everywhere else, is getting warmer every year.
To be continued…