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My 50-year-old black tie

25 May 2009

I had heard ‘stories’ about treasures found in second-hand shops before. The way it goes, one day the author is browsing through the racks while his girlfriend tries on shoes, and all of a sudden he discovers an Anderson & Sheppard suit in exactly the right size.

It seemed a little unlikely.

Nevertheless, whenever I happened to be in any vintage shop (as second-hand has rebranded itself) I usually skimmed through the suit racks. For the sake of speed, I simply ignored any jacket where I could see a label, as a Savile Row suit will only ever have its label on the inside of the pocket.

A few years of (half-hearted) searching had turned up nothing. So my heart leapt when I was doing the normal skim in a vintage shop in York and found a tuxedo without a visible label. An exploration of the inside pocket found a tag bearing the name Lesley and Roberts, of Hanover Square. I’d never heard of them and passed on.

That evening, some research online discovered Lesley and Roberts listed with the address 20 Savile Row. Turns out the firm was bought up by Welsh and Jeffries (famously of that address) in 1999. I should have known that really. And Lesley and Roberts has a sterling reputation – tailor to Bing Crosby and much of the UK entertainment business in the forties and fifties.

Two quick calls followed. One to the shop (Priestley’s, which I have written about before) to reserve the suit and ask what name was written on the label. Then a second to Welsh and Jeffries, to confirm the Lesley and Roberts heritage and, as excitingly, to inquire whether the firm had ever made suits for UK film director Michael Powell.

For that was the name on the tag – made for Michael Powell, Esq. in March 1955. Given that only a precious few could afford Savile Row bespoke in those days (a smaller proportion than today, which may surprise some) and the firm’s heritage with the entertainment industry, it was worth asking. And yes, Michael Powell was a client. Welsh and Jeffries couldn’t confirm that he was the only client by that name, because the full book wasn’t inherited with the takeover. But close enough.

(For those readers not familiar with British film, Powell is one of the most famous English directors, authoring a series of films with Emeric Pressburger that included A Matter of Life and Death, Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. Unfortunately, though, it turns out this suit was made after he appeared at the Oscars, in 1943 and 1949.)

So, the suit. The first thing you notice is the weight of the cloth. Heavier than even my winter flannels or tweeds. Then you notice the facings on the lapels of the jacket and waistcoat: silk rather than satin, which actually seems rather matte compared to modern suits but has greater texture and depth to it.

The trousers are very wide with a very high rise. With a fishtail back, they are designed to sit on your natural waist (around the belly button if not above) and be worn with braces. Once you put them on with the waistcoat, you realise the real point of pleats. Four elegant pleats enable the trousers to get up over the hip bone and come to a very narrow waist – you just couldn’t do that with flat fronts.

Combining that silhouette with a short, cropped waistcoat creates a very exaggerated shape (indeed, in Brideshead Revisited the heroes have suits from Lesley and Roberts with a “wasp waist”). As the natural waist is the narrowest part of most people’s bodies, having your trousers there produces the biggest contrast with the width of the shoulders.

It doesn’t half make you feel buttoned up when you wear it though. The trousers are all-encompassing and my shirt has a strip of elastic to button into them. Plus, the tailor that altered them for me (Graham Browne) added another strip of elastic behind the waistcoat to button into the trousers, to make sure no white shirt ever peaked between the two.

Oh, and of course you have to take your jacket and waistcoat off in order to go to the bathroom, as the braces are hidden beneath both.

Quite a palaver. But then £150 for a bespoke-quality suit (plus alteration costs) is pretty impressive value. The hand detailing is impressive, particularly around details like the buttonhole. Sewing a neat buttonhole in corded silk is not easy, particularly when the slit is not parallel to the cords. Indeed, that is one reason many tailors do not put them in today.

The only thing I would change is the lapels, which are notch rather than peak. Having emphasised to a reader named Paul last week how the peak harks back to the tradition of tails, this feels like a failure. But I’ll just have to swallow my pride and accept that fashions come and go, even on Savile Row.