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Sharp facts

25 November 2009

Every time I read a book on men’s style, I underline facts I don’t know. Over the past few years, the number of underlinings in my books (and magazines) has got mercifully less. Fewer defaced volumes on the shelf.

But with Eric Musgrave’s Sharp Suits, the number of facts multiplied. I gave up 50-pages in, so criminal did it seem to write all over the book. The problem is, this is a history of menswear rather than a guide. And a history not only contains more facts, those facts come with quotes, anecdotes and supporting evidence.

I’d heard most of the stories about Edward VII, for example, but I didn’t know this quote from German Chancellor, Prince von Bulow: “In the country in which unquestionably the gentlemen dressed best, he was the best-dressed gentlemen.”

Equally, I knew Edward’s innovations included the dinner jacket, wearing tweeds at the races and leaving open the button of a waistcoat. But I didn’t know he was also responsible for the black Homburg hat, shorter tails on evening wear and turn-ups on trousers (to protect the bottoms from muddy ground).

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I shall endeavour to scatter some facts from Sharp Suits throughout future posts. But for the moment here’s a few to be getting on with:

• A 1960 inventory of the Duke of Windsor’s wardrobe listed 15 evening suits, 55 lounge suits and three formal suits (all with two pairs of trousers).

• By 1849 Brooks Brothers had 1,500 people making its clothes, and could put a claim to being the first company to offer ready-made clothing.

• After the Second World War there were approximately 100,000 tailors working in Italy, dressing around 85% of the adult population. And yet it was the Italians that became the leading manufacturers of ready-made suits in the modern era.

• Hickey Freeman’s greatest innovation was to bring the various parts of suit production into a single factory. Up until then different tailors worked on different parts of a suit in different locations, often at home.

• The innovation of Hart Schaffner & Marx (which bought Hickey) was to offer proportioned suits with basic body types – tall, short, stout and thin.

• “Pierre Cardin was arguably the most influential menswear designer of the twentieth century…he changed attitudes to dress in men who had relatively little interest in their appearance” Colin McDowell. Cardin ruined this reputation with astonishingly promiscuous licensing.

• The hottest trend of 1962 was the suit silhouette worn by a group of public school boys that gathered around Le Drugstoe, a café on the Champs Elysées in Paris. They went to Marina, an old tailor on Rue Vernier in the seventeenth arondissement, who was the first to cut flat-fronted, wide-bottomed trousers with small cuffs known as marinettes.

I’m done. More reading to do now.