Saturday, 24 July 2010

M/M An American on The Row

Image provided by G. Bruce Boyer. All rights reserved.

A London memoir written by G Bruce Boyer exclusively for Welldressed and Manner of Man Magazine

I graduated from college in 1963 and, before starting grad school I treated myself – I had earned some money while in college – to a cheap flight to London. I reasoned that, after all, British Literature was my chosen field so I should get some experience of the culture at first hand.

Sartorially speaking I was an Ivy style dresser, i.e., tweed sack coats, button downs, and penny loafers. But I was also beginning to notice classic British dress from watching English films and learning that so many great dressers of the Golden Age of Hollywood – Cary Grant and Fred Astaire, Ronald Coleman, David Niven, Gary Cooper, Robert Montgomery, and others – all wore clothes tailored on Savile Row. Among all the sights of historic and literary importance that I wanted to see, a pilgrimage to The Row was definitely on my itinerary.

To cut to the chase, after I'd had my fill of cathedrals and museums for awhile, I spent several days walking around the West End with my nose pressed to the glass of shop windows, thinking I was in heaven. The Burlington Arcade, the shoes and shirts in Jermyn Street, Smith's very Victorian Umbrella shop, a wonderful small shop in The Sicilian Arcade that sold regimental and university gear, and a great knitwear store across the street from the British Museum, Westaway & Westaway, that sold top quality sweaters at bargain prices. The day I visited there I had lunch in the Museum Pub, sitting in the very corner booth where Karl Marx used to have his lunch while researching Das Kapital in the BM Reading Room.

And I walked up and down the Row itself several times, peering through the imposing beveled glass doors to the hushed interiors. I was too timid and confused to make a decision, turned left at the Burlington Gardens end, and walked through Vigo Street to Regent Street to clear my head.

And there, directly across the broad and traffic-clogged thoroughfare from Liberty's Department Store, I spotted a lovely little tailor's shop. Bailey & Weatherill it said in gold on the window. Without thinking I turned the door knob and walked in. I was crisply approached by a decidedly spiffy gentleman dressed to within an inch of his life in a beautifully cut chalk-striped dark grey worsted three-piece suit, dazzling white collar and cuffs, and discreet polka dot silk tie. I noticed that the coat and trousers were cut in an Edwardian way, with a waist seam separating the torso from the skirt, and the trousers narrow and slanted down at the heel.

He was Mr. Weatherill he said, and was delighted to help me. I had bought made-to-measure suits at home, but this was an entirely new experience. This was THE REAL THING. I blurted out that I had an affinity for grey flannel. “Of course, Sir,” he said, “perfectly appropriate. But I did want to mention, Sir, that we really don't cut an American suit, and our style may not be what you want.” No, no, I assured him, English styling was exactly what I wanted. “Well then, Sir, let me show you some cloths.”

He put perhaps four or five swatch books before me and started to go through them, telling me the various weights and properties of each cloth. It was an education in itself. Eventually I selected a mid-grey 14 oz. West of England beauty from, I believe, Smith Woolens. Then he ushered me into one of the cubicles in the back to measure me and discuss styling. I pretty much went along with his suggestions, which was the house style: slightly draped cut, with good waist suppression and a bit of flared skirt, full but soft shoulder and deep side vents, hacking side pockets, and single-pleated narrow trousers without cuffs.

The more I thought about the styling the more it reminded me of something. Yes! It seemed remarkably like the sort of suits the British actor Patrick McNee wore when playing the character John Steed in The Avengers. I mentioned it to Mr. Weatherill. “Ah, yes,” he smiled. “Actually Mr. McNee is one of our most faithful customers.”

Four days late I returned for my first fitting. Mr. Weatherill gave me a hawk-like stare and started ripping at the basting like a dervish, removing the sleeves and undercollar, and seemingly chalking every available space on the cloth with inscrutable marks, all the while asking me how I was enjoying London, and wasn't I lucky to be here for the rare stretch of warm sunshine the capitol was having. He asked me to return in three days for a forward fitting.

At the forward fitting I was greeted by another not-quite-as-spiffy but charming gentleman, who introduced himself as Mr. Bailey. “I do apologize, Sir,” he said, “but Mr. Weatherill is unfortunately detained, and asked me to step in for him if you don't mind. We didn't want to keep you waiting.” When I tried on the suit, now all but finished, I could scarcely believe how much taller and slimmer and elegant I appeared. I stood up straighter and took on an air of international sophistication that would have been the scourge of croupiers and sommeliers the world over. “Turn a bit to the right, Sir, and have a look at the back. Not a ripple, Sir. I wish I'd have cut that.” He marked the waist for the buttonholes, and mused about shortening the sleeves a hair's width. I got the impression the fitting was more for his approval than mine.

“I think if you can return in two days, Sir, we'll have it ready for you,” and he ushered me to the door.

I only wish that were the end of the story. I returned to London 11 months later, at the end of my first semester in grad school. Naturally my first port of call was Bailey & Weatherill. Mr. Bailey greeted me warmly at the door, only to inform me that Mr. Weatherill had died the previous winter. Undoubtedly, I thought, that was why he was sometimes not in the shop: he was undergoing treatment with his doctor.

I ordered another suit, a mini tan-and-black hounds tooth number, and Mr. Bailey cut it perfectly. But at the last fitting me told me he was going to retire and close the business, which within the year he did. I moved on to Anderson & Sheppard, who made wonderful clothes for me for many years. But in my mind, whenever I think of Savile Row, I have a picture in my mind of a dapper gentleman in an Edwardian grey chalk-striped worsted. You never forget your first time.

The above exclusive by G. Bruce Boyer © Manner of Man Magazine/Welldressed. All rights reserved. Reproduction is strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher.