I have just returned from Washington, where an exhibition that I was curating opened at the British Embassy. Called ‘Savile Row and America’, it told the story of the Special Relationship through the medium of the best of British tailoring, showing garments that had been made for prominent Americans over the course of history.
America and Britain have a slightly Oedipal relationship. Next year it will be 240 years since the United States decided it could do without us as colonial master. And yet, almost a quarter of a millennium later, America remains in love with our traditions, our Royal Family (even though it dispensed with the services of the just slightly batty George III) and, as I found out, our tailoring.
The show was warmly received, although to be fair anything that takes place in the Edwin Lutyens-designed British Embassy in the capital city of the most powerful nation on earth would find it hard to flop. Had I just shown Buffalo Bill’s underpants, the gracious proportions and elegant architecture of the setting would have conspired to make it a memorable occasion. As it happens, we had been able to secure the loan, from the Buffalo Bill Center of the West in Cody, Wyoming, of the showman’s Savile Row tailored frock coat and waistcoat. There was much more besides, including suits worn by Washington figures both factual (President George Bush Sr) and fictional (Kevin Spacey’s Frank Underwood in House of Cards).
Probably the man who did most to promote Savile Row in America was the Duke of Windsor, easily the best-dressed man of the 20th century and probably any century so far. His fondness for America was not limited to his taste in women; he also had a weakness for American trousers. Accordingly he would have his coats tailored on Savile Row while his trousers were made in America, and we had one such example of transatlantic tailoring on show.
While Prince of Wales, he inspired a young Fred Astaire with his white tie waistcoat. Kilgour French & Stanbury tailored the tails that the nimble-footed star made so famous in the 1935 musical Top Hat. Kilgour quickly settled into the role of tailor to cinema’s elite, making for Robert Mitchum, Ava Gardner and the smoothest, best-dressed man in Hollywood, who was also a Brit, Cary Grant; he wore Kilgour in North by Northwest.
Grant has long been a hero of mine, as much for the clothes as anything else. I loved what he wore in To Catch a Thief, a film that is an extended commercial for life on the Riviera as well as a caper flick. However, if he had a rival in the Hollywood wardrobe stakes it was Gregory Peck, who racked up an impressive 160 or so garments from Huntsman during an association that lasted for nearly half a century, from the early 1950s until the Oscar-winning actor’s death in 2003. Today Peck lives on through his clothes, about a dozen of which were on show at the British Embassy, and re-editions of the vigorous Huntsman checks that he favoured. I am fond of checked tweeds — the bolder, the better — and it seems that Peck has inspired Huntsman to new heights of boldness as it has reissued a particularly startling check on a grey ground with red blue and white overchecks woven on Islay.
<p>It is several decibels louder than anything in my wardrobe (with the possible exception of a pink tweed with a duck egg blue overcheck that Huntsman made for me about a dozen years ago). However, even this Vasarely-like expression of colour and geometry using the medium of tweed seems positively restrained when compared to one of the most enthusiastic and unlikely patrons of Savile Row: Michael Jackson.
Jackson had an insatiable appetite for the gold braid, frogging and ornamentation of the best of British uniform tailoring. Among the houses he visited at one time or another to reinterpret the traditions of British military tailoring for the purposes of entertainment are Dege & Skinner, Gieves & Hawkes, Maurice Sedwell and Davies & Son. Looking at these garments I could just imagine him instructing the tailor to add more braid and somehow I felt sorry for him that there was room for only one set of epaulettes.
Unlike the Peck check, I will not be commissioning any MJ-inspired garments. They are nonetheless impressive: from the King of England to the King of Pop, Savile Row is nothing if not versatile.