I hold that gentleman to be the best-dressed whose dress no one observes.
On a rare cloudless October morning in London’s West End, I am in a cab, stuck in traffic. The problem is not the standard transit strike or a procession of minor royals or a road race for charity. The holdup today is due to sheep. By decree of His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, this is British Wool Week, and, to celebrate, Savile Row is hosting a Field Day. The block has been closed to vehicles and turned into a barnyard, complete with a thousand meters of clipped sod, a rough-hewn barn, and two flocks of no doubt puzzled sheep.
When I finally rush into the press reception at Sartoria, the restaurant that is serving as Field Day Central, the welcoming speeches are already under way. I find a spot to stand in the back of the room, elbow to elbow with a sea of men in good wool suits. Most are in dark solids or subtle chalk stripes, but a few have broken out mossy plaids with matching flat caps—the kind of foggy-heath apparel that cries out to be accessorized with hounds. One after another, the speakers sing the praises of wool, farmers, and Prince Charles, who is himself an enthusiastic keeper of sheep.
Ten months had passed since textile executives, designers, carpet makers, and retailers sat on folding chairs in a frigid two-hundred-year-old beamed barn in Cambridgeshire to hear the prince outline his five-year Campaign for Wool, aimed at reviving the Commonwealth’s moribund wool business. Charles had kept his double-breasted camel overcoat on as he stood in front of a small podium, backed by bales of hay and a red wagon full of raw wool, and bemoaned the state of the fiber that for centuries had been the glorious engine of England’s economy. The cost of shearing sheep, he said, was higher than the price being paid for wool. Demand had fallen, and farmers were reducing or eliminating their flocks.
“The future for this most wonderful fiber is looking very bleak indeed,” said the prince, who, following his comments, mingled for a time with attendees but left before the Mutton Renaissance Club served its signature mutton stew.
Committee members, many of whom are in Sartoria this morning, had worked hard since then to coordinate a week’s worth of wool promotions and photo ops all over England, designed to remind people that wool was warm, natural, comfortable, and sustainable. Field Day was their marquee event and, it must be said, the one that seemed most likely to have taken shape over a second pour of Laphroaig. (“What’s that? Sheep? On Savile Row? Smashing idea, old cod!”)
Before dawn this morning, trailers arriving from Devon, in southwest England’s moor country, had deposited sixty bathed and fluffed sheep in their temporary pasture. These weren’t just any sheep: one group was the U.K.’s last remaining flock of Bowmont sheep, developed by genetics researchers in Scotland in the 1980s by crossing Saxon Merinos with white Shetlands, with the object of producing a hardy, fine-fibered animal; the other was Exmoor Horn, a stocky, ancient black-nosed breed with elegant backswept horns and a long, dense white fleece. The farmers, too, had been groomed for the occasion. Two historic tailoring houses, Huntsman and Anderson & Sheppard, had outfitted them—and their dogs—in bespoke attire using English wool woven on English looms.
“This is proper cloth,” a mill executive is saying to the audience in Sartoria. “It’s the cloth that, before Gore-Tex and Polarfleece, a gentleman would put on a tweed jacket with a stout pair of shoes and walk up Everest.”
The line gets a laugh, but nostalgia mists across the room as if it had been sprayed from a fine-nozzled hose.
I head outside to see the flocks and to get a feel for Savile Row, the quarter-mile side street that is as meaningful to men who are reverent about handmade clothing as Cooperstown is to baseball fans and St. Andrews is to golfers. A dozen or so of the block’s tailors are hosting open houses, and several have scheduled short presentations about some aspect of their business. This is, from what I have read, an extremely rare show of hospitality by a group that, for most of its history, has preferred to keep its activities behind drawn curtains and unmarked closed doors. Open-to-the-street windows, in fact, were unheard of until 1969, when maverick designer Tommy Nutter set up shop with master cutter Edward Sexton at 35a Savile Row, with the partial backing of Peter Brown, the managing director of the Beatles’ Apple Corps, whose headquarters were across the street.
Nutter was the darling of mod London. Mick and Bianca Jagger, Twiggy, Elton John, and John Lennon (who, according to the author and historian James Sherwood, was known in the Nutter workrooms by the code name Susan) all sported his signature three-piece suits, with their giant skate-wing lapels, nipped-in waists, and roomy trousers. Every Beatle except George Harrison wore his designs for the Abbey Road album cover. As if his designs alone weren’t enough to shake up Savile Row’s Old Guard, Nutter also dared to show off his wares in provocative window displays—one featured giant purple phallus-shaped candles and another, taxidermied rats—created by a young Simon Doonan, who would go on to become the creative director of Barneys. Nutter not only allowed passers-by to see into his mirrored-wall showroom; he also had the audacity to encourage them to come in and browse.
Nutter died in 1992, of complications from AIDS, but if he had lived he probably would have loved the spectacle that is Savile Row today. There are banker types teetering between vexed and amused as they make their way through the crowd; tourists in jeans and windbreakers posing in front of the caution: sheep ahead sign; buttonhole makers and pressers, up from their basement workrooms, taking extended cigarette breaks; and film crews who can’t seem to get enough of Harry Parker, the tweed-clad, apple-cheeked, staff-wielding farmer who appears to be having the time of his life herding his Exmoor Horns from one end of the narrow corral to the other as the cameras roll. And at the top of the street, on a roped-off square of sod, there are several people drinking champagne inside what is apparently an invitation-only sheep trailer, painted a splendid Prussian blue.
Savile Row was developed in the 1730s, on what had been part of the third Earl of Burlington’s estate, a large manicured spread on Piccadilly Street in London’s then mostly rural West End. As Richard Walker explains in The Savile Row Story: An Illustrated History, Lord Burlington was a well-traveled sophisticate and a talented amateur architect who poured an obsession with ancient Rome into the construction of Burlington House, his neo-Palladian palace. Though he had wealth of his own and had married an heiress named Dorothy Savile, his extravagances left him strapped for cash. To raise money, he was forced to develop a chunk of his land. He laid out a handful of streets—Old Burlington, Cork, Clifford, Boyle, and, later, New Burlington and Savile (named for his wife in a bid, perhaps, for redemption after selling off her gardens). Lord Burlington oversaw the building of blocks of town houses, which were soon occupied by aristocrats, military men, and surgeons. Naturally, they needed proper attire, and before long tailors had opened workshops nearby to serve them.
The West End was booming at a time when ideas about how gentlemen should dress were going through a radical change. After the French Revolution, there was widespread rejection of anything that smacked of Louis XVI–style self-indulgence and excess. There was also a surge in appreciation for the classic nude male body, as depicted in ancient Greek sculpture. Meanwhile, the English gentry were discovering the great outdoors, retreating on weekends to country homes, where they spent much of their time foxhunting and dale-walking and pursuing other activities that required unfussy, comfortable attire. When some of these squires wore their country clothes into the city, they helped fuel a desire, even among urban sophisticates, for well-cut apparel made from matte-finish fabrics in subdued colors.
“It happened quickly,” Richard Walker wrote. “One moment the average aristocrat was wrapped in velvet and lace and the next he was stepping out in rustic simplicity.”
Without the distraction of sheen and sparkle, the focus became the figure of the man himself. Skilled tailors were much in demand. Using shaping techniques and strategically placed padding, they could give almost anyone—pigeon-breasted or pot-bellied—that coveted V-shaped silhouette.
“The perfect man, as conceived by English tailors, was part English country gentleman, part innocent natural Adam, and part naked Apollo,” the art historian Anne Hollander wrote in Sex and Suits. “Dressed form was now an abstraction of nude form, a new ideal naked man expressed not in bronze or marble but in natural wool, linen and leather.”
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Excerpted from The Coat Route by Meg Lukens Noonan. Copyright © 2013 by Meg Lukens Noonan. Excerpted by permission of Spiegel & Grau, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.