The origins of British Tailoring - from Waterloo to Saville Row

By Harris & Howard

The origins of British Tailoring - from Waterloo to Saville Row

The origins of British Tailoring - from Waterloo to Saville Row

By Harris & Howard

The origins of British Tailoring - from Waterloo to Saville Row

Britain has always been at the forefront of gentleman's fashion. For 400 years, the centre of the sartorial world has been Saville Row, which saw the development of the modern men's suit. But did you know that the ubiquitous suit has a complex history, which has been shaped by global shifts, historic events, and even the Battle of Waterloo!

What is bespoke tailoring?

Who hasn't walked past the window of an exclusive tailor and dreamed of having a bespoke suit made just for you.

Bespoke literally means that the suit is 'spoken for'; that it has been made specifically for one person, and is not for sale to the public. Contrast this with 'off the peg' clothes, which are sorted into approximate sizes (and can differ wildly between shops). Bespoke pieces are made to your measurements exactly.

Tailoring through the ages

Material history tells us that tailors have been plying their trade since the Middle Ages. The word tailor first appeared in the English language in 1297, coming from the French word 'tailler', meaning 'to cut'.

At this time, garments were made simply, and their primary purpose was to cover the body, keeping gentlemen warm and dry. Fabrics such as wool were used to make the majority of clothes, as it was warm in cold weather and lasted for a long time. Only the rich could afford more luxurious materials, such as silk, which had to be imported. Most clothes were made at home from single pieces of fabric fashioned into tunics, dresses, and cloaks, fastened with brooches, sashes, and belts.

Dedicated followers of fashion

During the Renaissance, fashions began to evolve, and both sexes moved towards more decorated clothes that were better fitted to the body and allowed people to show off their personality and wealth. A broader range of materials and colours was available, and keeping up with the latest trends became the fashion.

From the Middle Ages to the 18th century, tailors would use their own secret patterns to produce garments. Apprentices were only allowed to see them once they had mastered the skills of cutting and sewing.

In tailors' shops, everything would be sewn by hand, and more than one tailor might work on a single garment at a time. They would often sit cross legged next to each other- in France, sitting in this way is still referred to as 'assis en tailleur' or 'tailor's pose'.

The birth of the suit

Move forwards to Regency England, and dandies such as Beau Brummell revolutionised men's fashion. Brummell rebelled against powdered wigs, lacy fabrics, high heels, and extravagant colours, choosing instead a plainer style of coat, shirt, and necktie and a limited palette which focused on dark shades. Beau Brummell was great friends with the Prince Regent and influential members of the upper classes, and this fashion caught on quickly.

According to material history, the modern gentleman's suit has its starting point in the early 1800s when Henry Poole & Co. created the very first dinner jacket. Opened in 1806, Poole & Co. designed their suit jackets specifically for men serving in the military. The Napoleonic Wars were raging in Europe, and it was the fashion to try and emulate the great military leaders, including Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. Military wear became very popular.

The new jacket was designed to be functional and flexible, and many of the features introduced became standard in suits up to the present day:

- The first jackets had high armholes to provide maximum movement for shooting a rifle or using a field lens.

- Surgeon's cuffs became fashionable too. This is a slit at the bottom of the sleeve, which is usually fastened by buttons, but can be easily rolled above the elbow to allow doctors to perform battlefield surgery quickly. If you've ever bought a tailored Italian or American suit, you might notice that these are missing.

- The first suit jackets included a pleat at the back which allows the wearer to move around, especially useful for mounting a horse.

Into the modern era

Once the suit was introduced, it quickly became popularised around the world, thanks in part to its adoption by influential figures. King Edward VII, for example, is said to have popularised wearing tweed, and introduced the idea that a gentleman should leave the final button of his waistcoat undone. Winston Churchill also favoured Saville Row pinstriped suits.

Since the Second World War, advances in technology, and changes in fashion, have dramatically altered gentleman's apparel, but the suit remains the ultimate expression of good taste. And, for excellence and quality, bespoke British tailoring should always be your first choice.

If you're looking for your own piece of bespoke tailoring, then Harris and Howard offer a complete service. If this is your first time, or your hundredth time, buying a suit, we make the process simple, straightforward, and enjoyable. Please explore our website to discover more, and don't hesitate to get in touch to discuss your needs.

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