Tuesday, 24 February 2015

The 30 shilling tailors

I bought a pair of trousers the other day.  Considering that I bought them in a supermarket, it was quite a thing to have been able to try them on in a changing room.  It was rather a spartan changing room although it was fitted out with a mirror and a peg on the wall, but nowhere to sit down while taking off my shoes.  It was, nonetheless, quite different from the "old" days when I would go to buy a suit.

I bought my first suit just before I started work in a bank.  Men were expected to wear suits from Monday to Friday, but sports coats were permitted on Saturday when the bank closed at lunch time.  And suits were the English style suits with the jacket and trousers (and waistcoat if worn) were made from the same material.

Back in those days no High Street in a large town would be without the men's outfitters.  Very few (if any) suits were sold off the peg.  The major clothing chain stores - Marks and Spencer, British Home Stores and Littlewoods - didn't sell suits, one had to go to the specialist shops.  For the working classes and lower middle classes these would be Burton's, Hepworth's and John Collier's.  The buyer would select the material for his suit from a book of samples, rather like a smaller version of the carpet samples we see nowadays.  Then the style of the suit would be chosen from another catalogue before the customer was measured - arm length, chest, waist and inside leg.

A week or two later the customer would return to try on the suit which had been made to his measurements.  I can't remember if, in the event that everything was satisfactory, the suit could be taken away that day or if it had to be finished off.

I seem to remember that most of my suits were made by Burton's, who had in days gone by been known as the thirty shilling tailors; no suit sold by them cost more than thirty shillings, £1.50 in today's currency.  Later, they were to be known as the fifty shilling tailors (there's inflation for you!).  What I have only just discovered is that >Montague Burton came to Britain from Lithuania, beginnning by peddling clothes, then working as an outfitter, selling shoes, hats, ties and shirts. He set up his first tailor's shop in Chesterfield, followed by one in Sheffield, and at his height had over 600 stores around the country. Measurements were taken for around 50,000 suits a week, all of which were rushed back to his Leeds factory in Hudson Road, to be made up and then sent back to the shops.

I don't suppose there are many men now who have their suits made to measure.  I haven't done that for many a long year.


Sarah said...

There is still a very small gentleman's outfitters here in Taunton but I'm not sure how they keep going. I remember when we were in Singapore back in the late 70's we had Cheonsams made for us. I don't remember being measured at all, I think the tailor just looked at us, guessed our sizes, ran them up and a few hours later we went back to pick them up. They were so beautifully made and very exotic.

Jenny Woolf said...

Isn't it something to think that thirty shillings is £1.50!