A short (interesting) history of British tailoring

Clothes have to combine style with sustainability and I find British-made tailoring more than meets that challenge.”
Prince Charles

Cast your eye down any UK street in the height of summer and you could be forgiven for thinking that the British are no longer a picture of sartorial elegance. But although we may have traded brogues for flip flops in some quarters, tailoring excellence still thrives in Britain and ‘British tailoring’ remains synonymous with quality.


Britain’s reputation for fine tailoring started in the early 1800s when the first suits were made in Savile Row. Then, as now, the bespoke suits were made to the highest standards for moneyed clients. By the mid 1800s, with the British Empire at its peak, our influence extended across the world and with it our reputation for elegance and style.


In fact, such is the influence of Savile Row, that a derivative of its name is the Japanese word for suit; ‘sabiro’. Although there are a number of versions of how the word ‘sabiro’ was coined, it’s widely accepted that when the first suits were seen in Japan, the wearers explained that the clothing came from Savile Row, and an approximation of the street’s name – ‘sabiro’ – became part of the Japanese lexicon.


From the late 19th Century through to the present day, members of the British Royal Family have also played their part in flying the flag for British tailoring. Prior to his accession to the throne in 1901, the Prince of Wales – who later became King Edward VII – was known throughout the world for his sartorial style.


Edward is said to have popularised the wearing of tweed and also the tradition of men leaving the bottom button of a waistcoat open. Although it’s thought this particular tradition stemmed more from necessity than fashion; Edward’s stomach reputedly measured 48 inches (122 cm) prior to his coronation. Which is perhaps not surprising as he’s also credited with introducing the national dish of roast beef, roast potatoes and Yorkshire pudding!


Through the difficult first half of the 20th Century, British tailoring maintained its reputation for excellence, with Winston Churchill commissioning a striped suit from Savile Row, circa 1936. And with the horror of two world wars behind, tailoring again came to the fore, with fashion moving towards simpler, more modern suits in the 1940s and ’50s.


Fast forward to 2014 and the day-to-day wearing of suits is largely limited to the workplace, and the shops are flooded with clothes imported from overseas. But there are still those who are champions of British tailoring, most notably Prince Charles.


After being voted one of GQ magazine’s Best Dressed Men in 2012, he spoke at length to the magazine about his belief in the quality of British tailoring.


“I have long been an admirer of British tailoring and the associated trades” he said, adding that although the textile industry is “dominated by mass-production techniques and synthetic fabrics” he knows from British tailors, shirt- and shoe-makers that the top international fashion houses still turn to British companies for the level of detail shown in their tailoring.


And Prince Charles added his vote of confidence to clothing made in Britain, “Clothes have to combine style with sustainability and I find British-made tailoring more than meets that challenge.”


Although the tailoring industry in Britain is sometimes thought to be part of a bygone era, it has proved to be an enduring feature of Britain’s reputation both at home, and overseas. Surviving the fall of the Empire, an abdication, two world wars and a move towards casual dressing, history shows us that excellent British tailoring will always find its place with those who value quality clothing, made to high, British standards.