London’s role in the history of men’s fashion

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Savile Row, Jermyn Street and St. James’s are as synonymous with London as fish & chips, Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. In fact, for the gentleman who is serious about clothing there really isn’t anywhere else to procure your threads.

Whether you’re in need of a hat from Lock Hatters, handmade shoes from John Lobb or a made to measure shirt from Robert Emmett, St James’s and Mayfair will certainly have what you’re looking for – they’ve been responsible for clothing most of the world’s rich and powerful for the best part of three centuries.

Throughout the last 300 years, London has been at the forefront of many of the major advances made in men’s fashion. As the wealthiest and most technologically advanced country in the world throughout the majority of the 18th and 19th centuries, the craftsmen of Great Britain were in the unique position of being able to work with the best materials at the best prices, and the results were often remarkable.

Three piece suit

Three-piece suit – 1666

Samuel Pepys’s diaries are the primary sources of contemporary information about many of the key events of the Stuart period, including the Great Fire of London, but it’s unlikely that he ever thought a simple note about King Charles II’s new outfit would herald the start of a menswear revolution. When the King appeared in court wearing “a long cassocke close to the body, of black cloth, and pinked with white silk under it, and a coat over it”, this was the first time anyone had worn anything resembling a three-piece suit.

Wellington Boots

Wellington boots –1810s

We can’t be sure of exactly when the Duke of Wellington decided to enlist his shoemaker, Hoby of St. James’s Street, to modify the Hessian boot so that it would be suitable both for wearing in battle and at evening engagements, though he was painted wearing them in 1814, so the beginning of the 1810s seems likely. When the vulcanisation of rubber was patented in 1852, farmers adopted them for their work after they had fallen out of fashion with the military; today brands such as Hunters are used everywhere from country shows to music festivals.

Bowler Hat

Bowler hat – 1850

Bowler hats were first developed in 1849 by Thomas and William Bowler of milliners Lock & Co. at the commission of Edward Coke, the brother of the Earl of Leicester. Coke wanted a hat that would protect his gamekeepers while they were riding around the grounds of his estate, and the final design was initially named after him. It was worn by labourers until Edward VII (more on him below) adopted it and the middle and upper-classes followed suit. Winston Churchill is famously synonymous with the design. Bowlers also spread to the United States, where they outsold Stetsons and cowboy hats.

Dinner Jacket

Dinner Jacket – 1865

Guaranteed to strike fear and confusion into men everywhere, the dinner jacket (or tuxedo at is commonly know) is actually just a tailless evening coat and matching trousers, first developed for the future King Edward VII by Savile Row tailor Henry Poole in 1865. Although it was considered casual wear at the time, it has since evolved to become one of the more formal types of menswear.

Trench Coat

Trench coat – 1914

Burberry opened its first store in 1891 and by 1901 had won a commission from the British Army to design its officers’ uniforms. When World War I began, the company developed the first trench coat, blending functionality and style in a very British aesthetic. Hollywood would later turn the trench coat into a major fashion item, with Humphrey Bogart notably wearing one during the final scene in Casablanca in 1942.

Carnaby Street

John Stephen & Carnaby Street – 1960s

Whenever anyone thinks of Swinging London in the 1960s, the first thing that probably comes to mind is Carnaby Street, the hub of youth fashion during the period. Originally a nondescript street at the back of the London Palladium, it was transformed by Glaswegian designer John Stephen, who opened his first shop there in 1957 and immediately tapped into the prevailing youth culture, outfitting the likes of The Who, The Kinks and The Small Faces. To the general public, he stocked short runs of mod staples like three-button jackets, Italian-made shirts, roll-necks and boots, ensuring high levels of turnover, and his success was such that Carnaby Street was paved and pedestrianised in 1973.

Vivienne Westwood Sex

Vivienne Westwood – 1970s

The punk movement was fuelled by both the music of bands like the Sex Pistols and the fashion sensibilities of Vivienne Westwood and her sometime creative and business partner, Malcolm McLaren. Their boutique on the King’s Road, provocatively called Sex, initially specialised in bondage and fetishwear before embracing the destructive, antagonistic style of punk by incorporating chains, safety pins and spiked jewellery into their designs. After the Pistols and other bands were photographed and filmed wearing the unconventional clothes, Westwood became one of Britain’s most influential and imitated designers of all time and was made a Dame in 2006.

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