The Manly Art of Savile Row: Lessons from "Bespoke" on Custom Suiting and the Odd Lingo of the Trade

"A man cannot make love with any conviction unless he is wearing a coat cut within half a mile of Piccadilly," custom men's clothiers Tailor & Cutler asserted circa 1920. With Rizzoli's epic new book "Bespoke: The Men's Style of Savile Row," by James Sherwood, this incendiary hypothesis is perhaps not proven conclusively, but the clothes-proud sentiment is certainly supported. Every page features picture after glossy picture ofthe most handsome, impeccably dressed men of the past two centuries, looking impeccably handsome.

In a trim forward by Tom Ford — which runs alongside a large portrait of the designer, characteristically baring his hirsute chest in a crisp unbuttoned shirt — the American fashion icon quips, "I suppose that whenit comes to men's clothes I am an Anglophile and if I did not design myown men's collection, I would have virtually my entire wardrobe made onSavile Row."

One of the many services that this book renders is a definition of its oft-mistreated title term. "Bespoke," Sherwood enlightens, "refers only to a suit tailored for an individual on an exclusive basis: a process bywhich the costumer is measured by hands, his pattern cut by hand and the garment sewn by many hands, with an average of three intervening fittings." The fabricating process, he adds, "takes around fifty-two manhours, requiring three months from order to delivery, and it varies little from the craft described in 1838."

The tome charts the history of the handcrafted attire from the equestrian duds of exemplary dandy George 'Beau' Brummell. That illustrative master of style was supplied by bespoke tailors Meyer & Mortimer (founded 1801), Davies & Son (1804), HenryPoole & Co. (1806), and Norton & Sons (1821), housesof master craftsmanship that are still open — and keeping the ampersandin fashion — today.Sherwood explains that a Henry Poole & Co. suit would have cost £6 in the Edwardian era, around the annual wage of a house servant, which is apparently the way costs were measured in those days. (Leaving one toask, where did Jeeves get outfitted?)

"Bespoke" goes on to chronicle the various Savile tailors of note, relaying historical anecdotes alongside images of the most dapper royals, celebrities, and military men to don the custom haberdashery through the years.Anderson & Sheppard, Huntsman and Kilgour, and French& Stanbury, we learn, outfitted the stars of the golden age of the silver screen, from Cary Grant to Gary Cooper. (Their garments in fact starred in more Oscar winners than Katharine Hepburn, Sherwood points out.) We travel forward through the slim-legged, large-lapelled suits of Steve McQueen and the "gangster dandy" attire of that actor's more recent analogue, Paul Bettany, in some of his gun-toting roles.

"History," the reader is told, "has proved that the better dressed a Prince of Wales, the less suited he is to the honor." The reader's pleasure, then, in thumbing through the book's pages of finely-dressed monarchs is to compare their looks with their royal accomplishments. "Though discretion prevents me from naming the house," Sherwood demurs, "it is satisfying for British bespoke tailoring that one of their numberhas taken the measure of Princes William and Harry in 2009."

While Sherwood's discretion is charming, in a bourgeois way, he recalls certain Fleet Street journalists who were far from discreet, such as thewriter of an 1892 front page story for the Star who exposed the monarchy's disgraceful dependence on sweatshop labor in what has become known as the "Scandal of the Duke of York's Trousers." The headline at the time read: "Garments for Princes and Peers made at sweating rates incrowded tenements where fever lurks." 

The clothes may oft proclaim the man, at times more flatteringly than hedeserves. As Oscar Wilde put it in "The Picture of Dorian Gray": "with an evening coat and a whitetie anybody, even a stockbroker, can gain a reputation for being civilized." Happily, in Sherwood's book the character of the wearers is far less important than the elegant Savile Row finery worn.

And thank goodness for the directory of sorts in the back of the book, which will help the elegant man accessorize his suiting. For what is thepoint of wearing a bespoke ensemble if it is not appropriately paired with a Spanish Leather perfume and a handcrafted whip? And how else would one know that the proprietor of a Savile Row tailoring house is called "guv'nor" (seriously); that a "hip stay" is one's wife; or that "mouse in the straw" is a slur for an unsociable tailor; or that the term corduroy comes from the fact that it was once worn exclusively by the huntsmen of the French king ("corde du Roi")?

Inreading "Bespoke," such lessons are gleaned. One other? Don't be a damprag and get a pork when you're on the cod, or you'll buy a suit of mungo and get your coffin made. (Translation: Don't be a downer and purchase a reject-bin suit when you're drunk, or you'll find yourself with rags and be overcharged in the bargain.)