London is famous for its gentlemen’s tailoring: Savile Row and Jermyn Street belong to a city of tailors, not couturiers. It is built in tradition that extends back more than two centuries, and the great cutters and robemakers will show you officers’ uniforms from the high Victorian period and the garments of orders of knighthood. Last week I wrote that the brand of London tailoring was extraordinarily strong and durable, and predicted that, although the pandemic would have a substantial effect on buying and dressing habits, the best bespoke brands would come out of the other side in good order.
Quickly, and rightly, I was (forgive the pun) buttonholed by female friends who work in the corporate world. What about their fashion needs? Who was thinking deep thoughts about the future of the companies which dressed them? What would their world look like after Covid?
One observation almost, but not quite, too trite to be worth making is that women’s clothes are much more complicated than men’s. Their gamut of form, function and symbolism is so much broader and the expectations placed upon them are so much heavier. A man can, to an extent, put on a plain suit, shirt and tie, a decent pair of shoes and be respectable and businesslike the world over, from Boston to Beijing, London to Lima. The weight and colour of the cloth may vary according to climate, but the pattern is universal.
The choices for women present themselves as insistent questions as soon as their underwear is on. A dress, or a suit? A skirt or trousers? A blouse or shell top or camisole? That’s simply the consideration of format: colour and cloth, as well as the finial of style and cut, have yet to be weighed.
For many women, particularly earlier in their careers, it is easier to soothe and subdue expectations with a plain dark suit and a white or pale blouse. This is the option to which labels like Hobbs and Whistles, as well as the menswear stalwarts like T.M. Lewis and Hawes and Curtis, have traditionally catered. Here you will find everything you need to dress soberly, appropriately and discreetly for a job in the City or law or Whitehall.
The challenge is the next step. For a gentleman, it’s fairly easy; if you want to invest more in how you dress, and distinguish yourself a little more obviously from the crowd, you look at bespoke suits, hand-made shirts, custom-made or painted silk ties. It’s an exercise in reinforcing success, and your potential sources are obvious (as we saw last week).
For women, the pathway is not so clear. The big names of fashion, like Versace or Dior or YSL, may not be quite the statement you wish to make; moreover, unlike with men’s clothes, there can be a sense of the label wearing you rather than vice-versa.
If you want to spend some money on your wardrobe, and greet the post-Covid world with a firm look and a sense of purpose, there are options for women shopping in London which can go toe-to-toe in their own way with the best of the men’s offerings. Bombshell, based in Muswell Hill, has the immediate visual impact its name suggests and sells really head-turning outfits for those who are confident enough to carry them off. Edward Sexton cut his teeth with Tommy Nutter in the 1960s before leaving Savile Row and striking out as a maker of distinctive womenswear. Katherine Hooker, a favourite of the Duchess of Cambridge, produces elegant off-the-peg clothing but also offers a bespoke service. King and Allen are, in many ways, a female interpretation of a traditional tailor but none the worse for it.
High-end tailoring, for men and for women, requires a bit of bravery. If you want to stand out—and we assume here that you do—then you have to be prepared, well, to stand out. A flamboyantly cut suit or a bright or unexpected colour or a stylish hat are all ways of escaping the shackles of conformity, and you have to relish them. It is not always easy: even without the complex societal implications of being stared at which affect women, being the focus of strangers’ attention, even if only for a few seconds, requires you to hold your nerve and your head high.
But if you want the opinion of this weathered flâneur, it’s worth it. To dress well in quality garments and know they make the best of the raw ingredients you’re giving them is a huge boost to one’s confidence and, yes, ego. Women as much as men ought to remember: a bespoke suit may cost a few thousand pounds but you’ll feel like a million dollars. That’s a good exchange rate.