Feature: The Way We Wore


From the codpiece to the three piece – Marc Zakian looks at the history of British menswear.

Two thousand years ago, Britain’s men were literally dressed to kill. According to some histories, the Picts – tribal groups who ruled Scotland – covered themselves with blue dye to appear more ferocious in battle.

This is a legend. There is very little evidence about the outward appearance of ancient Britons – no reliable written records, and hardly any clothing survives from that period. So museums have Iron Age metal buckles, but not the belt; Celtic gold fasteners, but not the tunics.


During Anglo-Saxon times all men wore the same type of clothes, regardless of social rank. The main garment was basically a bag with holes in it – two pieces of material sewn together with openings for the head, legs and arms. It wasn’t the cut or style that indicated your wealth, but the quality and colour of the garment.

The I4th century has been called the first era of ‘British fashion’. During this period, men’s clothes changed more than any period before or since. The first professional tailors started working, so instead of hanging like limp curtains, clothes were cut to reveal and enhance the shape of the body.

Fashions were set by the king. What the monarch wore the nobles copied; and within a year of the sovereign sporting a new outfit, cheaper versions of the aristocratic trends were adopted across the realm.

King Edward III’s wardrobe included an outfit of green velvet embroidered with pearls, a padded jacket covered in vermillion and decorated with parrots, and a scarlet mantle garnished with silk and gold and decorated with  birds on branches. Fashions that, to the modern eye, are more King Elvis than medieval Edward.

The 1330s saw the invention of the button. This humble appendage changed people’s dress; the tunic could now open at the front, and taper around a man’s stomach. This was bad news for fat people, whose paunches were no longer concealed (some started wearing corsets) and hated by members of the clergy, who raged against the button and its unfastening of the road to vanity.

As the century progressed, the button haters’ fears were confirmed. In 1370 one observer commented: ‘tunics have grown so short, you can see the outlines of men’s bottoms’. The short doublet became known as the ‘court piece’, a jacket which hung some two-inches below the belt, allowing a gentlemen to show off the bulge at the front of his tights and the shape of his buttocks. A the same time, the mode for longer shoes grew until some men were wearing 20 inch points that had to be tied to their garters so they didn’t trip.

The long sleeve was also in vogue, with some almost reaching the ground. By the end of the 1300s, with their pointy shoes and baggy sleeves, men must have looked more like circus clowns than medieval knights.


For the working people aristocratic clothes were impractical and unaffordable. And for the middle classes sumptuary laws – rules about what colours and materials you could wear – prohibited anybody from dressing above their station.

In 1336 it was decreed that: ‘no knight under the estate of a lord, esquire or gentleman, nor any other person, shall wear any shoes or boots having spikes or points which exceed the length of two inches, under the forfeiture of forty pence’.

From 1337, only those with an annual income of over £100 a year were allowed to wear fur, and an act of 1463 put restrictions on coat length to prevent men from acting as if they were from a higher class.

The sumptuary acts were devised to stop the upper and middle classes from advancing beyond their status. The lower classes could never aspire to wearing silks and furs, and were only mentioned to complete the social hierarchy.



The defining image of the early 16th century shows a man staring yousquare in the face, legs apart, fur-lined hat at a cocky angle, his bloated cloak making him as broad as he is tall. Then there’s his codpiece, the unmissable statement of pimped masculinity that erupts from under the king’s bejewelled doublet. This is Henry VIII in 1536, power dressed and painted by Hans Holbein in a portrait that is all about political spin – the king as he wants you to see and fear him.

Tudor clothes reflected the growing confidence of England. Bulky layers puffed out to increase a man’s presence, huge shoulders, broad chests and, of course, the codpiece – which reached its peak during Henry’s reign. Tailors would stuff the pieces to flatter their clients. Henry VIII’s fighting armour features a metal codpiece that would have shocked and awed the enemy before battle even commenced.



With Elizabeth I in charge, men’s codpieces were pricked. Simply by being a woman the queen altered men’s fashions – no courtier dared parade his masculine power in front of Queen Bess. But her majesty’s weakness for men’s thighs meant that carefully revealing hose might gain favour.

Elizabethan men alternated between rugged wear (long cloaks and high leather hats, sometimes with 15 inch crowns) and the emerging ‘peacock age’ fashions of earrings, pendants, feathers and embroidered suits.

Aristocratic dress was expensive; the cost for materials and tailoring of a court outfit was some £12. A skilled labourer might earn £2 a month, so the working-man’s tailors shop charged around 2s 6d for a cloak, jerkin, hose and a cape.


The execution of King Charles I in 1649 ushered in a dark decade for fashion. Good Puritans wore plain and practical materials in sombre colours, with little or no decoration. Contrary to popular belief, they did not wear black for everyday. The dye was expensive and faded quickly, and black clothing was reserved for the most formal occasions. Wool and linen were preferred over decadent silks and satins.

In 1660 Charles II restored the throne in a blaze of colour and opulence. The king brought French fashions with him on his return from exile. The kneelength coat replaced the doublet as the main garment in a man’s wardrobe. Sleeves were wide and turned back, breeches were worn just below the knee, sometimes decorated with bows and ribbon trimmings.

But the ultimate indicator of status was the peruke. The best wigs were made from human hair, cheaper ones from horsehair. An everyday wig cost the equivalent of a week’s pay for an ordinary man. The more money you had, the bigger your wig, and so the term ‘bigwig’ entered the language.

Perukes remained popular because they were practical. Head lice were everywhere, and  nitpicking was painful and time consuming. Lice stopped infesting people’s hair – which had to be shaved for the wig to fit – and lived in the wig instead. You’d send the dirty headpiece to a wigmaker, who would boil the wig and remove the nits. The wig finally went out of fashion in the 1760s when King George III was seen wearing his own hair – albeit arranged to look like a wig.



The 1770s saw the final flicker of flamboyant male fashions. The term ‘macaroni’ or fop had been coined for young men who adopted fussy foreign dress. It was used to describe young men who had returned from their Grand Tour in Italy. The macaronis wore extreme versions of the current fashion; giant, tottering conical wigs, sometimes with tails, striped breeches and peacock colours. All this would be swept away by the influence of Britain’s greatest ever male fashion icon.


George ‘Beau’ Brummell was the arbiter of fashion in Regency Britain. The country’s first ‘celebrity’, who became famous for the way he dressed. Brummell’s key to success was his friendship with the Prince Regent, and the patronage and influence that came with royal connections.

Brummell turned the Englishman away from the foppish fashions of the late 18th century, and established a look based on dark coats, full-length trousers (rather than knee breeches) and a knotted cravat. He is credited with inventing the man’s suit.

The Fop had given way to the Dandy. Dandies spent hours putting on their shirts and tying their cravats. Brummell himself claimed he took five hours a day to dress, and recommended that boots be polished with champagne.


The suit developed through the 1800s. The jacket became shorter and more practical. During the 1800s, the top hat, cravat and pantaloons were reserved for formal occasions, replaced by the bowler hat and the tie for day wear. In 1922, one fashion critic declared that the lounge suit had become the ‘universal utility dress for men’.

By 1936, the suits that the fleeting fashion icon King Edward VIII wore were the same – though more expensively tailored – as the ones worn by the rest of the country’s men. But the trends set by the king – loose cuffs for eveningwear, the Fair Isle sweater the ‘Windsor’ tie knot – were accessible to everyone.

The suit was now the uniform of the people; from City boys to Teddy Boys, from Carnaby Street to the High Street, from hippies to hipsters, there is suit that suits everyone.


The English gentleman ‘look’ is recognised throughout the world. Its inspiration comes from the streets around London’s Mayfair and St James’, the home of bespoke menswear – where tailors, shoemakers and craftsmen have been suiting and booting British men for hundreds of years.

The Savile Row suit is a symbol of English style. Tailors started doing business in the area in the late 18th century – since then, generations of English kings, dukes, prime ministers, soldiers and celebrities have been measured for suits cut and sewn on the Row.

When the explorer David Livingstone met Henry Stanley on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, he was wearing a Gieves suit; Stanley was dressed in a Henry Poole. Lord Carnarvon and Howard Carter wore Norton & Sons tweeds when they broke through into Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922.

Huntsman has probably made clothes for more famous stars than any other house on the Row. Hollywood’s golden age icons Gregory Peck, Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable were tailored here, as were English actors Larry Olivier and Dirk Bogarde.

In the late 60s, Tommy Nutter brought fashion to Savile Row. The ‘Rebel in the Row’ dressed Mick Jagger, Elton John and the Beatles, with three of the band on the iconic front cover of Abbey Road wearing Nutter outfits.

TV and film productions regularly call on the world’s most famous sartorial street. When actor Hugh Bonneville, playing the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey, was unhappy with the outfit provided by the production, he asked Huntsman to fit him in period white-and-blacktie attire.

A bespoke suit (the word comes from the verb ‘bespeak’, to order) is cut from a personal pattern, pieced together in-house and fitted until the cutter and client decide it is perfect – a process that takes around 50 hours. Today, there are 44 tailoring and clothing businesses on and around Savile Row, employing several hundred tailors in their workshops. It takes a full 10 years to become a Master Tailor, longer than it takes to train as a GP!



can trace its history back to 1806. They opened on the Row in 1846 and – as the oldest established tailor in the area – they are regarded as the ‘Founders of Savile Row’. Their client list includes Winston Churchill, Charles Dickens and General de Gaulle.

Founder Henry Poole was a celebrity dandy tailor who made suits and livery for the royal family. In 1865, the Prince of Wales wanted something less formal than white tie and tails for Sandringham country-house dinners. Poole removed the tails from the formal jacket, designing and creating what has become known as the dinner jacket or ‘tuxedo’.

Simon Cundey is the seventh generation of the family to run the business. He believes that: “A tailor is as important to a man as his doctor or dentist. He lives and breathes with you the whole span of your life – from your university gown, to your suit for your first job interview, to your wedding”.

The company only offers bespoke. Clients are measured for a suit upstairs, choosing from one of the 4,000 different fabrics, the job then passes to one of the 30 tailors who  work in the basement of the shop. As one of the largest tailors in the Row, the company works hard to train a new generation, and their apprentices spend five years learning their craft under the supervision of a Master Tailor.

Poole has held a Royal Warrant to produce livery for the Royal household since 1869. These meticulously crafted uniforms, embroidered with gold thread, cost around £5000. The outfits are in service for at least half a century – Poole’s tailors have just replaced a footman’s uniform they first made during the reign of George V.



The eponymous John Lobb was a lame Cornish farmboy, who walked to London to find his fortune. His mastery of last and awl turned him into a bootmaker to King Edward VII. Lobb opened his St James’ Street shop in 1866, since then the company’s shoes have graced the feet of monarchs, politicians and Hollywood royalty – from Frank Sinatra to Dean Martin.

John Hunter Lobb, great-grandson of the founder, now runs the family business. “We have turned our face against machines and stuck to making shoes by hand,” he says. “The craftsmanship and tools are the same as they were in my grandfather’s day. I sometimes think that if he walked in here tomorrow, little would have changed from his time”.


There are nine stages in the crafting of a pair of Lobb’s shoes. The customer is carefully measured and a last-maker sculpts a maple-wood copy of their feet. Patterns are made, and a clicker selects and cuts the leather according to these shapes; those sections go to the closer, who sews the upper together with hand-wound thread; the heels are attached; then a polisher buffs the shoe until it shines like a royal guardsman’s boot. John Hunter Lobb inspects every shoe before it leaves the building.

The last is kept for at least 20 years, so that customers may order more shoes easily. Lobb’s basement is a ‘museum of feet’, containing the lasts of Enrico Caruso, Jackie Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Olivier, Duke Ellington, Edward Heath and Fred Astaire. Their shoes were for life, their soles will last forever.

Though a pair of bespoke Lobb’s will cost you 50 times the cost of massmanufactured shoes, properly maintained they will last you through your entire adult life. Next time you see a picture of Prince Charles, take a look at his feet, he may well be sporting a pair of 40-year-old Lobb’s.


Turnbull & Asser was founded in 1885 by salesman Ernest Asser and Reginald Turnbull, a hosier. Gentlemen’s hose (stockings) had disappeared in Beau Brummell’s early 19th century fashion revolution, and the company became known for a First World War military raincoat that doubled as a sleeping bag.

But there was little demand for war garments in peacetime. In the 1920s, as men’s dress became less formal, shirts became more prominent. Turnbull & Asser responded by focusing on bespoke shirt-making – with an eye for the clientele from gentlemen’s clubs in their St James’ neighbourhood.

They became the shirt-tailor of choice, with a client list that includes Winston Churchill and Prince Charles. But they are best known as provider of shirts to James Bond. His creator, Ian Fleming, was a customer, and when the film franchise was launched with Dr No in 1962, the film’s star Sean Connery was dispatched to Turnbull & Asser.

Legend has it that the director instructed Connery to sleep in his tailored garments – including his shirts – so that he’d feel ‘more at ease’ in them. Since then, 007 has always ‘shopped’ at Turnbull & Asser.



Hat maker Lock & Co was founded in 1676. James Lock’s descendants still own and run the company from the St James’ Street shop they have occupied since 1765.

That icon of English hats, the bowler, was created by Lock’s. In 1849, the aristocratic landowner Edward Coke requested a hat to solve the problem of gamekeepers’ headgear – traditional top hats were too fragile to be worn by countryside workers.

Lock’s commissioned William and Thomas Bowler to design the new hat. Legend has it that when Coke returned to see the design, he dropped it on the floor and stamped on it twice to test its strength before leaving satisfied.


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