Menswear Books: Savile Row by James Sherwood

Savile Row SherwoodMy latest acquisition was Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke by James Sherwood. I bought it on a whim at my local bookshop, and I’m very glad I did. It has a foreword by the wonderful Tom Ford that is about the length of your average tweet and about as informative. We all love Tom Ford, but I bet he wrote it on his phone and just texted it in. I must say that I did not have high expectations for the rest of the book either. However, it turned out to be very informative and entertaining. It is informative thanks to a wealth of historical information; it really is a well-researched work that you want to go back to again and again. It has the appearance of a coffee table book, but it would be insulting to call it that. You can read it as a coffee table book, because the illustrations alone make for an entertaining read, but there is a lot more to it than just pretty pictures.

The book begins with a historical introduction and the rest of it is divided thematically into topics such as royalty, fashion, uniforms, Hollywood actors and the recent renaissance of men’s bespoke tailoring. The subchapters, on the other hand, are mostly labelled by tailoring establishments on Savile Row. There are too many to list here, but I assume most of them are mentioned. The author obviously loves Savile Row and all the businesses are described expertly and appreciatively. The descriptions are engaging and link everything to the amazing history of Savile Row tailoring. The final sections of the book deal briefly with grooming, shirtmakers, shoemakers, umbrellas and the like. It closes with some info on the way suits are constructed and a glossary.

In some ways, the book is a long advertisement for Savile Row. Were I more cynical, I might call it cleverly disguised ad copy. I really don’t mind this, because you can learn a lot about the history of tailored clothing as you read. What does bother me a little, however, is that the celebratory rhetoric does not necessarily serve a potential customer very well. For a more closer look at the house styles on Savile Row, I would recommend something like Permanent Style’s review series. As of today, Simon Crompton has reviewed a tux from Richard Anderson, a suit from Henry Poole and a jacket from Anderson and Sheppard. You also get the normally elusive prices listed on the site. A suit from one of the less expensive tailors, Anderson and Sheppard, is listed as £4778.

If you are just a regular guy, paying that much for a suit is probably not feasible. It is an item of clothing for the price of a car. A car will probably be more useful and you can do more with it, but, then again, you don’t wear a car close to your skin all day. It’s a question of choices and if you want a suit by some of the best tailors in the world and can somehow save up five thousand pounds, you might be able to do it. Would it be worth it? It’s difficult to say.

Handmade clothing is out of reach for most people, because it has become a luxury item. This also creates other problems that are not discussed in Sherwood’s book. Some of them are taken up by Bernhard Roetzel in his Essay on Bespoke. With the luxury market being advertised as it is, it is easy to forget that tailors are people too. Things can go wrong, miracles rarely happen and service can be unpleasant. Some of the stuff is clearly overpriced and mistakes can be very expensive. I could go on, but you get the idea.

Because it is a luxury market, the customers are connoisseurs. Menswear writers, Sherwood included, talk fondly of fathers introducing their sons to their tailors when they get their first suit. I doubt this happens that often any more on Savile Row or anywhere else. I personally think a Savile Row suit would be wasted on me like an exceptionally fine cigar or a vintage bottle of wine: I would not be able to appreciate it fully, because I really don’t know enough about suits to do so. Should I study the matter further, knowing more would make me more critical and disappointments more likely. It’s a never-ending balancing act which can be fun, but only if you accept that finding something just right is very rare. That is why I think getting a Savile Row suit would be far too stressful even if I could afford one. For everyone but the very rich, it’s not, as it should be, simply clothing. It’s clothing with an aura and a glorious past.

Wine is off the menu for me these days, but I’m happy with a decent cigar and clothes that fit me fairly well. For anyone striving for connoisseurship, however, it is more or less necessary to read something like Sherwood’s Savile Row. If you really aspire to be one, you should consider it homework.

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