A Sartorial Special Relationship

Goodbye old friend. One of my ancient, beloved vintage suits is no longer.  Its jacket’s thick carved horn buttons will end up being treasured by someone who buys orphaned suit coats, because the last time I put this suit on, I discovered what seemed like a baseball-sized hole in the crotch of the trousers. Its appearance raises so many questions: How long had it been there? Should I have noticed it growing around my groin? Had Isle drunkenly convinced me that wearing pants with a hole in the crotch was the newest form of #sprezzatura sported at Pitti? (“Does Sir dress right or left? Oh… I see. Never mind.”)

I must have been in denial.  Anyone who reads me (Anyone? Anyone?) knows that I like to make the old new, a flowery way of saying that I like vintage clothing: I like finding a garment with a history (in acceptable shape and clean, of course) that speaks to me: its appearance, its history, or other features that let me feel in wearing it that I am appropriating something old and making it mine – a sort of recontextualization.  

The brand’s current owners must have had the same feeling when they bought its name a decade or so ago. They recontextualized it by using its history to sell largely machine-made suits under its name. It had once been the last high-quality ready-to-wear suitmaker in England, where apprentices from Savile Row had sometimes come to learn tailoring techniques.  Its name was legendary in export markets for that handmade Britishness.  Those who wanted the quality the English tailors were famous for in a ready-to-wear suit – that is, easily exportable to markets anywhere in the world – strove for it in all of its hand-stitched glory.  It had gone through a series of different owners and bankruptcies.  In the years after I acquired the suit, the brand itself – the name on the inside – was sold off from what is left of the manufacturing arm, still working away under a different name in Crewe.  

An ur-British name, founded by an American, now owned by a Japanese corporation that has them made half-canvassed in Italy, with Italian cloth.  The brand leans heavily on its British heritage and design inspiration still, of course, without having much to do with Britain or the handmade quality that had made its name. 

But I digress – even though I bought it because it meant British quality to me when I was much younger, the same way that its slant pockets, ticket pocket and double vents meant British elegance (don’t laugh, British readers) to me at the time.  (They actually meant 1970s, as the shop label inside the coat was for a luxury retailer that went out of business not long after I was born. Donald Trump bought that shop’s flagship location and destroyed it, including art he had promised to donate to the Met, to build Trump Tower.) And the pattern! Back in the day, these garments sometimes had additional labels inside proudly proclaiming they were both “loomed and tailored in Great Britain”, meaning they were made out of British cloth woven in Yorkshire, Huddersfield, Bradford… We foreigners can even romanticize the Industrial Age… This was a lovely glen check (“plaid” to any layperson) in a mid grey with two different sets of subtle but distinct overchecks, one red, one blue. It reminded me of the Savile Row suits George Lazenby wore in Swinging London publicity shots for On Her Majesty’s Secret ServiceDashingly cut, joyously but harmoniously patterned, the red and blue notes just pronounced enough to bring out the blues or reds of a shirt or tie.  

This suit was indeed part of a sartorial special relationship, which happens to be the title of a monograph on Savile Row and America published to accompany the exhibition at the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. of the Savile Row garments ordered by the American grandees who for some decades had helped to keep the tailors of London afloat (I understand the Russians, Middle Easterners and Chinese are probably filling that role now.) The former British ambassador wrote its introduction, name-checking this maker as being the Savile Row brand he wore with pride – as had the U.S.’s own foreign minister, Secretary of State Warren Christopher. 

The book’s titular special relationship is a play on words, an allusion to the supposed special relationship enjoyed by Britain and the United States in the middle of the 20th century, a pretended synergy of British culture and experience and brash American wealth and power. For me it was ties to English tailoring, and to those fleeting moments of British stylistic flair – before the London swung back out of focus.  But sentimental me continues to find meaning, sentiment and nostalgia in clothes.  I can’t always make the vintage new.  This suit’s hole meant its trousers were beyond saving.  It’s too big for someone to simply weave the threads around the hole together to invisibly mend, there’s inches of distance between the sides of the hole.  No, it would need a patch of some kind.  Even if one could be cut from inside the trouser bottom, I doubt that a reweaver could weave its ends in to the tortured borders of this hole invisibly.  

What we can’t remodel, we can try to remake.  I’ve finally found a cloth with a similar pattern and coloring, including those subtle notes of red and blue.  British, of course, in a lovely heavy flannel. I’ve put a length aside, along with lengths of silk from the defunct English printers David Evans, to be made up, someday, again with double vents and hacking pockets for the best features of my memories.  Even if not by a British tailor.

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