Tim Long, Curator of Fashion & Decorative Arts at the Museum of London offers a brief history of men’s fashion in London.
Walk around London today and you’d be hard pressed not to find a man in a suit. But men’s fashion here is not only about business and suits. Scratch the surface and you’ll find over 2,000 years of fashionable history in London, right under your feet.
London’s been a centre of trade and commerce since the days of Londinium - when the mighty Roman Empire reached this far north. We can trace the origins of the lucrative trade of fashion back to those early days in the form of jewellery, leather goods and woven textiles, which are continuously discovered in archaeological digs in and around the city.
By the 16th century, we begin to see a unified industry when King Henry VIII grants a Royal Charter to a group of businesses involved in making and selling fashionable clothing and accessories. Piccadilly Circus is itself named after one such business. A tailor named Robert Baker worked in this area creating “piccadills”, the stiffened understructure that supported fashionable Elizabethan neck ruffs. Due the trend’s success, he became a rich man and built a house called Piccadilly Hall. The house has long disappeared, but the name remains.
It was during King Charles II’s reign in the 17th century when some fashionable trends that are still well in use today start to emerge. On 7 October 1666, and right here in London, Charles introduced a new fashion to men’s wardrobes: the waistcoat. While a form of the jacket and trousers can be traced back much earlier, Charles’s introduction of the waistcoat meant that the three-piece suit was born on this day.
Throughout the 18th century, the UK became increasingly interested in the uniforms of the military. The jacket, trousers and waistcoat served as the core for many uniforms forcing tailors to experiment with new and various designs that aided fit, but also provided a visual difference between ranks. By the early 19th century, many of these tailors turned their attention, and their skills, to the production of fashionable clothing for men in Mayfair on and around the area of Savile Street, now, of course, known as Savile Row.
Key to this transition was Londoner Beau Brummell. After serving in the military, he returned to his tailor and pushed the boundaries of fashionable dress and helped usher in the dandy! Always impeccably dressed, but with an air of elegant restraint, the dandy relied on and respected British tailoring traditions and craftsmanship.
The Industrial Revolution led to many advances in production, allowing for the invention of items such as the bowler hat and waterproof material for the trench coat. Even tartan and tweed fabrics, which have a much older history, became far more widely available. Since the end of World War II, subcultures in England, like the Teddy Boys, Mods and Punks have changed and subverted the meaning and codes of the modern suit.
Combine this rich heritage with the unrivalled talent and success of the city’s menswear industry it’s not hard to understand why London is the menswear capital of the world.
Follow the history and heritage of 300 years of London men’s fashion on this London Menswear Map