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British Men's Tailoring - A History

Updated: Jan 21, 2022

Menswear fashion trends often come and go over the years – with new styles and unique twists on the classic pieces of clothing for men evolving the staple wardrobe. However, there’s a wealth of history and tradition when it comes to the well-known classic British tailoring style.

The history of this iconic and timeless way to dress is quite an interesting one, and many of the designers of today take their inspiration from the luxury of bespoke tailoring of yesteryear. We take a look at a brief history of tailoring in the UK.

Classic British Men’s tailoring was once the forefront of high society – with the products of the businesses of London’s Saville Row becoming the enduring template for what makes sartorial excellence. The tradition of British menswear goes back centuries - with influences on men’s style staples coming in the form of the military; the textile trade and manufacturing industry; and the changing definition of fashion – particularly that for the modern man. We’ve teamed up with menswear and lifestyle inspiration blog, relative luxury to find out more about this great industry.

Tailoring History

The UK, and more specifically, London is the quintessential home of menswear - from the classic bowler-hatted civil servants, to the timeless style of blazers and accessories, there’s an undeniable heritage of British menswear brands that have shaped men’s fashion as we know it. The relationship between a British man and his tailor have always been crucially important. For example – the country’s collection of tailors have dressed everyone from prime ministers to pop stars, from brigadiers to oligarchs, and the heritage in the world of menswear continues to attract new generations of men who want the very best tailoring money can buy – we can’t escape it’s impact across all menswear brands to this day.

What we’ve come to know as the classic tailored suit was born and bred in London. For over 300 years, British menswear has been an inexhaustible source of innovation. The broad history has provided the clothing pieces and the attitude to dress etiquette for every sort of gentleman. Kings, aristocrats, rebels and more have all have fulfilled their sartorial destinies in the fitting rooms of great british tailors and retailers. This legacy of excellence continues to resonate across the globe. Its influence can be seen today on city streets, catwalks and on street-style blogs for men the world over. London’s V&A Design Museum conducted a fantastic report alongside the British Fashion Council, on London’s History and Heritage as the Home of Menswear.

Early Themes in British Tailoring

While the trend has moved towards more ready-to-wear menswear – there’s still a large market for those men looking for higher quality, luxury menswear pieces. There are still fantastic businesses up and down the UK making bespoke clothes for men. Nearly 200 years ago, almost every man’s garment was made by hand. Clothes and accessories that were once handmade by tailors have evolved from being an everyday luxury product available in various price and quality categories to the mass market – with the relative luxury of a handmade piece of clothing or accessory being seen as something exclusive and expensive.

From the middle ages to the late seventeenth century, the tailoring industry looked very different, with each of the experts creating their patterns with methods that were absolute trade secrets. Master tailors handed down their patterns and methods for creating the perfect fit when someone else was ready to take over. Methods were passed down the generations, until the modern ‘fashion houses’ we know today were able to develop their own styles, and the schools of tailoring became the norm. Italian sleek and slim design emerged as the French were making use of more elaborate fabrics in their menswear design. British menswear, however remained the go to for executive design – with all eyes on our classic and contemporary ways of suiting the aristocracy in the early eighteenth century.

British tailoring in the early years focused largely on heavy, durable cloth which had the double benefit of lasting a long time and also providing warmth during changeable weather conditions. Military uniforms were the classic, and formed a lot of the inspiration for fashion. Royalty also played a hugely influential role in the way in which men’s tailoring and accessories were viewed by the general public. Senior society figures set the social guidelines for what should be worn, and how you should behave, giving way to a whole new expectation when it came to style and etiquette. Accessories played a huge role in this, with silk ties and pocket squares re-emerging as fashionable staples for men.

As we entered the 19th century – Britain’s tailor shops were serving gentlemen from the whole empire. Streets in the capital were crowded with bespoke tailors, shirt makers and cloth merchants. London was the capital of the first world at the time, and the classic style and imported fabrics were internationally considered to be the height of elegance. Saville Row changed the face of the menswear market by altering the design of tailored jackets to design what was considered the first dinner jacket.

In the countryside and the living quarters of the working classes, tailors made clothes by hand at affordable prices using cheaper cloth, and even then purchasing clothes was relatively expensive compared to the average income of a poor person – but an absolute essential for every working man.

The Next Generation of Tailoring

Though the industry of bespoke tailoring has declined to a mere fraction of what it used to be, the remaining tailors are the keepers of a unique craft. In a world in which so few things are truly distinctive, bespoke tailoring offers the modern man a chance to own something that fits him perfectly and also inspires a sense of exclusivity, with tailored items and accessories being completely unique.

Modern tailoring is a way to reproduce the elegant styles and patterns of the past which are impractical for mass manufacturers and fast fashion to produce. In terms of the next generation for menswear - beginning in the 1970s, tastes in clothing became increasingly casual, and lower prices were at the forefront of consumer attitudes to purchasing clothing.

In the 1980s it seemed that traditional tailoring wouldn’t survive the change to mass markets and the demands on menswear, but today the situation is different. It seems that more and more young men are interested in a sense of luxury – with bespoke tailors and new businesses making the most of innovation and the traditions of the past.

The role of the tailoring and luxury accessories has changed dramatically over the course of history too. Whereas they were once worn as an everyday item, styles have become considerably less formal over time. The general public would often wear work clothes suitable for manual labour through the week, which meant a suit was the outfit of choice for the evening or weekends. You don’t have to look much further than the styling of shows such as Peaky Blinders or Downton Abbey to see the importance of a perfectly fitting suit, and the considerable impact this had on perception of your social standing.

Modern tailoring is timeless. Fast fashion simply cannot compete with the innovative designers of the tailoring industry, and will always be incapable of competing with the superior fit and construction of the work of a bespoke tailor.

Thomas Fortin, Bath's newest menswear accessories company, takes the history of great British menswear and tailoring to heart. The themes of classic style, and quality is built into the DNA of Thomas Fortin Menswear. With a range of luxury men’s silk pocket squares, ties and evening scarves – the range allows discerning modern gentlemen to indulge their dapper side and purchase hand finished goods to bolster their bespoke tailored wardrobe pieces.

Neil Fortin and Andrew Thomas, the founders of Thomas Fortin are both Bath residents, bringing a vision to life with a new venture, born from a year where the future has been a tough thing to stay focussed on. What began as an unrealised dream for the pair has materialised into a viable online brand, with an exciting first range, and an online shop.

As the online menswear outlet grows Thomas Fortin will be adding unique design to their collection, based on the bespoke tailoring trends of the past. Silk pocket squares, printed and woven neckties and evening scarves remain an essential part of any man’s wardrobe.

With a background in costume designer and millinery specialising in period shows, combining with a business partner with a vast experience in graphic design and photography, Thomas Fortin is set to be one of the most exciting new British formal accessory brands for 2020. Between the two co-founders and a growing passion and appetite for classic menswear, their excellent designs and bold graphics will give new light to men’s accessories in this new world.

Their first offering, brings together early 20th century illustrated tailoring renderings with bold modern patterns and colours. The titled, 1st Earl Collection is a resulting aesthetic of both classic and modern design with a decidedly dapper flair.

You can view the full collection here, and a full review of the new brand over on the relative luxury website.

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