Tim Newark looks into the links between Savile Row and the country’s political elite
I recently hosted a casual lunch for rising political star Jacob Rees-Mogg MP and, as it was a parliamentary recess, I thought the famously immaculately dressed politician might adopt a slightly more relaxed attire. How wrong could I be? He arrived in his impeccable double-breasted suit with shirt and tie and was a model of English charm and self-deprecating humour.
Rees-Mogg wore a light blue shirt, not a white shirt “as I rarely wear them other than for funerals”. He later told me that he wears his trademark suits out of sheer “idleness” so he doesn’t have to “worry about what I have to put on in the morning”, but I wonder if that is really true?
Some of our most successful political figures, past and present, have created popular personas for themselves by adopting stylish items of clothing that express their inner character and political philosophy, much more effectively than any speech or manifesto can.
Who can forget newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair sauntering into No 10 Downing Street in 1997 wearing chinos and open-neck shirt? Modernity had arrived in government and soon top businessmen and other politicians were ditching the tie to share in the Cool Britannia vibe.
Fortunately for Savile Row and more traditional clothing makers, the suit and tie has made a resounding comeback and remains a powerful political weapon. Certainly it is true for Rees-Mogg who espouses a return to traditional Conservative values.
If Chuka Umunna had not withdrawn from the leadership race against Jeremy Corbyn, then we might have had a Labour Party leader better known for his penchant for bespoke suits made on Savile Row than the scruffy Islingtonian once voted worst dressed man in the UK. Former PM David Cameron once told Corbyn in the House of Commons to “put on a proper suit, do up your tie” and some fashion experts have noticed a certain smartening of his appearance since his surprising rise in the polls, but Savile Row tailors are not making a slot available in their fitting diaries quite yet.
“There is nothing quite as convincing as a good suit, a crisp, bold French-cuffed shirt and co-ordinated tie to make a leader, be it political or corporate,” says Dr Theodore Roosevelt Malloch, an expert on leadership and distantly related to his US president namesake. “Politicians are, as a lot, rather baggy and unkempt so when someone cuts a good cloth and appears dapper – if not overdone or too slick – it draws loads of attention.”
Malloch, recently touted as a possible ambassador within the Trump administration, has subsequently had to consider his own political look when appearing on the BBC’s Newsnight and other current affairs TV shows. “I do the majority of my own shopping on Jermyn Street in London,” he says. “It is the essence of British class and quality and something too many Americans altogether lack. I prefer Turnbull & Asser for custom shirts, Harvie & Hudson for bespoke suits, three piece or wide stripped, and Crocket & Jones or Church’s for the best shoes, from Northampton, of course!”
Recognition is a key currency in becoming a successful politician and an accessory or a distinctive piece of clothing can help identify exactly where you are coming from. Where would Margaret Thatcher have been without her black leather handbag? Famous for her non-nonsense “handbagging” approach to government, her favourite brand of bag came from Launer, also much liked by the Queen.
“There is a great deal of noise made around Made in Britain these days,” says Gerald Bodmer, CEO of Launer London, “which we are a great advocate of as all our product is made in our factory in Walsall with traditional British handmade techniques. Baroness Thatcher really understood the ethos of Launer and this is something she wanted to be associated with.”
Nigel Farage, one-time leader of UKIP, had his covert coat. With its dark collar and tan colour, it originated in the later 19th century as a riding coat for gentlemen but its horse racing association saw it evolve into the uniform of working class men on the make, as worn by TV characters Arthur Daley in Minder and Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses. It manages to combine quintessential Britishness with countryside conservatism and working class aggression—all in all a good message to put out for the great Brexiteer grabbing a pint in a pub.
There could be no more iconic image of a British politician than Winston Churchill in 1940 in the midst of World War Two, defiant in a pinstripe suit, spotted bowtie, cigar clenched between his teeth and a Tommy gun in his hands. Even Hitler was shocked by the brazen image and had the “gangster” look reproduced in Nazi propaganda leaflets, but it was a triumph showing how Churchill was putting himself on the frontline too.
Churchill was a great patron of Savile Row and his photograph can be seen on the walls of several leading tailoring shops, such as Henry Poole & Co. There, he was fitted for a uniform at the age of 19 and the tailor had to work hard to enlarge his chest and shoulders. Sometimes he spent a little too much money on Savile Row and even during the war, while leading the nation to victory, he was struggling to pay his shirt-maker’s bills.
A stickler for wearing the appropriate clothing at grand events, Churchill could be critical of others. When he spied Labour politician Aneurin Bevan wearing a simple blue serge suit at a State Ball at Buckingham Palace, he said “I think that at least on this occasion you might have taken the trouble to dress properly.” Bevan glanced down at the Prime Minister’s trousers and stated flatly “your fly buttons are undone”. Churchill was not altogether good news for Savile Row, however, with one tailor telling me: “Upon his death, he left quite a considerable account unpaid at one of the Row’s tailors …”
Churchill’s successor as PM was Anthony Eden, a man with film-star looks who cut a real dash. He knew how to wear a well-cut suit and shaped his manly look by pairing a double-breasted waistcoat with a single-breasted jacket with wide lapels creating the perfect silhouette. When he became the youngest Foreign Secretary since Pitt the Younger, his youthful fashion sense caught the eye of an American reporter who noted his “pin-stripe trousers, modish short jacket and swank black felt hat”.
That swank hat was the black Homburg – a stiff felt hat with a dent in the middle – that Eden turned into a fashion icon, so much so that it was simply known as the “Eden” in Savile Row. It knocked out the old-fashioned bowler hat as the headwear of choice for diplomats and civil servants.
Some critics thought his elegant fashion sense belied political toughness, but his hardline attitude towards Hitler won him the support of Churchill. Writer AN Wilson called him “easily the best-looking individual, of ether sex” to become Prime Minister in the 20th century and he had an impressive reputation as a ladies’ man.
When Eden’s glittering political career came crashing to an end in the wake of the Suez debacle, so did his fashion style – including the hat – and it was seen by many as a turning point in popular culture as the 1950s gave way to the more rebellious youth look of the 1960s, but the Savile Row suit is eternal.
“Politicians should always invest in a good suit,” says tailor Del Smith of Kilgour, but it’s not just a case of getting a suit made. “Anyone can do that, it helps to be in shape too. David Cameron looked good in a suit, wore it well, but then he did cycling and jogging to keep fit.”
Kilgour equipped Tony Blair and David Miliband with bespoke suits that gave them both a youthful and professional look that can very much impress the voters. “You’ve got be a breath of fresh air and a well-tailored suit can enhance that,” added Smith. A good lesson for all aspiring leaders …
Tim Newark is an historian and political commentator, contributing to the Daily Express, Telegraph and Sunday Times. He is the author of “Protest Vote: how politicians lost the plot”.