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Savile Row - A Style Institution

Updated on October 7, 2015
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Savile Row Style

When it comes to suits there is one place that instantly springs to mind – Savile Row. The street is located in the Mayfair district of London and is home to some of the finest tailors in the country. People come to the row from all around the country and from distant corners of the globe to have a bespoke, made-to-measure suit made for them. Throughout the years clients of Savile Row tailors have included royalty and celebrities, from Prince Philip to Mick Jagger, Cary Grant to Winston Churchill, Savile Row has been the location of choice for bespoke tailoring. It has been said that Ian Fleming and his creation James Bond both wore Savile Row suits but there is actually no evidence for this. The association between fine tailoring and Savile Row has become so ingrained that the Japanese word for business suit, ‘sebiro’, is said to be a corruption of ‘Savile Row’.

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'Bespoke' Tailoring

Savile Row and the term ‘bespoke’ are almost synonymous and though the word ‘bespoke’ was in use before the establishment of Savile Row as the tailoring centre of the country, it has become inextricably linked with the row. Traditionally the word ‘bespoke’ comes from ‘bespeak’ which in Old English meant ‘speak up’. The association with the word ‘bespoke’ and the made to measure garments created in Savile Row comes from over a century ago, when customers had chosen the specific fabric that they wanted, the fabric was then said to ‘be spoken for’. The term ‘bespoke’, in the years that followed, came to mean a suit that was cut and made by hand. In 2008, however, the Advertising Standards Authority ruled that the term should also apply to suits and clothing that were machine sewn with the proviso that they were ‘made to measure’.

The Earl of Burlington

Burlington House c.1698
Burlington House c.1698 | Source
The 3rd Earl of Burlington
The 3rd Earl of Burlington | Source

The history of the street itself goes back to the 17th century. In 1668 Burlington House was built for the 1st Earl of Burlington in the area where Savile Row now stands. At that time the house stood in green countryside but development soon grew up around it in the following decades. Less than a century later Burlington House was in the possession of the 3rd Earl of Burlington and his wife, the heiress Lady Dorothy Savile. In 1723, suffering from money-related woes, the Earl of Burlington was forced to sell land behind the house. As a result of this sale, Queensbury house was built in what was previously the Burlington House gardens. By 1733 a new street was constructed by the Earl of Burlington as part of the development of his estate and was named Savile Street, after his wife Dorothy. Savile Row was born.

 Savile Row (then called Savile Street) as shown on the 1819 edition of Richard Horwood's map of London.
Savile Row (then called Savile Street) as shown on the 1819 edition of Richard Horwood's map of London. | Source

Savile Street

Savile Street, which later became known as Savile Row, was built in the ‘Burlingtonian’ style – which was essentially the Earl’s interpretation of Palladian architecture. The street stretched from Burlington Gardens to Boyle Street and at that time only had houses on the East side (building on the West side of the street took place in the 19th century). To start with the houses were occupied by politicians and military officers and it quickly became a fashionable address of choice. The affluent residents of the street began to attract traders in luxury goods, including tailors. Tailors began to move into the area around Savile Row, but not the street itself, in the late 18th century in around 1790 and initially in Cork Street. It wasn’t until 1846 that tailors began to populate Savile Row itself.

The work room at Henry Poole & Co. in 1944
The work room at Henry Poole & Co. in 1944 | Source

The Founder of Savile Row

The title of ‘Founder of Savile Row’ is often given to Henry Poole. Henry’s father, James Poole, had a well-established tailoring business that was located at 4 Old Burlington Street, the next street over from Savile Row. When he passed away in 1846 the business passed to Henry Poole. Henry made a number of changes to the business – he expanded the size of the shop and turned the Savile Row facing side into a grand showroom. The business itself was turned into a bespoke tailoring company and was renamed Henry Poole & Company. This was the catalyst and from this point bespoke tailoring had found a home in Savile Row. As tailors moved in the houses were changed and remodelled to allow more natural light in – many businesses added light wells and glass frontages. The large amount of building work that took place throughout the 19th century meant that many of the original ‘Burlingtonian’ features were lost.

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Modernisation & Change

The various tailors that had established themselves in Savile Row benefitted from the new more toned-down style that became popular in the 19th century. Affluent clientele required tailored, made to measure outfits and the Savile Row tailors were happy to oblige. Savile Row had become the home of bespoke tailoring. It remained the domain of the elite well into the Edwardian period as you had to be introduced to a tailor by a friend who was already a client. Many tailors were given royal warrants for their work and produced pieces for members of the royal family. The ‘heritage’ feel of the row was shaken up in 1969 with the modernising influence of Tommy Nutter and Edward Sexton and their business ‘Nutters’. Nutters utilised bold window displays and were frequented by celebrities like Mick Jagger and the Beatles. The modernisation of the row had slowed by the late eighties but was reinvigorated by what became known as the ‘New Bespoke Movement’. This movement headed by Ozwald Boateng, Timothy Everest and Richard James, brought more modern styling and a new use of colour to the Row.

The Tailors

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There are many different tailors on Savile Row to choose from. Henry Poole & Co. was the first and oldest ‘Savile Row tailor’ but many other companies have become well-known in the years since. Gieves & Hawkes, established in 1974 from the merger of two companies started in the late 19th century, were the first company on Savile Row to offer ready-to-wear clothes. Anderson & Sheppard, founded in 1906, are the creators of the ‘London cut’ – a cut which allows the suit jacket to stay close to the neck but lets the arm move with ease. The majority of the Savile Row houses are members of the Savile Row Bespoke Association. This organisation was formed in 2004 to protect Savile Row tailoring and its heritage. The Association works to protect the row from commercial development and increasing rent. It is also currently working with Westminster Council to safeguard Savile Row as a Special Policy Area.

Savile Row, London

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