Field Trip: “The Anatomy of a Suit,” Museum of London

Readers,

The letter-writing mood has struck again.

The entire exhibit is visible in this photo.

The entire exhibit is visible in this photo.

To the Director of Collections and Learning, Museum of London

Dear Director:

The Museum of London website says that Timothy Long is the curator of your show “The Anatomy of a Suit,” but I’m writing because there  has to be a mistake. I wanted you to know so you could correct it straightaway.

You see, I saw that stunning show that he worked on, “Chic Chicago,” at the Chicago History Museum in 2009, and even bought the companion book. I clearly remember raving to the woman in the museum shop who rang up my purchase. It wasn’t just that the clothes were beautiful, I said, it was that they were displayed so well for us curious viewers who wanted to get the closest look we could. I asked her to pass my appreciation on to the museum staff.

The companion book for an outstanding show that curator Timothy Long helped to create.

The companion book for an outstanding show that curator Timothy Long helped to create.

But “The Anatomy of a Suit” was nothing like “Chic Chicago.” It was more like “Dim Duds.”

Taking a dim view: lighting for the exhibit certainly created a mood.

Taking a dim view: lighting for the exhibit certainly created a mood but not the one intended.

It was a month ago, when I was checking London museum events online and planning what I’d do on my days off from “Tailoring with Savile Row Tailors,” that I came across the description and video of “The Anatomy of a Suit.” “What perfect timing!” I thought. “Maybe one of my classmates would want to come with me. I’ll want to write this up for my readers. Maybe a few more people will go and enjoy the show because they learned about it from my post.”IMG_4601 (345x460)

A couple of weeks ago, after browsing the pop-up vintage fair at Old Spitalfields Market, I walked over to the Museum of London. I always have a devil of a time finding the entrance, but once inside I’m always glad I came. What a remarkable institution the Museum of London is! And I had no idea you had a dress and fashion collection of 24,000 items! I would love to see it all.IMG_4599 (345x460)

Just beyond the Sackler Hall Café downstairs I happened upon “The Anatomy of a Suit.” From a distance I could see four mannequins dressed in jackets that had been partially taken apart.

Walking over to the exhibit and standing right in front of it, I was still at a distance from the mannequins. This was very curious.IMG_4596 (345x460)

I have been to fashion exhibits at

  • the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York
  • the Chicago History Museum
  • the Goldstein Museum of Design in St. Paul, Minnesota
  • the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid
  • the Victoria & Albert Museum  and Somerset House in London, and
  • the Fashion Museum in Bath

but this was the first where I wished I’d brought sports binoculars.IMG_4597 (269x460)

Director, I’ll say this much: I left wanting more.

If you’ve been around avid sewers, you know how they like to look at garments closely: inside and out, front, back–nothing escapes their notice. They may reach right out and pinch a bit of your sleeve or turn back a jacket opening to look at the lining. It’s almost always meant as a compliment. They understand and appreciate the care it takes to produce good work.IMG_4603 (460x236)

Anyone designing a show like “The Anatomy of a Suit” would do well to cater to this desire to learn through touch as well as sight. If, however, allowing visitors to touch garments is out of the question, then it is that much more important that the visuals–text, video, and garments–work together to help them understand what they’re seeing.IMG_4604 (460x264)

Sewers tend to be curious and eager to learn, generous and supportive. They understand that in any worthy endeavor there may be frustrating moments calling for patience.

IMG_4605 (460x244)

I sure didn’t know about padding in the hips. I am supposing it might be used on one side to create balance. I am not seeing an example of this in the four jackets.

So I’m not discouraged. I just want you to know that visitors like us sewers will want to see the 24,000 objects in your fashion collection as close-up and from as many angles as possible.  Sewers, like all makers, have a natural interest in seeing how other makers have defined and solved the problems in their craft.

If you give us this, we will leave your exhibits wanting more–and I mean that in the best possible way.

From Chic Chicago, a suit by Mainbocher from 1958.

From Chic Chicago, a suit by Mainbocher from 1958. What delightful details!

Tailoring with Savile Row Tailors, Day 5: An Album

Readers,

Two days ago our class was taken on a whirlwind tour of four London tailoring companies: Henry Poole & Co., Huntsman, Anderson and Sheppard, and Gieves & Hawkes.

The home of bespoke tailoring.

The home of bespoke tailoring.

At each stop, with a bag hoisted onto one shoulder, I would start by scribbling furiously in my reporter’s notebook about the year the firm was founded, the backgrounds of the founders, the types of clothes (like riding breeches or officers’ uniforms) that had constituted the original business, famous customers like various Princes of Wales, Winston Churchill, movie stars or heads of state, and so forth.

But I always ended up pocketing my pencil and grabbing my camera. It was such a rare opportunity not only to see the ground floor areas where cutters welcome interview, measure, and advise customers but also the downstairs workrooms where tailors construct trousers, coats, waistcoats and overcoats that I wanted to record the sights as much as I could.

The workspaces, as you’ll see, are low-ceilinged with narrow aisles. Everybody was intent on his or her work, and although we were encouraged to ask questions we also knew our hosts had orders to fill and deadlines to meet, so we tried not to intrude. There was a lot to be learned just from watching, too.

Here are a few photos of each place on our tour.

Henry Poole & Co.

Seen from the street

Seen from the street

Looking out the front window

Looking out the front window

Many tailoring companies have had a long history making military uniforms.

Many tailoring companies have had a long history making military uniforms.

One of the workrooms

One of the workrooms. Talk about concentration.

Henry Poole

More concentration.

Henry Poole

And more.

Henry Poole

Building shape with pressing and steam.

Henry Poole

Basting a coat front.

After this tour I wanted more pressing equipment!

After this tour I wanted more pressing equipment!

Work, work, work!

Work, work, work!

Handstitching lining into a sleeve

Handstitching lining into a sleeve

I admired these capacious pockets.

I admired these capacious pockets.

Huntsman

Huntsman's exterior

Huntsman’s exterior

Customers can wait and relax here.

Customers can wait and relax here.

General Manager Peter Smith showed us an old book of swatches. Huntsman offers customers some fabrics woven exclusively for the firm in a limited run never to be repeated.

General Manager Peter Smith showed us an old book of swatches. Huntsman offers customers some fabrics woven exclusively for the firm in a limited run never to be repeated.

Some swatches close up.

Some swatches close up.

An old appointment book from the early 1960s.

An old appointment book from the early 1960s.

Closeup: Hubert de Givenchy, one of the customers recorded in this book.

Closeup: Hubert de Givenchy, one of the customers recorded in this book.

Downstairs, where the tailors work.

Downstairs, where the tailors work.

Pressing.

Pressing.

In the fitting room, pattern pieces for some famous customers including Peter Ustinov and Katharine Hepburn.

In the fitting room, pattern pieces for some famous customers including David Bowie, Peter Ustinov, and Katharine Hepburn.

Peter Smith showing us pattern pieces in storage and garments awaiting alteration, completion or repairs.

Peter Smith showing us pattern pieces in storage and garments awaiting alteration, completion or repairs.

Examples of Huntsman's men's and women's tailoring.

Examples of Huntsman’s men’s and women’s tailoring.

A classmate and Peter Smith, with a painting of Huntsman in the background.

A classmate and Peter Smith, with a painting of Huntsman in the background.

 Anderson & Sheppard

Exterior. Inside has a clubby-library feel to me.

Exterior. The inside has a clubby, library feel to me.

The workroom, which we didn't get to visit.

The workroom, which we didn’t get to visit.

Cutter Leon Powell demonstrates cutting trousers. First he chalked the lines onto the cloth.

Cutter Leon Powell demonstrates cutting trousers. First he chalked the lines onto the cloth.

Customers' pattern pieces

Customers’ pattern pieces

An old appointment book.

An old appointment book. Notice the beautiful waistcoat Leon Powell is wearing!

A coat under construction.

A coat under construction.

Leon's own project, an overcoat, which he works on in spare minutes when business is slow--which is rare. He's been working on this overcoat for two years. (Sounds familiar!)

Leon’s own project, an overcoat, which he works on in spare minutes when business is slow–which is rare. He’s been working on this overcoat for two years. (Sounds familiar!)

Gieves & Hawkes

Gieves & Hawkes's exterior

Gieves & Hawkes’s exterior. 1 Savile Row: what an address!

Some of Gieves and Hawkes's famous customers include Prince William...

Some of Gieves and Hawkes’s famous customers include Prince William…

...and the Duke of Wellington.

…and the Duke of Wellington.

Uniforms of the Queen's bodyguards. Those are swan feathers on the helmets.

Uniforms of the Queen’s bodyguards. Those are swan feathers on the helmets.

Our guide

Our guide

If you've read The Coat Route, you'll have learned about the rare and costly vicuna. It is very soft, but not durable. (You can't have everything.)

If you’ve read The Coat Route, you’ll have learned about the rare and costly vicuna. It is very soft, but not durable. (You can’t have everything.)

These barathea evening trousers are spiffed up with a discreet stripe.

These barathea evening trousers are spiffed up with a discreet stripe.

A ceremonial jacket destined for the Kingdom of Tonga. The late King George Tupou V was a great anglophile.

A ceremonial jacket destined for the Kingdom of Tonga. The late King George Tupou V was a great anglophile.

More work to complete.

More work to complete.

A tailor.

A tailor.

Another tailor.

Another tailor.

More tailoring

More tailoring

Even more tailoring

Even more tailoring

Tailors normally use a tailor's thimble, which is open-ended, but her fingers are so small that she uses a very small dressmaker's thimble, which stays put. A reminder to find tools that work for you.

Tailors normally use a tailor’s thimble, which is open-ended, but her fingers are so small that she uses a very small dressmaker’s thimble, which stays put. A reminder to find tools that work for you.

She used this thimble so much that the small tailors' needles eventually wore through. This thimble is like a sieve now!

She used this thimble so much that the small tailors’ needles eventually wore through the dimples. This thimble is like a sieve! (She uses another small thimble now.)

Thanks to all our hosts for welcoming us into these very special workplaces!

Tailoring with Savile Row Tailors: Days 3 and 4

Readers,

In class today I found myself writing a letter in my head to my sewing teacher. Here it is.

A basted jacket presides over our empty classroom.

A basted jacket presides over our empty classroom.

Hello Edith!

Get out the smelling salts because you may be in for a shock. Yesterday and today in class I drafted a trouser pattern. No, really!

Victoria is teaching us the "fly line" method of trouser-drafting.

Victoria is teaching us the “fly line” method of trouser-drafting.

I, who have been resisting your entreaties for ten years to learn pattern-drafting, was drafting a pattern!

Now brace yourself: I found it very absorbing.IMG_4548 (460x345)

I won’t claim I understood everything. Don’t ask me to reproduce what I did in class or explain all the reasoning; I’m not that enlightened. But today I  reached a tipping point. I found myself thinking that I could actually learn enough about pattern-drafting and alteration to succeed. And I could succeed enough to feel rewarded for my efforts.

Christopher Foster-Hicklin's notes. We met him on Day 1.

Christopher Foster-Hicklin’s notes. We met him on Day 1.

I didn’t reach this conclusion logically. I just felt it. I noticed I was saying things to myself like “It would be fun to draft and make beautiful wool trousers for Jack,” and “I could baste Jack’s sportcoat together and have him try it on for fit.” These activities sounded interesting and wonderful–and possible!

Trouser draft.

Trouser draft.

You know I’ve been dreading that sportcoat project for years. A couple of weeks ago, though, in preparation for this trip to London, I discovered that the dread had dissolved into simple curiosity. The fear was gone, and that’s when I opened up to the possibility of learning what I had to learn. No, “had” is the wrong word. “Longed” is the word.

From Christopher's notes: "Sketch for a backless waistcoat."

From Christopher’s notes, a sketch of a backless vest

Around 4:00 this afternoon, as our class was winding down for the week, I said to Victoria, “A miracle has occurred. I was just thinking, ‘I want to baste the pieces of Jack’s sportcoat together and have him try it on!” The miracle was that I didn’t feel dread or obligation but, as I told you, just curiosity. I told Victoria, “That sportcoat is the gateway to the sportcoat I really want to make.”IMG_4557 (460x345)

While waiting for my train back to the flat this evening I remembered writing that the sportcoat project could turn out to be a stepping stone. Whether or not it becomes a completed garment, it is serving a purpose. The effort has not been wasted, and the reward can be richer than I could have imagined.

Left: a back piece for a morning coat.  On the right: a side panel, but probably for a different coat.

Left: a back piece for a morning coat. On the right: a side panel, but probably for a different coat.

This morning, Edith, I really wished you could have been in class to see master tailor Christopher Foster-Hicklin’s notes as a 16- or 17-year old in the late ’60s when he was a student at the Tailor & Cutter Academy. He made a gift of them to Victoria, and when she showed them to us we were entranced by their beauty and utility.

A bellows pocket pattern flat...

A bellows pocket pattern flat…

As she leafed through pattern pieces, notes and sketches Victoria explained the shape of a pocket, the peak of a lapel. Christopher is still working as a master tailor–as he told our class Tuesday, although he celebrated fifty years in tailoring in 2012, “I’m not 90 years old.” These notes and sketches are part of a living continuum.

...and folded.

…and folded.

Before I came to this class I asked myself what I wanted to get out of it. I could chalk it up as simply another interesting experience. Or I could challenge myself to keep learning–and using–techniques to make more beautiful, more lasting clothes.

Waistcoat sketches

Waistcoat sketches

In my own way I can be part of the continuum, too. I like the sound of that! I hope you have some openings in your appointment book because I see more exciting projects ahead!

Your slow but devoted student.

A label from one of the tailoring companies Christopher has worked for in his long career.

A label from one of the tailoring companies Christopher has worked for in his long career.

Tailoring with Savile Row Tailors: Day 2

Readers,

Today’s post could be subtitled “The Secret Language of Menswear.”

Hayward

Hayward

My classmates’ and my mission today was to crack the code of lapels, pockets, buttons, fit, and shoulder shaping to determine the “house style” of various tailoring establishments. Our instructor, tailor Victoria Townsend, gave us a map of London’s West End with a list of places to visit and turned us loose.

Hayward

Hayward

Roaming the streets in twos or threes, we would pause in jaw-dropped admiration of the jackets in the windows. We would take note of one-, two, or three-button closures, the height and angle of the gorge line (where the collar is seamed to the lapel), the width of lapels, the closeness of fit in the waist, the number, size and kind of pockets, whether double-welted or single-welted with flap.

Hayward

Hayward

With this warmup exercise behind us we felt ready to go in and explain ourselves to the salesperson.

Hayward: Stefan showing us fabric samples.

Hayward: Stefan showing us fabric samples.

“Hello, we’re taking a course at the Fashion and Textile Museum, “Tailoring with Savile Row Tailors,” and our instructor, Victoria Townsend, has given us a list of places to look at menswear and determine the ‘house style.'”

Thom Sweeney

Thom Sweeney

Then we’d wait and see how the salesperson handled this news.

Thom Sweeney

Thom Sweeney

“House style” apparently can’t be easily put into words, because we didn’t get a clear answer all day, although Stefan and James, the salespersons who helped us at Hayward, were willing to venture that a one-button jacket closure is modern, two is standard, and three is…I forget. But I’m sure it signifies something to somebody.

Sir Tom Baker

Sir Tom Baker

As I scrutinized the conservative cuts at Dunhill, the more modern looks at Spencer Hart, and the avant-garde styles on display at Sir Tom Baker, perhaps I did absorb some vague sense of house styles along the way.

Dege & Skinner: upstairs

Dege & Skinner: upstairs

But I’ve got an idea of how to get a really good grasp. All of us in this class are women, and I have this hunch that the salesmen have sworn to uphold the secret language of menswear.  The way to crack the code is this:

Have each of these places make a bespoke suit for my husband. Then we’ll compare.

Dege & Skinner: downstairs

Dege & Skinner: downstairs

Who’s Afraid of a Sewing UFO?

Readers,

A couple of days ago I found myself strolling over to my rolling baker’s rack, where I store my sewing projects on full-size baking sheets, and pulling out my oldest, most guilt-ridden UFO (UnFinished Object): my dreaded Sportcoat Project.I was simply curious about what I’d done and what was left to do.

The Sportcoat Project

The vexatious Sportcoat Project

Having spent years avoiding any contact with The Sportcoat Project, this was a surprising change. Let me explain.

I started The Sportcoat Project in early 2004  After sewing a challenging vintage jacket pattern I must have thought I was ready to attempt a modern jacket pattern for Jack for his birthday with guidance once more from my sewing teacher, Edith Gazzuolo.

After finishing this 1936 jacket pattern, was I ready to tackle a sportcoat?

After finishing this 1936 jacket pattern, was I ready to tackle a sportcoat?

I made a muslin, which Edith fitted, and we altered the pattern pieces. I cut wool, lining, and interfacings and set to work.  I recall at some point Edith’s saying that the fabric was a little too light or that the interfacing was the wrong choice…I forget the details. But the upshot was that the mistake wasn’t reversible. I could continue and maybe the jacket would be wearable, or I could cut my losses and start over with another fabric.

I started over.

On a park bench in London, Jack models a Lands' End sportcoat.

On a park bench in London, Jack models a Lands’ End sportcoat.

Darn it, I would see this sportcoat through.

Paging through my copious and meticulous notes, I see sketches, snapshots, homework checklists, rewrites of sections of the Vogue pattern instructions, and comparisons of interfacing philosophies and materials. Phew!

Notes and more notes!

Notes and more notes!

Two years into this project, in the summer of 2006, Jack and I took a trip to England and Scotland. Waiting for a traffic light in York, we chanced to see a button shop across the street, where I bought buttons for The Sportcoat. What a nice souvenir to add to Jack’s now year-and-a-half belated birthday gift.

That was the last time I did anything on The Sportcoat Project.

Buttons from our England trip.

Buttons from our England trip.

My next notes, dated September 2006, were for an ambitious three-jacket project for myself made from the 1941 McCall “Misses’ Mannish Jacket” pattern. I think I wanted to practice more on jackets for myself and return to The Sportcoat Project with more experience.

Over the course of a year and a half I finished those jackets, which can be seen in Reader’s Closet on the Threads website here. They are beautiful!

The Misses' Mannish Jackets were going to be a warmup for The Sportcoat. They weren't.

The Misses’ Mannish Jackets were going to be a warmup for The Sportcoat. They weren’t.

Then I sewed many more garments for myself. And there was a long stretch when I was sewing draperies and cushions for  the living room and dining room that called for lots of hand work, which I gladly did. The draperies and cushions are beautiful!

From one year to the next, I always managed to see some challenging sewing projects through. But not The Sportcoat Project. I came to dread and avoid it–for years.

For one reason, there was still a lot of work to do on it, and any misstep could relegate it to the “wadder”  pile. (Nonsewers: a “wadder” is a project you wad up and throw away in frustration.) The chance of failure remained great. I could wear my own imperfect garments, but I wasn’t going to give Jack a garment that looked amateurish and expect him to wear it.

The fronts.

The fronts.

Another reason was, even with Edith’s guidance, sewing menswear is a very tricky business, and there isn’t a whole lot of help for home sewers.

Other reasons have just occurred to me. The fabric is okay, but not inspiring–and I think it’s only okay on Jack, too. I had wanted to practice on a good enough fabric rather than cut into something special like a Harris tweed. The problem with that approach is I’m never very motivated to see the job through because I never experience the thrill of construction that pulls me forward like a good suspense story.

Behind the scenes: underlining, interfacing, welt pockets.

Behind the scenes: underlining, interfacing, welt pockets.

I am also realizing, just now, that I’ve never had a compelling vision of Jack wearing this sportcoat–not once!  Even if I did finish this sportcoat  it would lack that magic that the best sewing projects have.

I also never worked out with Jack how this sportcoat would work in his wardrobe.

Plus, I planned my first sportcoat for him to be a birthday gift! Talk about expectations I was placing on myself!

One of the chest pieces and the draft.

One of the chest pieces and the draft.

So, let’s do an audit of The Sportcoat Project:

  • Ability level: moderate, but willing to learn
  • Compelling vision: nonexistent.
  • Guilt: high.
  • Frustration: high.
  • Expectations: high and unrealistic

What are the chances this project will ever get finished?

Precisely.

Plus difficile indeed!

Plus difficile indeed!

Nevertheless, all these years I have not countenanced throwing this project away. “All that work–wasted!” I’ve said to myself. It really wasn’t until yesterday afternoon writing this post that I figured out what I really needed to figure out. What work did I fear wasting?

I thought I didn’t want to waste the hours and hours it took to produce those welted pockets with flaps, chest pieces, the canvas-backed cotton lawn I’d basted onto the fronts, the interfaced vent and hems.IMG_4338 (460x380)

Maybe, though, I didn’t want to value my ability so little that I would just–give up. If I were to throw out The Sportcoat Project and feel good about it, it would be because I’d rediscovered the essence of what I wanted, and devised a better way to attain it. Nothing–nothing would have been wasted then.

I think that’s what I sensed–but hadn’t put into words yet–when I pulled The Sportcoat Project from the baker’s rack Sunday. “Next week I start the Tailoring with Savile Row Tailors short course at the Fashion and Textile Museum in London,” I thought. “How about looking at that sportcoat?

No guilt, no frustration. Just simple curiosity.

The back, with more underlining, canvas interfacing, and a back stay.

The back, with more underlining, canvas interfacing, and a back stay.

I looked each piece over with as an objective eye as I’ve ever had.  “Nice work here. Too much bulk in that seam–how could I do that better next time? That pocket material looks too heavy–what do bespoke tailors use? Say–I could bring some of these pieces with me and get my classmates’ and instructors opinions. Shall I budget space in my suitcase? Of course!”

The prospect of being around people who appreciate, aspire to, and practice bespoke tailoring has rekindled my enthusiasm and willingness to learn.

In my mind now, The Sportcoat Project has undergone a transformation. I’m no longer seeing it as a sewing quagmire.

Now I see it as a stepping stone.