BESPOKE DINNER SUITS
HENRY POOLE & CO
For my new dinner suit, it was only right that I should go to the Original Source. 150 years ago, Edward, Prince of Wales, decided that he wanted a short, celestial blue evening coat, which he could wear for informal dinners at Sandringham. The Prince liked his role as both an innovator and an arbiter in matters of gentlemen’s dress. Having had his idea, he knew exactly to whom he should turn – his tailor and friend, Henry Poole. The garment was duly made, and from this royal prototype was developed what Englishmen now call the dinner jacket and what our American cousins call the tuxedo. It seemed to me therefore both an historical and a sartorial imperative that my new black tie should be made by the Prince’s tailors, Henry Poole & Co.
Quite how the name ‘tuxedo’ came to be used on the other side of the Atlantic is less certain than the origin of the garment itself. The prettier story has it that in the 1880s the Prince’s infamous roving eye lighted upon the wife of a gentleman from the United States, James Brown Potter. The couple was therefore asked to dine and sleep at Sandringham, and Mr Potter – anxious to be sartorially correct – asked his tailor, also Henry Poole, what he should wear. He too, therefore, acquired a short evening coat. When he returned to New York, he took to wearing his new garment at The Tuxedo Park Club and the other members took to the dinner jacket, which was therefore called ‘a tuxedo’. The more prosaic version points out that the founders of The Tuxedo Club – William Waldorf Astor et al. – were all customers of Henry Poole in the 1860s, and they would therefore have been very likely to have taken back home copies of the Prince’s jacket, twenty years before the Potters’ supposed visit to Sandringham. But, whichever story is true, there is no doubt about who made the first dinner jacket: Henry Poole.
Since then (and, indeed, from long before, as the origins of this noble institution go right back to 1806) the firm of Henry Poole & Co. has maintained its position as one the world’s finest tailoring establishments. Its elegant premises in Savile Row are festooned with royal warrants, for princes, kings and emperors have long known the importance of good clothes. And, remarkably and impressively, it is still run by direct descendants of the great Henry Poole himself. Angus Cundey and Simon Cundey, father and son (pictured), are gentlemen for whom the maintenance of the highest standards is not a job, but a vocation. In obedience to their calling, they insist upon levels of service and workmanship which are seldom encountered these days. That is why I always find it such a pleasure to walk through the door of number fifteen Savile Row and to enter the civilized and civilizing environment of those for whom tradition means the best and the best is their tradition.
Bearing in mind my trips to warm climes (the Italian Lakes, the French Riviera and so on), as well as the frequency with which I encounter over-heated dining rooms in Blighty itself, I had determined that this black tie must be lighter than those already in my wardrobe. (I had even toyed briefly with the idea of a white tuxedo, but Mr Angus Cundey had only to make mention of its prevalence on cruise ships to cure me of that particular notion.) It would, however, still need to be a three-piece suit, for my opinion is that a dinner suit without a waistcoat is a miserable, inadequate thing, unworthy of a decent dinner table.
The choice of material was therefore of particular importance. I very much dislike the shine associated with some lightweight materials like mohair. But, of course, I need not have worried. Mr Alan Alexander (pictured), senior cutter and partner at Henry Poole – a gentleman of vast knowledge and considerable charm – from the huge range of samples to hand, quickly found exactly what I wanted: an 8 ounce pure Merino wool in black, by the firm of Smith & W. Bill. Here was precisely the ‘dull’ finish I required. (It was also available in dark blue, but the knowledge that this was the preferred colour of Edward VIII, a man for whom I have no admiration, means that I will never choose it.) The three-piece suit in this material would be £4,114, including V.A.T.
The style of a dinner suit requires careful thought. Shawl collars in satin silk are no longer acceptable, thank goodness. A double-breasted jacket can look well, but I much prefer a single-breasted jacket with peaked lapels. Thus it would be, then, with no rear vent, side pockets without flaps and four working buttons at each cuff. The buttons would be black and polished. It is more usual nowadays to have the buttons covered with the same grosgrain (ribbed silk) which is used for the facings on the lapels. But I have a serious aversion to cloth-covered buttons, the appearance of which strikes me as nearly as unpleasant as the wretched Marcella, so often used for dress shirts. A buttonhole would, of course, be provided in the left lapel, with the usual loop on the underside to secure the flower stem. Several silk grosgrains were available. I chose one made by Richard James Weldon.
A feature was now suggested which I had not encountered previously: a cigar pocket. I must admit that I have not smoked cigars regularly for many years, but the idea of this pocket, divided into two compartments and positioned on the lower right side of the front interior of the jacket, appealed to me no end. After all, a Romeo y Julieta (or two), which is tucked safely away and which can be produced to accompany the post-prandial armagnac, seems an eminently sensible and civilized idea, does it not?
A dress waistcoat is a charming garment. It can take several forms. I am particularly fond, partly for sentimental reasons, of the one which was made for me when I went up to Cambridge at the end of the 1960s. The new one would therefore be similar: single-breasted, with square lapels, a V opening, two welted pockets and four buttons at the waist. A vertical hole for my watch chain would be provided between the top and the second buttons. The trousers would also be like those in which I dined as an undergraduate. They would be lined for comfort, and have single stripes of black braid (double stripes are confined to trousers for white tie), straight side pockets, no turn-ups, a button fly, double pleats facing inwards, a braces back and no hip pockets.
Over the years I have had occasion to observe (and admire) the perfectionist approach of Mr Alexander. During the course of the subsequent fittings (I provide a picture of the first fitting, for your interest), I was entirely happy to trust to his judgement. If he said an adjustment was needed to the length of the sleeve or the fit of the shoulder, thus it should be and thus it was.
The finished dinner suit, as you may observe in the photographs – taken at one of my favourite hotels, the Villa d’Este in Italy, before I went into the dining room for dinner – is a work of the finest craftsmanship. It is also a reminder, yet again, that the Savile Row tradition of bespoke tailoring is something of which Britain can be truly proud. And at no establishment is that tradition more impressively maintained than at Henry Poole & Co. Look both at the overall impression and at the precision of the details (including the cigar pocket). This elegance is no accident. It is the product of many hours of skilled craftsmanship.
You will note that, with black tie, I wear a wing collar. I must emphasize that this is a proper wing collar. It is starched so that it is very stiff and it is separate from the stiff-fronted dress shirt. It requires, of course, a bow tie of the proper size for one’s neck, as it would be distressing for any ‘adjustment mechanism’ to be visible. (Ideally, it should be made, as mine is, of a grosgrain similar to that used for the facings on the jacket.) There is now widespread opposition to the wearing of the wing collar with black tie. This opposition has developed, I believe, because of the appearance of the “wing-collar shirt” – a vile garment, consisting of a soft dress shirt with an attached collar in the winged form. No gentleman who respects sartorial propriety would ever submit himself to this nasty arrangement. But I fear that it is frequently to be seen, and therefore has prompted a mistaken reaction to the proper wing collar. I shall continue to wear the traditional collar and the traditional shirt. After all, with a suit from Henry Poole, one must maintain proper standards. I enjoy doing so.
And I enjoy my dinner. It is therefore with real satisfaction that I can report that my new suit enhances my enjoyment of dinner immensely. Its first outing at the Villa d’Este, next to the gentle waters of Lake Como, to which I had motored to celebrate my birthday, was a delight. In that perfect setting, the suit looked very much ‘at home’. It was also supremely comfortable in the wearing.
My decision to go to the Original Source had been triumphantly vindicated. If you need a new dinner suit, I will direct you to only one place: number fifteen Savile Row and the premises of Henry Poole & Co.
HENRY POOLE & CO
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