The British man has a distinctive sense of style - part gentleman, part anarchist; dressing is for him a form of personal expression to let his individuality shine. It is the elegant and distinguished silhouette of the well-dressed gentleman that Hardy Amies and Jeremy Hackett have defined so well, with the suit at the very forefront of its aesthetics that is now recognised the world over as quintessentially British.
But historically, dressing well undeniably starts with the ability to make clothing, and the British people certainly does know how to do that very well.
Whereas the country is now renowned for its aerospace, automobile and steel industries, barely over a century ago, it was famed for textile manufacturing, so much so that it became known as the ‘factory of the world’ if only for a few decades.
The textile industry is very much within Great Britain’s DNA.
When looking at the state of manufacturing today, it is hard to entertain the idea that the country was once a hubbub of activity with a stupendously rich heritage in garment-making and tailoring.
Great Britain has always been at the forefront of innovation, leading the way when it comes to technological advances and being a key player in the industrial revolutions. Whilst the country had always spun, woven and knitted cloth to some extent, it is advances such as mechanised spinning and weaving, combined with the growing colonial Empire that helped its expansion to become the producer of half of the world’s cotton clothing in the nineteenth century.
Technological advances allowed garments to be produced at unprecedented rates, with the goods being exported around the world and the Empire.
Different geographical areas of the countries have always had skilled tradesmen and artisans who specialise in various crafts depending on the natural resources found in a specific region.
The North West of England for instance provided the perfect environment for the cotton industry to thrive - the somewhat more humid climate made the yarn easier to spin but more importantly, the presence of both river streams and coalfields made it possible to power the steam engines used for production.
This was key to Manchester - and Lancashire in general - which became nicknamed Cottonopolis.
With over 2,000 textile mills at its peak, the North of England capitalised greatly on new opportunities brought by the abundance of cotton that was readily available from the new colonial territories (India in particular). Large shipments were brought over to be woven, dyed and finished into garments.
Similarly, Macclesfield was once the world’s largest producer of finished silk, also shipped across from India.
Though only a handful of the mills are still in service, the heritage and memory remains.
Around the same time, the town of Huddersfield became revered the world over for its worsted yarn and cloth, and to this day has the sole surviving worsted spinning mill in the UK. Yorkshire as a county retains its cachet of producing some of the world’s finest wooden yarns and fabrics to this day.
Higher north, Scotland, its highlands and the Hebrides have a tremendous heritage when it comes to wool, cashmere and hand intarsia skilled knitting - a skill now so rare that it has almost become entirely lost.
It is there that the quintessentially British argyle pattern was first woven, and so was the world-famous Harris tweed, which is cloth that has specifically been handwoven by the Scottish islanders of Lewis, Harris, Uist and Barra, using pure virgin wool that has been dyed and spun in the Outer Hebrides. Both are considered to be the height of quality and elegance in terms of cloth.
In the Midlands, ideally located near the grasslands and forest necessary to produce the barks used for tanning as well as pastures for the cattle, Northampton and the wider county have a strong heritage within the shoemaking and tanning industry. By 1841, there were almost 2,000 skilled cobblers in the town alone, supplying the Army, civilians, American colonies and the upper echelons of society of course too. Similar skills could be found in Somerset, in the South West. Still today, Northampton remains the country’s capital of shoemaking and fine footwear.
Leicester, a city almost forgotten for its manufacturing heritage, used to specialise in boot and shoe-making (over 2,700 shoemakers were counted in 1861) as well as its world famous woollen stockings and hosiery. Neighbouring city Nottingham was too, renown for exporting its machine-made high quality lace worldwide.
Catering for wealthy individuals and city-dwellers alike who want to look their best in masculine, flattering fits that ooze stature, London has had, since the 19th century, numerous high-end bespoke tailor shops. But the menswear tailoring for which London is so famed for would simply not have been possible without the wealth of raw materials and craftsmanship generated by the rest of the country. Together, they created the British gentleman’s timeless style.
There is no denying Great Britain is no longer as productive as it once was and many industries have seen a major decline, leaving poverty, unemployment and skills behind.
But the movement for British-made garments lives on.
The UK is venerated for its ‘making’: its people are makers, and are dedicated to their homeland, to making it the best it possibly can be, and showcasing that pride to the world.
Amidst a climate of exploited labour in the Far East and an unsustainable throw-away culture, an alternative movement (and demand) for quality and craftsmanship has risen.
Classic menswear is finding a new, younger audience, and the focus is once again on acquiring garments that display craftsmanship and will stand the test of time. Quality and supporting local craftsmanship bears a cost, but an adjoining personal pride also.
Companies should actively invest in promoting and preserving that heritage and inculcating that knowledge and passion to new generations. It is somewhat comforting to note that British heritage brands as well as newcomers make it their mission to reinvigorate the UK’s manufacturing industry and are actively seeking to educate about the skills and processes behind a garment. Be it The Cambridge Satchel Company, tailoring houses on Savile Row, Hiut Denim or Genevieve Sweeney, they see beyond simply pursuing their businesses for decades to come, and genuinely care about educating younger minds so that the savoir-faire does not get lost.
A greater appreciation for craftsmanship, a desire to honour a bygone thriving industry and a hunger from British people to become makers again; now that’s something to rejoice about. After all, it is the rich heritage in garment-making that has enabled the British gentleman to become the epitome of fine dressing.