Menswear at the Jewish MuseumApril 17, 2016
This Menswear at the Jewish Museum exhibition, held on an upper floor of the welcoming and airy Jewish Museum in Camden is the perfect size and an excellent overview of 20th century menswear in the UK, going from the late 19th century to today.
Moses, Mods and Mr Fish: The Menswear Revolution
It begins in the late Victorian years, with an explanation of why tailoring was such a prevalent craft for Jewish men. In Jewish law two kinds of fabric may not mix together – today we have the example of polycotton, which is a mixture of polyester and cotton, which has fast drying qualities of polyester mixed with the breathability of cotton.
Back then it was linsey-woolsey, an ancient material made by weaving wool and linen together to take advantage of the warmth of wool and the durability of linen. Linsey-woolsey was often used in Victorian England, and there was a risk that tailors might use it on Jewish garments, not knowing or not caring that the wearer would be breaking the law. So to protect themselves the Jewish communities decided to handle the production of their clothes themselves.
These laws didn’t work in reverse, so though a Jew might not have wanted to go to a non-Jewish tailor, the non-Jewish were happy to go to Jewish tailors, and so they built up businesses. In addition to this, the list of approved Jewish occupation was quite limited but tailoring was one, and a quarter of Jewish artisans were involved in the clothing trade.
In the 1880s there was mass migration of thousands of Jewish people, and since a clothing business didn’t have expensive start-up costs the application of these skills was a perfect fit for new immigrants with few resources or connections.
Menswear at the Jewish Museum – Burton and Marks and Spencer
Most of these of course worked for others but some made it big. The exhibition has quite a large focus on Burton’s menswear. Montague Burton was a Jewish tailor whose presence has lasted right up until today. Marks and Spencer was another Jewish owned store, started in 1884 by Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer as a general goods store whose motto was “Don’t ask the price – it’s a penny” – surely making it a forbearer of Poundland. By the 1920s it too had moved into ready to wear clothing.
Burton’s factory, which was opened in 1921, was the largest in Europe by 1925 and boasted a canteen, sports centre and on site healthcare. Mass production was then in its infancy, but Burton’s had a really interesting way of having suits made which were tailored to the user, yet made en masse.
The buyer would get measured in a Burton’s shop (and there is a great photo of various men standing around a Burton’s shop interior looking stiff and uncomfortable while another man with a tape measure bustled around them) and the resultant measurements telegraphed to the factory using a special code, where the jacket and trousers were individually quickly and expertly cut by tailors, then made up by seamstresses.
Of course this system made Burton’s suits much cheaper than traditional one-man-band tailors. It meant that for the first time men with less money could have a made to measure suit – but for those in the know, the quality was questionable.
Burton’s (and another Jewish business, Moss Bros) also produced a large amount of uniforms for the British army in both world wars, and made a good proportion of the demob suits that were supplied to British soldiers on leaving the army from 1945 onwards. The soldiers were supplied with a felt hat or optional flat cap, a double-breasted pinstripe three-piece suit, or a single-breasted jacket with flannel trousers, two shirts with matching collar studs, a tie, shoes and a raincoat. Some suppliers also included gloves, underwear, socks, and bowler hats.
Though these double-breasted suits were free to the soldiers, again the question of quality arose and it was partly to get away from the connotations of the demob suit that a totally different style of suit became popular. Mod suits, imported from Italy, had a skinny silhouette and everything from the narrow trousers to the narrow lapels was the opposite to the broad-shouldered, double-breasted demob suits.
Menswear at the Jewish Museum – Marc Bolan’s Early Years
It’s hard to imagine the flamboyant Marc Bolan, the curly-haired feather boa wearing leader of T Rex in the 1970s in a suit, but he was a massive devotee at the age of 15, a pioneer of Mod style as a hilarious interview with him (under his birth name of Marc Feld) and two other Mods in Town and Country magazine of 1962 proves:
Mark is the most remarkable of the three because he is five years younger and has no visible means of support […] his mother works in Berwick Market: she is joined there by her son on Saturdays when he put’s in a full day’s work. […] In common with the other boys he only becomes animated when asked about his clothes. He says “I’ve got ten suits, eight sports jackets, fifteen pairs of slacks, thirty to thirty-five good shirts, about twenty jumpers, three leather jackets, two suede jackets, five or six pairs of shoes and thirty exceptionally good ties.” His mother explained “He irons his shirts himself. I can’t do them half as well.” […] “You got to be different from the other kids’ , says Feld. ‘I mean, you got to be two steps ahead.
The stuff that half the haddocks you see around are wearing I was wearing years ago. A kid in my class came up to me in his new suit, an Italian box it was. He says, “Just look at the length of your jacket,” he says, “You’re not with it,” he says. “I was wearing that style two years ago,” I said. Of course they don’t like that.’
The group also talk about the jeers they get from other men at their clothes, calling them nancies and queers, which they don’t mind at all. They also briefly mention the Teds. There are fisticuffs with all of them.
Menswear at the Jewish Museum – The Swinging Sixties
Mr Fish (centre) and cohorts. Photograph by Lichfield
Around this time the Mods were also famously fighting with the Rockers, usually for some reason on English seaside beaches on days out. Some accounts make it sound appallingly vicious, but a Pathé film news clip showing at the exhibition seems almost humorous, as a leather jacketed Rocker rolls in the sand with a sharp suited Mod, a bobby looks cross and 60s holiday makers watch disapprovingly.
This same film loop, wonderfully cut together from British Pathé archives, shows an instructive clip about other fashions at the time. “And this is what they call a hippy” disdainfully announces Mr BBC, as another young man rolls on the floor, this time benign, half naked and banging a tambourine.
This is the heyday of the Swinging 60s, Carnaby Street and Kings Road. A lot of the Carnaby Street businesses, such as I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet and Granny Takes a Trip were Jewish owned, and in lively boutiques where music played promoted fast fashion, changing by the week, as opposed to the suits to last you a lifetime of the consumer’s fathers, which had been sold in formal settings. Mr Fish opened his boutique to cater for the daring – Mick Jagger and David Bowie both wore “man dresses” from the brand – though I never knew till I saw the archive footage of his 1969 Hyde Park concert that Jagger was actually wearing trousers under his, making the mini-dress more of a frilly shirt. Bowie was more daring and his man dress was worn just like a woman dress.
Burton’s menswear kept up with the changes, launching Mr Burt in the 1970s. Later they split still further into Topshop and Topman and other companies did the same, leading to the chains of stores we see on today’s high street. But the advent of fast fashion meant that from this point onwards the demand for low prices and fast turnarounds meant that manufacturing began to take place overseas, where demand could be kept up with.
In the centre of the room is a small parade of examples of the menswear being described. There is a suit bought in 1936, still looking immaculate despite being worn for high days and holidays throughout the lifetime of its owner. There are military uniforms and Nehru collared jackets in brocade with lurex from the 60s. It’s very strange to see this in real life because of the size it’s made in. I know a few men who dress beautifully foppishly, but they all tend to be slender and boyish. These suits are extremely large and solid-looking. The parade is all brought up to date with a skinny trousered suit from Topshop from the 2000s.
A Fantastic Exhibition
The exhibition is a great mix of expertly edited archive film, historical material including pamphlets and posters and menswear on mannequins, along with informative texts. When you visit, don’t forget to see the rest of the galleries on Jewish history while you’re there. The whole museum is modern and well curated, including a small, slightly screened section on the Holocaust, sensitively handled. It is a shock to go from its quiet environments to the teeming Camden High Street, but the over all impressions linger. Highly recommended.
Moses, Mods and Mr Fish: The Menswear Revolution is at The Jewish Museum until 19 June 2016.