Savile Row continues to dress the officers and gentlemen from many of the British Army’s crack Regiments. We look behind the scenes at this small but important part of the Row
Article by Rupert Watkins Photography by Andy Barnham
Though military tailoring makes up a small proportion of Savile Row’s output it remains a high profile, important and cherished part of the sartorial traditions and élan of this fabled part of Mayfair. It should be made clear here, this article concerns military uniform and ceremonial wear and does not touch upon the livery, court or diplomatic side that a number of tailors provide for. Despite the continuing defence cuts of the last couple of decades, Regimental and family ties still see serving officers and officer cadets head to the tailors of Mayfair to equip them with the varied and colourful outfits of their trade.
There is a rich history in military tailoring in London. Heading to Sackville Street and Meyer & Mortimer, one is able to look through the single remaining account book that survived the destruction of their Conduit Street premises in 1942. This remarkable tome goes back to 1812; as well as sartorial luminaries such as the Prince Regent and Beau Brummell, the book lists the uniform orders of many officers from the Peninsula campaigns and Waterloo. The Somerset family bulk large in the orders book with the later Earl Raglan ordering his uniform for Waterloo with the firm. Major Henry Percy of the 14th Light Dragoons, famed for bringing Wellington’s dispatches, along with captured French eagles, back to London following the Battle of Waterloo was also dressed by Meyer & Mortimer.
Moving forward to the current day, we move into the Row itself to Dege & Skinner. This firm has been in existence since 1865. The firm has done military tailoring since the 1920s – indeed during the Second World War, it had premises in the garrison towns of Aldershot and Catterick. An amalgamation in 1967 with the tailors Rogers, John Jones bought further military custom. Chatting with William Skinner, the Managing Director, the current proportion of business devoted to military uniforms sits between eight and fifteen per cent. Nonetheless, this is a hugely prestigious segment, “it is a great feather in Dege’s cap – it allows us to show off our skills set” as William explains.
As well as the vast majority of the Household Division, line cavalry, Royal Artillery and Rifles amongst other Regiments, Dege also does the ceremonial uniforms for the Yeoman of the Guard at St James’s Palace, The Master of the Horse and the Royal Company of Archers in Edinburgh (since 2001). Meyer & Mortimer retains the warrant for the Military Knights of Windsor. Overseas custom from Bahrain, Jordan and Oman has also become increasingly important over recent years.
All cutters at Dege are trained in the art of uniform cutting, along with four seamstresses – including one who has worked at the firm over 30 years since she was 16. As William puts it, they aim to preserve, “generational continuity”. Some of the skills are exceedingly niche but by ensuring through comprehensive training these are evenly spread across all the artisans at Dege, the firm hopes to retain a kernel of knowledge and sartorial memory for the foreseeable future. Military tailoring requires the support of a community of braid, gold thread, chainmail epaulette, button and aiguillette manufacturers. According to William, these remain far more plentiful than one might expect for such a small arena. Indeed, one of Dege’s main concerns is to ensure the continued high standard of these artefacts. Money is a secondary objective to ensuring the highest standards of all parts of the uniform is maintained.
The falling numbers in the British Army and changing MOD procurement policies has seen a change in the tailoring Savile Row supplies. Until recently, Dege did the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery (RHA) Shell Jackets (full ceremonial), Foot Guards tunics and all Household Division frock coats. Whilst individuals have continued to patronise the firm for these, decreasing budgets have lamentably seen the Army forced to go elsewhere. Given the sheer quality and thus longevity of Savile Row uniforms this may come to be seen as a somewhat blinkered decision (this writer should perhaps here confess he went to Dege upon commissioning for his mess dress, service dress and blues). Future Army Dress (FAD) has seen the requirement for officer cadets to have No2 Service Dress made effectively disappear as well.
Even with a shrinking Army, William says Dege still visits RMA Sandhurst each term and continues to tailor for a steady 10 to 12 cadets each intake. Despite the recent amalgamation of the two remaining Lancer regiments, the overall number of Regiments Dege has the appointment to dress has stayed pretty steady. Other tailors have suffered though, speaking with Paul Mundy at Meyer & Mortimer, he says the company has not been going to Sandhurst for almost a decade though a very small number of officer cadets – often due to family word of mouth – do continue to come to them. The firm still thus retains the requisite uniform patterns for a number of Regiments – they recently have still done kit for Blues & Royals and Royal Dragoon Guards young officers as well as more senior officers who had their original uniform made by them. The remaining tailors with a military pedigree on the Row, Welsh & Jeffries, Gieves & Hawkes and Johns & Pegg have grievously seen their service custom dwindle away.
Overall, William believes military tailoring has changed little over the past three decades despite the changing military and operational backdrop. As he says, the way of making it hasn’t changed for many years. One area of evolution has though been in supplying Middle Eastern customers. Given their climate, lighter fabrics have been experimented with (different again to the tropical orders of British Army dress), for example they have done a lot of work in eight ounce service dress fabric as opposed to the traditional 18 ounce khaki whipcord that British No2 dress has historically been tailored from. William though wryly notes that despite the undoubted advantages of lighter cloths and the likelihood many modern officers would prefer more temperate kit (this writer can vouch for this – thick mess dress at a warm Mess dinner is…. interesting), the innate conservatism of the Army is unlikely to see change in the near future.
Where the military connection is also very useful to Savile Row is in introducing a young generation to the standards and flair of the Row. William notes at Dege there is a very strong affiliation between many of their older clients and the military – many continue to patronise the firm after they have resigned their commission. Even with the high cost of Savile Row uniform – despite an official allowance, once other items such as Herbert Johnson caps and Swaine Adeney swagger sticks are added in, the new Subaltern in say the Life Guards or Kings Royal Hussars will have little change from £5,000 – three out of four cadets at Sandhurst with Dege still get a civilian suit run up at the same time their uniform is made. This continuity and loyalty of custom is also noted at Meyer & Mortimer where Brian Lewis, the house’s historian comments the firm has made for families over two or three generations – and more. The Lennox family – noted in the firm’s account book for their uniforms for Waterloo were still patronising the tailoring house for both military and mufti garments into the 1970s.
What of the future for this historic and important part of the Row? Despite the changes and cuts of the past 20 years, the number of Regiments looks (until the next White Paper..) to remain steady and the traditional requirement for Mess Dress and Blue Patrols is not going away. Chatting with Paul and William they both commented on the increasing use of quasi – military decoration on civilian clothes. The resurgence in popularity of the smoking jacket is seeing customers take advantage of the braiding and skills that traditionally cater to the military to create a truly individual look. Even today, over 200 years after that sartorial arbiter – and dragoon officer – Beau Brummell worked with Meyer tailors to introduce the buckle from military overalls to civilian pantaloons and thus start the evolution of the modern trouser, is Savile Row’s military flair and panache making its influence felt.