Tale Of 1,000 Shirts

Ritz Magazine 00-02-1986

To that charming little rue called Jermyn Street come men from all over the world to buy their shirts – and now many women, too! A tale told by Christopher Long, who has his own amazing collection.

By Christopher Long

See Main Index

See Print Journalism Index

Every morning a small drama takes place in my bedroom. Long before that first blessed cup of coffee and long before I'm faced by the rigours of yet another working day, I have an appalling decision to make. I stand and survey a collection of about 100 shirts, wondering which to wear.

What am I going to be doing today? Who am I due to meet? Do I feel like being smart and sober, colourful or casual? Is it to be cotton or silk; and then (decisions, decisions!) what suit or jacket am I going to wear over it? And then what about a tie...?

Men all know the feeling and if you do as I do and lay down shirts rather as other people lay down fine wines, the choice becomes difficult as the selection of stripes, checks and plain colours piles higher and higher in the wardrobe.

The origin of most of this early morning agonising is that delightful and extraordinary street that runs parallel with Piccadilly in the heart of St James's.

It's really not at all surprising that Jermyn Street is the heartland of great shirt-making – that it has become a Mecca for men from all over the world.

As long ago as the 17th and 18th Centuries, St James's was a very male-oriented part of the Capital. Famous clubs such as White's, Boodles, The Travellers and The Carlton never let a woman grace their smoking-rooms. Large numbers of gentlemen took 'rooms' or lodgings in this area where they could live out happy bachelor (or would-be bachelor) lives, well away from the confines of country estates and suspicious wives.

In addition to thousands of professional and amateur 'ladies of the night', every other facility that a red-blooded and exuberant male might require was conveniently to be found in and around Jermyn Street. There he could find Turkish baths, tailors, tobacconists, gunsmiths, hatters, cobblers, steak houses, coffee houses, saddlers, wine merchants and barbers' shops. The list was endless but high on that list came the shirt-makers – then as now.

Today there are three names that dominate the street and provide unrivalled quality and vast choice in cut, colour, fabric and price.

Although not the oldest, Harvie & Hudson is probably one of the greatest names in shirt-making anywhere in the world. The original Mr George Hudson teamed up with Tom Harvie after learning his trade cutting military uniforms in World War 1 and making shirts for such people as Rudolph Valentino. Fifty years later their sons continue to run the business from three shops in Jermyn Street (Nos. 77, 96 and 97). Jeff Harvie with Derek and Howard Hudson still design the famous striped cottons and silks which are woven by Anderson's of Scotland – a weaving firm established over 150 years ago.

Cutting that fabric, however, is what distinguishes one shirt-maker from another. The Harvie & Hudson style is very distinctive and has a high-standing collar with a 3.5-inch long point with a 2-inch back. Perhaps needless to say, they'll make your shirt any way you choose if you have them custom-made – in which case you'll find yourself in the hands of Mr Bertie Mason or Mr Irving Wernick.

Personally I would buy a shirt from Mr Mason just to experience old-world courtesy and kindness at its best. He learnt his trade in Jermyn Street more years ago than he cares to remember and has had so many famous names among his regular clients that he finds it easier to tell you which kings, princes, stars and celebrities he hasn't known. He could tell you the collar size of King Gustave, the Duke of Kent, Rex Harrison, Oscar Peterson and Peter Ustinov – just for starters.

What Harvie & Hudson are best at is a generous shirt with plenty of length, the deep collar, deep French cuffs (doubled for links) and a very sensible disregard for the extremes of fashion because their shirts will long out-last the latest gimmick if properly looked after.

Particularly recommended are their well-known broad bold stripes in reds and blues against a white background although their range of textiles is extensive.

Plain cotton shirts from stock cost £39.95; striped cotton from stock is £44.50; and silk from stock is £65.00. Sizes range from 14.5" (37 cm) to 18.5" (47 cm) and sleeve lengths are finished to the customer's requirements.

Custom made cotton shirts are £75 each (minimum order of four) and overseas buyers should remember that they can reclaim 15 per cent VAT on all these prices if they are exported. I would recommend a custom made order just to hear Mr Mason talk about the old days of Harvie & Hudson, its associations with that celebrated 'Duchess of Duke Street' (Rosa Lewis), how the firm survived the Blitz and all the stars of stage, screen and politics who've been through his hands. And if he wonders why I haven't bought a shirt from him recently it's because of the shirts bought between 1968 and 1978 – all doing sterling service to this day.

Just a couple of sleeve-lengths away from Harvie & Hudson is Hilditch & Key – a partnership which began with Charles F Hilditch and W Graham Key in 1899. They had learned their craft as employees of Harman's of Duke Street in the reign of Queen Victoria. They set themselves up soon after in Jermyn Street, specialising in shirts for gentlemen undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge.

So successful was this partnership that a branch was established in Paris before World War 11 – a war that devastated both the shop in Jermyn Street and a workroom in Store Street. After several moves within Jermyn Street, Hilditch & Key have now settled in three separate shops just a few yards away from each other at Nos. 37, 87 and 73.

The shirt-making fraternity in Jermyn Street is small, very competitive and rather like a large family. Although the grandson of the original Mr Hilditch is the company secretary, the company is now run by Mr Finch and Mr Booth. Almost inevitably Mr Finch learned his trade from Mr Mason at Harvie & Hudson. In fact nearly everybody who's anybody in this business has strong links somewhere with rival firms – a fact which means they can always call on each other for help here, an odd length of fabric there, or an assistant in a crisis.

Among the highly successful and very profitable shirt-making companies of Jermyn Street competition is tinged with camaraderie. Nevertheless Hilditch & Key has developed a new 'line' which may put all the other firms on their mettle. H & K have actually started making men's shirts for women – and not just shirts. From their shop at No. 37 the rich, bright and oh-so-masculine cotton shirtings are transformed into blouses and jackets, or made up into nightshirts and pyjamas. They look fantastic!

Presumably those original Victorian and Edwardian bachelors of Jermyn Street are turning in their graves at the prospect of women invading the hallowed masculine territory in St James's but to me and to many other men nowadays this must be good news. At long last we can firmly put a stop to our women running off with our favourite Bengal Stripes (worn outside jeans with tight belts round them or even in bed!) and we can jolly well send them off to buy their own. Before long, one suspects, Harvie & Hudson and Turnbull & Asser will have to follow suit and launch into the men's-shirts-for-women business too.

But the bulk of Hilditch & Key's work is still male-oriented with a vast range of ready-made shirts backed up by a custom-made service at No. 87. Here the measuring, cutting and fitting rooms are part of a recently refurbished shop opened officially by the Duke of Wellington in October. They too design all their own materials using long-staple cottons (1.25" – 2.00" fibres) from the West Indies or the Sudan. H&K can boggle the mind with technicalities involved in producing the finest poplins – twisting two yarns together to produce 'two-fold 100' broadcloths to create extra strength and elasticity without bulk (the '100' representing the number of hands – reels- required to produce 840 yards of cotton weighing 1lb).

Whether all this is understood by their customers in Paris or at their Saks 5th Avenue shop in New York (let alone the 14 other Saks stores throughout the United States) I cannot say. What does seem clear is that the high-rollers and shirt connoisseurs in Europe and the US seem to prefer the double 'French' cuffs which are increasingly worn with woven 'silk' Turk's Head cufflinks (price £4.50 a pair).

Hilditch & Key's hand-made, ready-to-wear shirts mostly sell for £39.95 with wool/cotton mixtures costing £47.50. Sea Island cotton or pure silk costs £79.50 and made-to-measure cottons cost £65.00. All these prices include British Value Added Tax at 15 per cent which can be reclaimed by overseas customers buying for export.

As the proud possessor of several Hilditch & Key shirts, I would say that they have a slightly racier look to them than those at Harvie & Hudson but do not go quite as far as the third famous shirt-making name in Jermyn Street, Turnbull & Asser.

The quality and range of cut and design at Turnbull & Asser is very impressive. Like Harvie & Hudson they do not restrict themselves to just one outlet (at No. 71) but have an out-post and a special made to measure department round the corner. It's probably fair to say that they're unsurpassed in shirts with a racier, rather more casual appeal.

The best-known feature of many of their shirts is the famous three-buttoned cuff and they are more likely to follow general trends in collar style and cut. At present, for example, their collars are noticeably slimmer. if you take their shirts ready-to-wear you can choose a French cuff or a three-button cuff at £40.00 for whites and creams, £45.00 for classic stripes and £55 for exclusive patterns. Made-to-measure, their classic poplins are are £60.00, exclusive poplins are £65.00 and silks are £115.00 (15 per cent VAT deduction for export).

While Turnbull & Asser may not come top of the list in terms of easy and relaxed service (there is a marked tendency to aloof condescension there) there is no doubt they produce superb shirts. I hold them largely responsible for my early morning shirt-selection dilemma!

There's something very satisfying about building up a collection of shirts. Unlike women, men tend to be unadventurous about suits, jackets and trousers, partly because they're so expensive in the first place and partly because we become so attached to old favourites.

Shirts, on the other hand, offer unlimited scope for personal expression and a little creativity. If you like, Harvie & Hudson, Hilditch & Key and Turnbull & Asser can all embroider a monogram on a shirt and Hilditch & Key even offer monograms on their real shell buttons (they never use synthetic ones). Of course you could, if you like, go as far as one friend of mine who ordered his shirts for different days of the week. In tiny letters each one was inscribed Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc. That would certainly make getting up in the morning a lot less traumatic.

Written for a predominently North American, tourist readership.

In 2012 Anthony Adolph's excellent book The King’s Henchman. Henry Jermyn: Stuart Spymaster and Architect of the British Empire was published by Gibson Square – offering a fascinating account of the man who gave his name to Jermyn Street in St James's, London.

© (1986) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
The text and graphical content of this and linked documents are the copyright of their author and or creator and site designer, Christopher Long, unless otherwise stated. No publication, reproduction or exploitation of this material may be made in any form prior to clear written agreement of terms with the author or his agents.

Christopher Long

Home Career Press Print Radio TV & Film 3rd Party Trivia Projects Personal Etcetera Sound Images Index