The World’s Oldest Tailors

Legal wigs similar to those made by Ede An Ravenscroft worn by actors Anna Chancellor and John Thaw

Legal wigs similar to those made by Ede An Ravenscroft worn by actors Anna Chancellor and John Thaw

My housemate and me at our graduation wearing Ede and Ravenscroft hired gowns and motar boards

My housemate and me at our graduation wearing Ede and Ravenscroft hired gowns and motar boards

Queen Elizabeth II wearing her Ede and Ravenscroft made gown for her official coronation photo

Queen Elizabeth II wearing her Ede and Ravenscroft made gown for her official coronation photo

Many people in the UK have worn garments from the world-renowned tailor Ede and Ravenscroft (E&R), intentionally or not, often because it is the official graduation gown supplier for many British universities. This was my first experience of wearing the brand. Speaking honestly, I was horrified at the price I paid to hire a gown and mortarboard for a few hours so when my mum received an invitation to an event at E&R’s Chancery Lane store to watch its craftsmen at work I was intrigued to see what made the name so special.

The morning of the event I took a quick peek at the E&R website to see what the brand and products were all about. I was not exactly excited; as far as I my eyes could pick-out, on offer was traditional hunting, suits and the accompanying accessories, nothing heart racing.

The brand’s history, however, is certainly notable. E&R is thought to be the world’s oldest firm of tailors.  It was opened in 1689 by the respected tailoring family, the Shudalls. The quality of E&R’s craftsmanship, and by default it’s reputation, means E&R now provides tailoring and robes to many in the church, state, legal profession and academia, not to mention being the robe makers of twelve coronations.

In the 19th century, following the marriage of Joseph Ede to a member of the successful Ravenscroft wig making family, wig making was added to the firm’s services.

Although steeped in 300 years of tradition E&R believes it creates “A new range of contemporary and traditional men’s tailoring [offering] enduringly fashionable clothing with a perfectly tailored modern twist.” Did I find this on my trip?

My mum explained that originally the men’s and women’s ware were in the same store but not long ago E&R acquired the adjoining property allowing the women’s garments to have an independent home. The men’s ‘wing’, as you might call it, is Kipling old-school by which I mean it was  decked with top hats, retired hat boxes and ceremonial memorabilia. Cheery staff welcomed us with canapés and bubbles, always a good start as far as I am concerned. For the event, E&R had on display examples of some of its finest work, including sumptuous replica robes of those worn by royalty and gentry. Sat between the items on sale were crafts makers deftly at work on making ties, legal wigs, gowns and suits. The legal wig making was of personal interest as I come from a long line of lawyers who wear them daily. What was fascinating was that many at work were trained in-house and had worked at E&R for many years, due to the fact that not many stores require these skills and proving that they are specialists in their respective tasks. One of the robe makers explained that she used to be the store receptionist but she was jealous of the ladies in the workshop and managed to persuade the managers to train her in this new skill. There was not a note of regret in her tone. It seems that a job with E&R changes but is for life.

Slowly, the history of the crafts at hand, and the shop too, sunk in to my consciousness. Purchasing from E&R is not just an act of pageantry, it is a mark of joining prestigious lineages and the following of strict precedent. Browsing the E&R website you discover that garments are made to rigid criterion. For instance, our current queen’s coronation robe was made according to guidelines from previous coronations: “A six yard train in best quality handmade purple silk velvet, trimmed with best quality Canadian ermine 5″ on top and underside and fully lined with pure silk English Satin, complete with ermine cape and all being tailed ermine in the traditional manner, and including embroidery by the Royal School of Needlework.”

The physical segregation of the men’s and women’s garments marks a contrast in architecture and style. The women’s property and garments is much more modern, not to mention smaller. In my opinion the shop size is a detriment to the clothing as so much is bunched on the rails that at times you have to force your way in to the pieces like when trawling through second hand shops to see what treasures lie beneath. The other option is for E&R to be more selective in stock, which in itself I was not entirely convinced by. The pieces seemed to be too young for most of the target shoppers or staples from Sportmax of MaxMara, why buy these brands at E&R when you could go to those stores? I would have preferred bespoke women’s tailoring or lesser known brands. For certain though, was the supreme friendliness of the staff who knew customers by name and taste. On this day, the women’s wing had one of the skilful painters from the iconic enamel company Halcyon Days demonstrating deft brush strokes on bracelets and boxes whilst also offering complimentary personalisation on products purchased that day. I also had great fun talking to one of the milliners from Christy’s who not only creates classic and contemporary headwear but also makes the distinct tall, navy hard hats worn by London’s police force.

I would love to talk at greater length about the individual crafts that were being demonstrated but I would be doing them an injustice to summarise them here. Instead, I will follow up with dedicated posts about what is involved and their evolution. What I have taken away, and what I hope readers will subsequently also appreciate, is that past dress still literally shapes what we wear today. We should be proud of traditional sartorial arts and preserve them for their artistic beauty.

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This entry was published on November 12, 2013 at 15:04. It’s filed under Insights, SSF Considers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

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