Michael Paterson is a lecturer in modern history at the University of Westminster. He is the author of a number of books on nineteenth and twentieth-century topics, including World War II, the life of Winston Churchill, Victorian England, and the British monarchy, on which he teaches a course. He is also a London tour-guide and has for many years been involved with America study-tours both of the city and of the wider regions of Britain.
Words and Illustrations By Michael Paterson
Jermyn Street is pronounced ‘Jermin.’ Like so many streets in London it is named not after some national hero but after the man–or the aristocratic family––who owned the land on which it was built. Henry Jermyn (1605-1684) was a wealthy politician who became the Earl of St Albans. He laid out the streets in this part of town, and was responsible for the grand and beautiful St James’s Square that forms the centrepiece of this district. Jermyn Street runs parallel to its bigger, noisier and better-known neighbour, Piccadilly. It has a church, one or two antique shops, agreeable cafes and restaurants, and a cheese emporium that your nose could find from some distance away. It is famous, however, for selling clothes. They are not cheap, and they are, almost entirely, for men. The district of St James’s is largely given over to masculine needs, for here can be found the majority of London’s Gentlemen's Clubs.
You would not expect to buy a suit in Jermyn Street. Those––if you can afford it––are made a few minutes’ walk from here in Savile Row, Sackville Street or Clifford Street. This thoroughfare is for all the things that go with it: shoes, shirts, socks and underwear, braces, cufflinks, ties. The shops that sell them are old, the service is polite and the styles – give or take the odd tie decorated with a motif of pink elephants––is conservative.
You would need to be aware, because it would help you avoid embarrassing mistakes, that our English is often entirely different to yours and that words do not always mean the same thing. ‘Vest,’ for instance, means a man’s undershirt. What you call a vest is known to us as a waistcoat. ‘Suspenders’ are not something for holding up a man’s trousers, they are for women’s stockings, because the term means a garter-belt (the British call men’s suspenders ‘braces’ and it is one of the rules of good taste that you never allow these to be seen. You should not take off your coat and sit around in them). ‘Slacks’ tends to mean women’s trousers and––please remember this––‘Knickers’ does not mean baggy trousers tucked into your socks, it means women’s underpants. The word ‘pants,’ in any case, is one you should never, under any circumstances, utter. It does not mean trousers but the item you wear beneath them. Please don’t try to amuse British people at a dinner party with a story about how you ripped your trousers climbing over a fence. They don’t want to know about the state of your underwear, and you will find that the very word ‘pants’ makes them wince.
The firms that trade in Jermyn Street frequently have names that are bracketed together in pairs: Hawes and Curtis (Cary Grant, Fred Astaire, and Clark Gable were all customers), Harvie and Hudson, Hilditch and Key, New and Lingwood. This last was founded in 1865 next door to Eton College, the great boys’ public school (with spectacular lack of logic, the term ‘public school’ in Britain means a private school!), by Miss Elizabeth New and Mr. Samuel Lingwood. They later married and their business flourishes to this day, with a shop at Eton to make school uniforms for the boys and a branch in London to outfit them once they have joined the adult world. The School’s coat-of-arms is prominent over the door, and inside are Victorian photographs of its buildings and classrooms.
Across the street is Bates the Hatter, presided over by a large tabby cat. His name is Binks. One day, in 1921, he wandered into the shop as a stray kitten and stayed for the rest of his life, spoiled by both staff and customers. When he died he was stuffed and placed in the window, seated in a glass-fronted wooden box. A cheroot is stuck nonchalantly in his mouth and a miniature top hat, made for him on the premises, sits at an angle over one ear. He has been admired for generations, and visitors are encouraged to put donations for charity into his box. He has adapted well to the modern world, for he can be Googled and has his own Twitter account (@binksthecat).
Nearby is yet another pair of names: Turnbull and Asser. Churchill had his shirts made here, as well as the zip-up ‘siren suits’ that he wore throughout World War II. Prince Charles is another customer, as was Diana. She ordered feminine versions of their masculine styles, and thus started a trend that lasted for a few years. Not everything here is a clothing shop. There are two splendid traditional barbers – Trumper’s and Taylor’s. Their windows are filled with shaving-brushes and scented soaps and colognes that are made to their own recipes. Inside, they will give you a shave with a cut-throat razor.
Shirts––or rather the ‘shirtmakers’ firms that sell them––are, however, what give this street its fame. Everywhere you will see the things, or the bolts of material from which they are cut. They may be traditional in style but their patterns are surprisingly bright in colour for a nation that thrives on subtlety and understatement- scarlet, sky-blue, egg-yolk yellow. The most eye-catching are patterned in fat stripes (these are known as ‘regatta shirts’) or gingham checks. And what if you were buying them? What are the hallmarks of excellence that would prove you have taste? First of all, a shirt should never be of more than two colours, and of those one must be white (no red-white-and-blue, no matter how patriotic you are!). Secondly you should not wear shirts with buttoned cuffs. You must have double-cuffs that fold back and are secured by links––and as a further complication these should have a bar or chain and not a swivel-back. The stitches must be tiny, for the smaller they are the better the garment, and the tail at the back should be longer than that at the front, so you can sit down without crumpling it. Perhaps most distinctive of all, when the shirt is ironed the buttons must make a shrill squeaking-noise.
This proves they are made from mother-of-pearl and not plastic. With this, you would expect to wear a tie (the word ‘necktie’ is unknown in Britain). It would be silk and, if it is striped, the stripes must actually mean something and not merely be a decorative pattern. In this country, where so many things are more formal than in the United States, there are many hundreds of different striped ties. Virtually every school has its own and they are worn by children as young as five as part of their uniform. There are other ties for use in later life to show people what school you attended, and further ones to indicate where you went to university, what regiment you served in or what club you belong to. The best known of these––Eton, the Brigade of Guards, the Garrick Club––are recognised at once, but ‘What’s your tie?’ is a question Englishmen often ask each other. If your background is appropriate you will find the tie in Jermyn Street, though you may be––discreetly, of course––to show proof that you are entitled to wear it. There is even a book showing the designs of all these ties, though of course you would not want to be seen consulting it, for that would suggest that you lack the essential knowledge.
But, to return to the street itself. At sidewalk-level (it is called a pavement in our language) is a bronze statue. A man, dressed in the clothing that Americans associate with the age of Alexander Hamilton, gazes up Piccadilly Arcade toward yet more exclusive shops. He wears a cutaway coat, riding boots and a ruffled shirt. He holds a cane and a top hat. If he displays a noticeable swagger this is only to be expected, for he is George (‘Beau’) Brummell, the best-dressed man in history. Born in1778, he epitomised that glittering era called, in England, the Regency––the time of Napoleon, Jane Austen and Lord Byron. Rich enough not to need to work (he was in the army, but resigned rather than move to a garrison in the unfashionable north of England!) he spent his life in perfecting his clothes and in uttering social pronouncements. He never left his house before the afternoon because it took him all morning––with the help of a servant––to dress immaculately enough to go out, and a crowd gathered at his door to see the spectacle. His afternoons were habitually spent at the very exclusive White’s Club (founded in 1693 and still exclusive), just round the corner from his statue. White’s has a bow window that looks out on St James’s’ Street and here Brummell would stand, making waspish remarks about the dress and manner of passers-by. His disapproval was so dreaded that many men avoided the street and used back-alleys to escape his scrutiny. He ultimately fell foul of gambling debts and had to flee the country, but he also lost caste by making a deliberately slighting reference to the Prince Regent at a society ball, loudly asking a companion, within earshot of the Prince: ‘Who’s you fat friend?’ Such an insult could not be overlooked, and Brummell’s star fell. Nevertheless, he has left a glowing legacy both here and in the wider world, where his name is a by-word for male elegance. He even gains a mention in the Broadway musical Annie!
Incidentally, the Prince Regent was not the only member of Britain’s Royal Family to find his weight a challenge. Decades later another heir to the throne––‘Bertie,’ the Prince of Wales who later became King Edward VII––found his clothes such a tight fit that he could no longer do up the bottom button on his waistcoat. Men in his social circle immediately left theirs undone too in order that his plight should not be noticeable, and the habit filtered down through the male population. It is still one of the signs of a gentleman that this button will be left undone on his waistcoat. Brummell is long gone. He died in 1840, but in this city time often moves slowly and in some sense it seems as if he had just left. He is the guiding spirit of this place, the spiritual ancestor of all those who hurry past with their hat-boxes and carrier-bags.