shopping and billiard balls - we've got Leeds to thank
for men buying clothes
may be seen as a predominantly female activity, but with
the growth of men's fashion stores and lifestyle magazines,
it is fairly common to see blokes perusing the rails and
queueing at the changing rooms. Some men are still embarrassed
by the idea of buying clothes, but they are, in fact,
part of a long tradition, dating back to the 1930s. And
as history lecturer Dr Katrina Honeyman has discovered,
Leeds is where it all began.
the early 20th century male interest in clothes was confined
to the wealthy upper classes. But after the First World
War, men from all walks of life woke up to the suit, which
became a mass masculine mode of dress. Suits were worn
to work and also became the chosen garb for leisure time,
for the pub or on the football terraces (see
picture, left). And not only did they wear
suits, but men also began to go and buy them, to do what
until then had been an exclusively female occupation:
Honeyman explains: "Luring working- and middle-class men
out of their homes and into the shops was a major achievement,
masterminded by certain tailors from Leeds who spread
across the whole of the country, coming to dominate the
trade in male tailored garments. Known as multiple tailors,
they controlled the production, distribution and sale
of the clothes they made. Their shops offered the image
of a bespoke tailor, where men would be measured individually,
but the suits would be made up in factories, nearly all
of which were in Leeds."
most well-known multiple tailor of the time was Montague
Burton, who began as a pedlar in Chesterfield, but came
to own the biggest network of shops around the country,
later to become the Burton menswear group.
Burton came to Britain from Lithuania, beginnning by peddling
clothes, then working as an outfitter, selling shoes,
hats, ties and shirts. He set up his first tailor's shop
in Chesterfield, followed by one in Sheffield, and at
his height had over 600 stores around the country. Measurements
were taken for around 50,000 suits a week, all of which
were rushed back to his Leeds factory in Hudson Road,
to be made up and then sent back to the shops, ready for
the customer to pick up. He dominated the market, and
no high street was complete without its Burton's shop.
the market was large enough to allow for quite a few competitors:
with Hepworth, Jacksons, Blackburn, Price and John Barran,
around two-thirds of all the suits worn in Britain were
made in the Leeds. Price and Hepworth each had around
300 shops across the country, with Jackson and Blackburn
centred in the north.
of the tailors were aiming for a slightly different market,
and this was reflected by the location of their shops.
Blackburn Ð who catered for the lower working class, and
who sold a higher proportion of ready-made suits Ð sited
his Leeds shops in Beeston, Armley, Bramley and Cross
Gates. Burton, Price and Hepworth Ð who were targeting
the upper working class and middle class Ð were to be
found in the centre of town, in Briggate, Vicar Lane and
on the Burton shop today (right) doesn't pin all
on the suit, as did its predecessor in the 1930s
a garment which men wanted to wear was only part of the
story for these tailors, as Dr Honeyman explains: "They
also had to persuade men that shopping for a suit was
an appropriate masculine activity, particularly difficult
for working-class men who might feel intimidated from
entering a shop, or nervous about what being 'measured'
for a suit entailed. Burton's shops and the atmosphere
he created in them led the way, setting a standard which
other tailors strove to imitate."
Burton shops looked identical inside and out, with 'handsome'
masculine décor in oak and gunmetal, creating a
space which bore little resemblance to the traditional
idea of a shop at the time.
were discouraged from entering, but treated courteously
if they did so by the shop assistants Ð all men in uniform
pin-striped suits. Burton set out codes of conduct in
numerous 'guides', covering every detail, down to the
exact way to measure an inside leg, or how to advise a
customer that his trousers were worn too high or too low.
windows were dressed to give an image of practicality
and value for money, and many tailors were known by their
price: Henry Price was the 50 shilling tailor, and in
the early days, Burton was known as the 30 shilling tailor.
hours were long, to allow time for men to come into the
shop at the end of their working day. Burton also devised
other means to entice men in. Managers were told that
if there was any surplus space in the building, a poster
was available from head office saying 'Billiard Hall to
let'. Initially Burton allowed these to be run by other
people, but finding that many of them also sold alcohol,
and deciding this compromised his hard-fought respectable
image, he took them over himself. Dance classes or offices
were sometimes allowed to use the extra space, but billiards,
being an exclusively male activity, was the preferred
was undoubtedly successful in creating a space men were
happy to shop in. By 1939 it was unusual to find a man
who did not own at least one suit, and throughout the
1930s nearly eight million suits were made each year,
most of these by the Leeds based multiple tailors.
the boom couldn't last for ever, as Dr Honeyman (pictured
right) explains: "After the Second World
War, fashions changed and the suit gradually became relegated
to work, Sunday best or other occasions where something
unusually smart was called for. Leisure time became more
common, and clothes for leisure less uniform and restrictive.
The market for tailored garments gradually declined, though
many of the tailors, including Montague Burton, adapted
their businesses to serve the new trends."
Leeds tailors left an important legacy. Montague Burton
and Henry Price in particular Ð and their families Ð have
provided scholarships and funded chairs and capital projects
at Leeds and other universities Ð the student flats named
after them bear testament to this.
they and their colleagues have another achievement to
their name: they showed men how to shop.