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Issue 479, 18 March 2002

Suits, shopping and billiard balls - we've got Leeds to thank for men buying clothes

Shopping 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.

Until 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: to shop.

Katrina 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."

The 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.

Montague 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.

Yet 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.

Each of the tailors were aiming for a slightly different market, and this was reflected by the location of their shops. Blackburn who catered for the lower working class, and who sold a higher proportion of ready-made suits sited his Leeds shops in Beeston, Armley, Bramley and Cross Gates. Burton, Price and Hepworth who were targeting the upper working class and middle class were to be found in the centre of town, in Briggate, Vicar Lane and Duncan Street.

Moving on – the Burton shop today (right) doesn't pin all on the suit, as did its predecessor in the 1930s

Producing 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."

All 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.

Women were discouraged from entering, but treated courteously if they did so by the shop assistants 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.

The 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.

Opening 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 option.

Burton 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.

But 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."

The Leeds tailors left an important legacy. Montague Burton and Henry Price in particular and their families have provided scholarships and funded chairs and capital projects at Leeds and other universities the student flats named after them bear testament to this.

But they and their colleagues have another achievement to their name: they showed men how to shop.

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