Savile Row was named after Mayfair Eccentric – Lady Dorothy Savile – who liked her gentlemen elegantly attired
Although the Merchant Taylor’s Guild of London dates back to 1327, Savile Row has its roots firmly in the Restoration of the 1660’s – when London was really swinging!
King Charles II – the first Catholic king since his father was beheaded by Cromwell – ushered in an age which celebrated style, beauty, theatre, art, literature and most importantly new opportunities and respect for women.
Like most streets and buildings of Mayfair and St James’s, Savile Row is named after a fabulous woman, in this case the beautiful and bountiful Lady Dorothy Savile, later the Countess of Burlington.
The wealth and fame of Savile Row’s tailors came as a direct result of King Charles II and his court of Flamboyant Cavaliers.
King Charles II returning from his exile on the continent after Cromwell’s reign of terror was ousted, was determined that the area of Tyburn – which had been known as The Killing Fields For Catholics since Henry VI first set about his pogrom on Roman Catholics – should be reinvented as residential and retail utopia of glass-fronted shopping arcades and beautiful garden squares. In turning the Catholic Killing Fields of Tyburn into a retail and artistic decadent paradise, he was cocking-a-snook at the tight-lipped prudish Protestants who had oppressed fashion, fun and the arts for centuries.
King Charles II’s wife, Catherine, his mother the Dowager Queen Henrietta, sister Elizabeth and brother James II were all Catholic and he was a secret Catholic.
Having witnessed his father’s beheading for his devotion to his faith, and as a lover of the arts, beauty and decadence, King Charles II determined to put an end to the centuries of religious killings and persecutions.
His vision to transform the site of Catholic bloodshed into an area of unparalleled elegance and luxury, was his first step in ushering in an age of tolerance and culture which celebrated beauty, ideas, literature, fashion, wit, eccentrics and women.
Mayfair and St James’s were designed by the architect, Lady Wilbraham on the land of Mary Davies and quickly became the site of women’s emancipation and the home to eccentrics. Skilled tailors who could realise the elegant dreams of the eccentric stars of the Restoration Court were celebrated and began moving to the area in 1660.
Previously, tailors had congregated behind the walled City of London but after the fire of 1666 many had their premises destroyed and took the opportunity to set up shop in the new area of Mayfair near the fashionable court of St James’s.
The tailors received a further boost to their trade in 1660 upon the marriage of King Charles II to Queen Catherine of Braganza who brought an enormous dowry; including the ports of Tangiers and Bombay which lead to a massive textile boom in Britain.
Queen Catherine, who shocked the prudish Protestant by holding masked balls on Sunday, also brought a dowry of ships full of tea which quickly became the fashionable drink and a symbol of the new tolerant age of elegance and wit.
Coffee Houses had been closed to women and frequented by men who gathered to discuss politics and religion.
With the arrival of this new drink of tea, British Society was irrevocably transformed as women across Mayfair and St James’s hosted tea salons where the topics of religion and politics were banned.
From the 1660’s onwards – over champagne and tea – women, eccentrics and forward thinking gentlemen gathered in Mayfair Salons to discuss art, literature, philosophy, feminism and fashion. In this new mobile society tailors could find themselves sipping tea with a Lord and many prospered during the Restoration.
After the rigid rules of uniformed dress laid down by the Protestants, preventing any decoration or embellishment, fashion quickly become a matter of national importance and tailors and seamstresses became very wealthy on the back of Britain’s new passion for fashion.
By 1689 Ede & Ravenscroft – situated – on what is now known as Savile Row had a thriving business and was issued with a Royal Warrant. It continues to flourish and is the oldest surviving family-owned tailoring firm in the world.
In 1715 Handel was given rooms by Lord Burlington at the back of Burlington House. Mayfair by now was well established. The grand, aristocratic enclave of eccentrics gathering like moths to the flame of aristocratic lady’s tea and champagne salons.
The formerly Tudor palaces on the Strand and the side streets of St James’s were developed into tradesmen’s quarters crammed with tailor’s shops and artists studios to cater for the new demands of a society suddenly centred around the arts and fashion.
Despite marrying the wealthy heiress in Lady Dorothy Savile, the spendthrift 3rd Earl of Burlington was forced to sell the land behind Burlington House in 1723 and Queensbury House for the 3rd ‘Double Duke’ of Queensbury and Dover.
In 1733 the Daily Post reported “a new pile of buildings is going to be erected near Swallow Street by the Right Hon. The Earl of Burlington which is to be named Savile Street in honour of the his wife Countess Dorothy.”
Future Prime Minister William Pitt became a tenant in the new dwellings, along with Dr John Arbuthnot and Dr Simon Burton, introducing the first generation of tradesmen to Savile Row. The Countess of Suffolk took up residence at No 15 Savile Street (now Henry Poole & Co) in 1735.
It was very much part of the areas eccentricity that Dukes, authors, tradesman and artisans lived alongside one another.
The salon culture of Mayfair, presided over by proto-feminist aristocratic women and forward thinking gentleman, elevated qualities of wit and eccentricity above titles giving Mayfair its reputation for eccentrics. These salons which began in the 1660s with the Restoration became known as Mayfair Bluestocking Salons as a reference to the egalitarian nature of the gatherings; blue stockings being the garb of trade people as opposed to aristocratic gentlemen who wore black silk stockings.
In 1750 John Ross opened a whip maker’s shop at No 238 Piccadilly – the foundation stone for the firm we now know of as Swaine Adeney Brigg – still thriving nearly three hundred years later.
James Swaine eventually bought John Ross out in 1789 and acquired the Royal Warrants of King George III and his sons the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) and the Dukes of York, Clarence, Kent, Cumberland and Cambridge.
In 1760 Thomas Hawkes (of Gieves & Hawkes) come to London to make his fortune. He was employed as a runner for Mr Moy the velvet cap-maker on Swallow Street. Mr Moy was ‘on the cod’ – Savile Row slang for drinking heavily – leaving the ambitious young Hawkes free to cultivate his aristocratic clientele.
By 1771, Moy was deceased and Hawkes opened his own tailors and with King George III and his glamorous son ‘Prinny’ the Prince Regent listed on his books
In 1765 the Hatter, James Lock & Co, founded in 1676 relocated to No 6 St James’s Street where the firm remains, making it the oldest family-owned hatter in the world.
In 1778 George Beau Brummell created the elegant aesthetic of the masculine silhouette of gentleman’s suit still worn today.