Reading a history of the Arts & Crafts movement recently, I was reminded how much it has in common with our current passion for all things crafted.
The English movement was born out of a desire to return dignity to the work of craftsmen. It reacted against the anonymous mechanisation of the industrial age – although machines were used in production, it was stated that they should not dictate the craft.
We would approve of the movement’s focus on quality, of the time taken with work, and of the resurrection of old crafts. Although it led to a plethora of styles, from the whimsical to the downright plain, they all had this focus on craft and natural materials in common.
Arts & Crafts was also very nostalgic, as to a extent is our love of classic menswear. It was tied up with ideas of quiet beauty, of simplicity and honesty. Of chivalry or – as we might put it – elegance and gentlemanliness.
There was a joy in the beauty of everyday things. Not the high arts of painting and sculpture, but homewares and the decorative arts. It’s not too much of a stretch to see a connection to the beauty of a bespoke shoe, or a handmade suit, which are subtle and modest beauties compared to the grandness of other fashions.
Indeed, the philosophy of Arts & Crafts sounds like everything I want today’s sartorial fashion to become. Not flamboyant, not showy, not shallow and fleeting, but rooted in fundamental values of craft and integrity.
I will stop short of hoping it can change the world, which is what CR Ashbee, William Morris and others thought Arts & Crafts could do. But I do believe, with them, that there is power and pleasure in being surrounded by things that are fit for purpose, honest to their materials, and simple in form. To that extent we have a lot in common.
Exactly, Simon. Stylish or formal dress goes much deeper than mere surface appearance. It’s a philosophy that can be applied in a much broader sense to many things. So nice to hear someone saying this. It’s a notion that’s (currently) lost on the fashion world.
Interesting use of the word chivalry, as this describes codes of behaviour, but is paints a nice picture.
The batch of one will always, I hope, have its place.
What did you wear at Glstonbury this year
Well said! Personally, I do think that these two features of our current culture are bound to coexist well beyond the foreseeable future.
Hey Simon – I think some furniture guy hacked your blog.
Several techniques/effects which are hallmarks of the arts and craft movement – take for example the “hammered” look on silver and pewter items – were originally sought after not for pure aesthetic reasons, but because they directly evidenced the manual labour which went into crafting items. Ironically, the hammered effect soon because easy to reproduce with machines on an industrial scale. I have always considered this analogous with the stitching on suit jacket lapels – whenever you notice it these days, it is likely because you are looking at machine-made mass-produced suit, which has employed the effect in order to look like it might be hand-made (or because such a look has become fashionable). I remember a few years ago getting an MTM suit from G&H and being asked whether I wanted stitching in the lapels – they were quite open about the fact that it would not be done by hand, but explained that customers would often choose it to make it look like their suit was handmade.
Interesting thoughts Simon. I appreciate your stretching your aesthetic and philosophical thoughts beyond clothing (I also enjoy your musings on pens and leather bags).
One of the failings of the arts and crafts movement was that, by extolling hand craftsmanship in a rapidly mechanising age, it produced goods that were only affordable by the wealthy. Surely we have the same problem today. Factories today are capable of producing higher quality goods than ever before which, if well designed, would grace any home. However, we face a hollowing out of the middle: poor quality items produced as cheaply as possible for the masses (Primark or what have you), and a small artisan movement for the rich. We’re capable of producing well designed and well made goods at a fair price for the many, but instead (as with other areas in life) the middle ground has been hollowed out.
Very good point, yes
Hello Simon, have you come across The New Craftsmen? It was founded by Mark Henderson of Gieves to support and promote ‘Craftsmanship from the British Isles’. In some way it’s today’s continuation of the movement you present here. You will approve of their vision ‘of sustainable, real luxury, expressed through dedication to makers, materials, method and design.’
Thanks Oskar, yes I do, I remember talking to Mark years ago about setting that up. They do some nice things, and I agree the approach is very similar
There are good makers at most price points. A Savile Row suit may cost £4000 approximately, but you can also get a bespoke suit for £1800 in London. Even less, outside London. The more you pay, the more quality you can expect. Most working people on an average wage can afford well-made RTW suits and shirts or bench-made shoes (at the very least). Too often, they prefer to buy 5 cheap suits and a pile of shirts from Zara. It’s simply a question of priorities. Getting people to appreciate quality and craftsmanship is the only way to change that mentality. Keep it up, Simon!
Priority perhaps, but also disposition. I know guys who wouldn’t even think buying a suit on the Row but who change their Bentley every year. I equally know guys who simply wouldn’t think of wearing off the peg anything, but are quite happy wearing M&S underwear.
Here’s a major question to Simon and anyone else who wants to answer:
Why have the Brits with money all but stopped buying bespoke suits?
The Americans can’t get enough of Savile Row. The export market is booming generally. Why is there so little coming from the UK? The decline of the aristocracy doesn’t explain it alone. If bankers and businessmen from overseas are buying bespoke then why not their equivalents in the UK? Have we lost our sense of style?
Good question Mac, though I’m not sure the Americans necessarily buy more bespoke relative to their population. Yes, they have effectively kept Savile Row afloat for years, but the population is a lot bigger (and God knows a lot of them dress badly).
As a country I would say our rich (who can afford bespoke) have never been as stylish as Italians, Spaniards even perhaps French. They bought bespoke, yes, but it was more because it was the social norm, as was taking care of them and wearing them to death.
The Italians love English style! I also think French men dress much worse than French women. 50 yr old men with tight trousers and pointy shoes!
Most of what you’re wearing today originated here. (as you know). Give us a little credit. The construction and cut of your suits. The design of almost every formal shoe originated here. All formal wear started here. We used to set the tone. Bespoke is in our culture. Why are hedge fund managers and company chairman buying RTW suits? I have no idea.