Menswear expert G. Bruce Boyer, author and a former editor of GQ, wrote this vignette and collected it, with more, in his 1980 book Elegance. In addition to the propriety of Saville Row fittings it opens a window into, it’s wonderful writing and a pleasure to read.
“If you will kindly step through, sir?”
The first time I heard those words was on my second trip to London. I’d been there once before, when I was a student and had no money to speak of. None to even whisper about. There was a chain of shops called Burton’s selling good English-quality ready-made clothes, and I’d bought a wonderful checked Harris Tweed sports jacket off-the-rack. It was almost bullet-proof, and served me well for years.
But this time I was determined to have a real Savile Row suit, handmade with all the trimmings: working buttonholes on the sleeve, step-lapelled waistcoat, silk-lined trousers, boutonnière loop behind the lapel, the works!
So, on a wonderfully crisp Spring morning, a resolute young man briskly walked across Piccadilly and through the Burlington Arcade, marched down the Row and, bringing his courage to the sticking point, pushed through the heavy Victorian oak and beveled glass front door of one of the most reputable bespoke tailoring firms in the world — all the while thinking of the kings and presidents, film stars and international diplomats, Greek shipping magnates, English dukes, Texas oil millionaires, and Continental boulevardiers who had preceded him.
I was also wondering what I should do once the door silently but firmly closed behind me and left me standing inside the entrance of this august, intimidating establishment.
Not to worry, as the English say. Standing outwardly calm, but inwardly shaking like a wet dog, I was quietly approached by an elderly gentleman in impeccably-cut pin-stripes, who very properly and politely asked me if he might be of assistance. “Oh, I want a suit,” I brightly said. Trust me to say the right thing.
“Of course, sir,” he calmly replied, taking me gently by the elbow and ushering me down the worn and faded Persian carpet, between the long oak refectory tables groaning under rolled bolts of worsted and tweed. And did I prefer town or country suiting, he inquired.
I spent the next forty-five minutes or so going through the cloth swatch books, dozens and dozens of them – there must have been a hundred different patterns of district checks in tweed alone – some containing squares of cloth I thought I’d seen twenty minutes before in another book. My elderly guide stood demurely at my side, offering a word or two of encouragement or advice if I turned to him with a swatch between my fingers.
“Very serviceable piece of worsted, that is, sir. Perhaps a bit too heavy, though, for your climate at home, would you think, sir?
In one book I spied a handsome plaid of rusty brown with a lavender and Kelly green over pane. Did he think it was a bit loud?
“Well, I wouldn’t necessarily say loud, sir. But perhaps it does tend to mutter a bit.” Scratch that one.
Finally, I settled on a mid-weight, grey cheviot cloth in a miniature herringbone pattern.
“An excellent choice, sir, if I may say so,” my well-upholstered counselor intoned. “You may be interested to know that this particularly cloth has been woven for us for almost a hundred years now. Had a suit of it myself when I was younger.” And then the magic request.
“And now, sir, if you will kindly step through?”. His outstretched arm directed me toward the muted elegance of that burnished wood cubicle with the beveled triplex full-length mirror and malt-colored flannel curtain: THE FITTING ROOM.
I’ll save the operations of the fitting room for another time. Suffice it to say here that it is a place of both magic and mystery, as well as considerable consolation and gratification denied even to prayer. And so the words, “And now, sir, if you will kindly step through,” have always had a spiritually transforming effect on me, as well as the slightly more prosaic literal one.