You might think you are going slightly mad and thought today's post was about The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters, well it was but now it isn't...my bad... so please accept The Coat Route in exchange,and in contrast this book is readily available off-the-peg.
It was right slap bang in the middle of my GBSB/GDSB extravaganza when a book parcel arrived via Australia. I can't tell you how exciting every book parcel is, but the gift of a book just adds something even more special and I was thrilled to unwrap The Coat Route - Craft, Luxury & Obsession on the Trail of a $50,000 Coat, by American journalist Meg Lukens Noonan, which Jude (who comments here) had read and rightly thought I might enjoy.
Now I have always thought I am unlikely ever to make a coat...has anyone who reads here ever attempted it??
I'd love to know it is as impossible as my brain seems to think...
And reading The Coat Route hasn't changed my mind about that.
A coat requires tailoring skills which to date I don't possess, and I can't see myself acquiring without a great deal of application, but it also requires, even for the most average garment, a financial outlay on fabric that would brook no error. I can happily mess my way through £10 - £15 of something or other but anything more than that and I feel as if I am straying into expensive mistake territory, so reading of the Vicuna cloth at $6,000 a yard had me hyperventilating with anxiety.
Just imagine that first cut...and then the phone rings...and you go back... and you are distracted...and...
But no such mistakes here as Meg Lukens Noonan (please can we just call her Meg, would she mind... would you mind) pursues the $50,000 coat from its inception and design, through to the sourcing of the cloth and the tailoring before the final fitting and the wearing.
The coat itself was commissioned by Australian Keith Lambert. Dismissed as CEO of one of the world's largest winemakers (and by his own father-in-law) the coat trail begins in Sydney where the sacking and family in-fighting seems to have been high-profile news. Here was a man, facing public humiliation, who turns to the age-old human fillip of a new clothes to renew his confidence. In this case a tailored overcoat will, in Meg's words, shore up his wounded psyche; whatever the world might throw at him (hopefully nothing messy like eggs or tomatoes) Keith Lambert would be able to face it all in a half-decent coat.
I liken this to me heading to Seasalt for a Plant Hunter coat the minute they start selling them again next winter...more because I want one than that my psyche is wounded, but slipping it on will be a real treat.
The coat trail quickly leads to London's Savile Row where Mag explores the vagaries and the history of this amazing little street in Mayfair, developed in the 1730s and rapidly becoming the centre of the city's tailoring trade. The post- French revolution rejection of excess, and a trend for country pursuits requiring comfortable clothes sustained the rise, before the nation slowly slipped into the age of the dandy and Beau Brummell, which only cemented (or should I say 'basted') Savile Row's place in the tailoring firmament. Beau surely the first celeb...imagine him on Big Brother...or I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here (UK celebs TV hell).
There was plenty of history here to keep me engrossed and interested, as well as a passing reference to an essay by Virginia Woolf on Beau Brumell. Don't we always love to know what Virginia thought about everything...
"The grace of his carriage was so astonishing; his bows were so exquisite. Everybody looked overdressed or badly dressed-some, indeed, looked positively dirty-beside him. His clothes seemed to melt into each other with the perfection of their cut and the quiet harmony of their colour. Without a single point of emphasis everything was distinguished- from his bow to the way he opened his snuff-box, with his left hand invariably. He was the personification of freshness and cleanliness and order. One could well believe that he had his chair brought into his dressing-room and was deposited at Almack’s without letting a puff of wind disturb his curls or a spot of mud stain his shoes...."
Beau will eventually crash and burn, dying of tertiary syphilis and with one pair of tattered and mended trousers to his name.
Meg proceeds to dissect all the 21st century Savile Row rivalries, it's deliciously interesting... the young upstarts ( Abercrombie & Fitch selling, heaven forfend, jeans) taking on the old stalwarts ( Gieves & Hawkes, dressing royals since George III) ...the tailor's chalk was fair flying up and down the street and the scissors were most certainly out...though all in a very civilised way as the use of the word 'bespoke' came under close scrutiny. Class and social standing were all predicated on the cut and the press of a man's suit and he'd better know it.
Can I confess at this point that I didn't know exactly where Savile Row was in London. It's one of those streets like Harley Street (medical) or Hatton Garden (diamonds) that you suddenly find yourself walking along and think 'Oh so that's where it is...' but to date that hadn't happened with Savile Row. (I've looked it up, I know now)
Meg takes the coat trail around the world in search of vicuna high up in the Peruvian Andes, the rare and protected species whose fleece will eventually spin into the $6000 a yard fabric, thence to Italy for the silk lining before ending up in Halesowen on the outskirts of Birmingham for the horn buttons.
Who'd have thought it... Sydney... Savile Row...Peru...Italy... a bit of the Silk Road even.. and there's Halesowen in the mix.
And whilst we are all increasingly aware of China as both a prolific consumer and producer I had no idea that a design may only have about one clear season before the market will be flooded with Chinese copies.
And then for Meg the defining moment...
"Could I try it on?" I ask. Keith takes off the coat and holds it out for me. My arms slip along the liquid lining in the sleeves anf the coat settles on my shoulders. I look down at the buttons, slide my hands into the pockets, then run them down the coat feeling the plush..'
By this time I was mentally trying the coat on too. If the book has a message it is about buying fewer things but of better quality, about searching out products made with care and designed to last...
This latter reminds me of the navy gaberdine raincoat which rested almost at my ankles when I was six, but was still full of life and fine as a mini coat by the time I was thirteen ...bet they don't make them like that nowadays.
It's about valuing the people too, everyone who contributes to the process from the herders and shearers to the spinners and the weavers, the cutters and the tailors...
'The work of many hands to make a single thing.'
My thanks again to Jude for sending, I would never have discovered this one otherwise.