Late July in Cambridge and the swarms of tourists are given a rare photo opportunity. It is graduation day and the university’s students walk in procession from their ancient colleges, through the city’s cobbled streets to the Senate House, where they are awarded the degrees that will give them access to the highest levels of Britain’s society. To the untrained eye, the gowns are all pretty similar – Harry Potter-style wizard robes – but the differences are intricate and infinite.
For those who haven’t yet graduated the college gown must be worn to formal occasions, each with their subtle variations – a bow here and a plait there. When graduating or matriculating, the type of gown and hood worn depends on the type of degree you are doing – whether it’s a BSc, BA, MPhil, MLitt, Phd, MusD and so on – and what your academic discipline is. If you’ve completed a doctorate at the 804-year-old institution, the Doctor’s gown – a little crimson silk number with a comical gold tasselled hat – must be worn.
The rules of dressing to denote your profession and social status have run through British society for centuries. For some of the male students such traditions will end with their graduation. But, for a few, their knowledge of the subtle art of dressing like a gentleman will stay with them for life. The rules aren’t known by many, but those who do know them are usually the most influential in society.
“A man’s clothes denote his social and financial standing in the community,” says Michael Donovan, in-store tailor at Ede and Ravenscroft in Cambridge. At 73-years-old, he is one of sharpest dressed men you’ll ever see, with a slim frame and neat white hair. He darts around the shop with his tape measure, like a man of thirty. “If you see a man with a well-cut suit, you know that he either has class or money or both,” he says.
Founded in 1689, Ede and Ravenscroft claims it is the oldest firm of tailors in the world. It is official robemaker to the Queen, Prince Phillip and the Prince of Wales. With stores in Oxford, Cambridge, London and Edinburgh, the company dresses members of the British establishment from their time as undergraduates at the country’s most elite universities to their days at the Inns of Court, House of Lords or on the boards of big business.
The banking and financial services sector is a relatively new addition to the ranks of gentlemanly professions – business and trade were considered inferior sources of wealth to family inheritance. But the rise of high finance brought respect and today’s banker needs to look like a gent in order to get by.
“It’s the little things that make the difference – ties, hankies and detailing,” says Martin Blighty, joint owner of the tailors Peckham Rye (cockney rhyming slang for tie). And it’s the ‘little things’ that his store specialises in. Situated along small cobbled street off Carnaby Street in central London, the small neat shop is packed with perfectly presented ties, socks and hankies. Every space on the wall is filled with photographs of the family – tailors for six generations – and ancient copies of Private Eye magazine.
Wearing the right clothes gets you noticed by the right people, says Martin. “If you go to a plc presentation, the board of directors will all be wearing good suits. And I can guarantee you that when the meeting is over the well-dressed people will gravitate towards one another. People who are well dressed will get their questions answered. It’s subliminal messaging,” says Martin.
“People in senior positions at big companies often come from very good backgrounds and they are trained to notice these things,” he says. “Somebody might be absolutely brilliant at their job, but if they have the wrong colour socks on they might be overlooked.”
Every modern gentleman should own at least one double breasted suit, two or three lounge suits, a blazer, a sports jacket and a top coat, says Martin. “Most gentlemen who come in to the shop would have that kind of arsenal.”
Peckham Rye has dressed global figures in the world of finance for decades. When Citicorp and Travelers Group merged in 1998, Peckham Rye was given the job of crafting the commemorative ties. “The idea is always to dress a little bit above your station in life. That way people will think no less of you,” says Martin. “That’s what my granddad used to say.”
A gentleman banker should stick to a tie with just two colours, says Martin, a plain white handkerchief in the top pocket, a small tie clip, a white shirt and a blue or charcoal suit. “They should wear black Oxfords, but never brogues – they’re a country shoe – although it’s OK if they’re wing-tipped brogues that are very polished.” He says bankers should stay away from double breasted suits at work – “they’re a bit flash for the office” – and that they are more appropriate for people working in advertising or sales.
Apparently, a common mistake is for men to wear ill-fitting suits. “Most men have it in their minds that they’re a chest size bigger than they are – everybody wants to be bigger than they are.” Even an expensive suit will look bad if it’s poorly fitted, says Martin. “Ill-fitting clothes look dishevelled. It’s important for somebody to look as good at 9am as they do at 9pm.”
Martin is frequently asked to advise on the appropriate attire for a job interview. Start with a navy blue or charcoal and an appropriate tie, he says – “you can either tone or contrast your tie with your suit. With navy blue you can either go with a blue tie, that would tone it, or a maroon tie, which would contrast it.”
Michael Donovan of Ede and Ravenscroft says that shoes are of the utmost importance: “They need to be clean, polished and shiny.” The trousers need to be well creased and it’s usually worth getting your whole suit pressed professionally at a tailor. “Don’t fill your pockets with filofaxes and cigarette packets,” advises Michael. “Although the pockets are there to be used, you’ll look a lot smarter if you don’t fill them up.” It’s important to avoid looking pretentious: “For an interview you need something classic, neat and clean – nothing too loud. If you wear a stripe it should be a very delicate stripe, not a bold chalk stripe or anything like that.”
And, of course, dressing well shouldn’t just be done in your work life. A real gentleman always looks the part and the regulations for leisurewear are just as intricate. Michael advises those attending a summer party to wear a suit in light cream or lovat (a shade of soft green). A light check may also be worn, but pattern needs to be treated with caution: “Some people can take off a bolder pattern well, but if you want a big check you need to be a big person,” says Michael.
Different colours should be worn depending on whether you are in the town or the country. “Fawns, greens and browns are worn in the country to blend in with your surroundings,” says Michael. “In the city you wear navy and dark grey, and light fawns if it’s the summer.” Just as you wouldn’t trudge around a farm in a pin-striped suit, you’d look out of place in a bold, checked tweed jacket in the city, he says. “But people do. It’s amazing what people do nowadays.”
Martin Blighty says he’s also often asked for advice on what to wear on dates. “It all depends on what day of the week the date is,” he says. “If the date is on a Wednesday, I’d suggest a tie or an open-neck shirt and a handkerchief in the top pocket. If it’s on a Saturday, I’d advise a closely knotted scarf – a bit Mick Jagger-like. You want to show you’ve got a bit of life.”
Both Martin and Michael lament the diminishing importance that good tailoring and smart dress have in main stream culture. “When you look at old films, people took much more care with how they looked. It’s much more casual now,” says Michael. Both have seen their industry change beyond recognition. “When I first started there were eight bespoke tailors in Cambridge,” says Michael. “Now there’s just us.”
But the tailors who have survived are in a secure position because, high up, in the upper echelons of society, these traditions are here to stay. And joining the ranks of the rich and powerful is just as much about looking the part as it ever was.