Getting British gentlemen to agree on tailoring in the 20th century is a lot like getting people to agree on religion in the 16th century – specifically, trying to get Christians to concur on the correct belief system to seek audience with the divine. On All Hallows’ Eve in 1517 in Wittenberg, Saxony, Martin Luther posted The Ninety-Five Theses, thereby accusing the Catholic Church of systemic corruption and expressing doubts over the jurisdictional power, or plenitudo potestatis, of the pope. And, just like the first bottle thrown at a Flamengo-versus-Fluminense football match, Luther’s text set into motion a violent and permanent schism that divides all of Western Christianity to this day.
What was the primary point of contention? Luther and his cohort John Calvin believed that the Catholic Church – with its pomp and circumstance, flying buttresses, Michelangelos and Titians, robes and incense, soaring Latin-voiced choirs and transcendent stained glass – had become a vehicle for influencing politics and garnering riches the world over. In contrast, the disciples of Luther and Calvin eschewed all external manifestation of God’s glory, espousing a rigid discipline of unornamented churches, quiet meditation involving direct communication to the Almighty and intentionally drab clothes. The ultimate extreme of the Protestants were the Puritans, who castigated the Catholic Church’s ‘popish pomp and rags’, willingly ate profoundly under-seasoned food – because indulging in any form of sensory pleasure was a sin – and were generally so insufferable that eventually the British packed them into boats and sent them to the Americas where they created the banjo.
Similarly, British civil tailoring has always been an extension of the country’s military tailoring tradition, so men’s clothes were created with underlying structure to give them bearing and to bestow upon their wearers heroic countenances. Then, in 1919, maverick Dutch tailor Frederick Scholte, along with Edward VIII – a man whose fine taste in clothing contrasted somewhat with his taste in politics and women – introduced an aggressively disruptive style of tailoring called the ‘British drape‘. This style was the complete antithesis to the moulded, sculpted aesthetic vision of structuralism, championing a sort of floppy, soft draping of clothing not unlike what Giorgio Armani would introduce to mass luxury in the late 1970s. Just like that, a schism within British tailoring was ignited. Just as the world is divided into the Burgundy and Bordeaux drinkers, the universe of British tailoring in the 20th century was divided into contesting camps of supreme structuralists and evangelical proponents of the drape.