James Sherwood's Musings on Seminal Shirtmaker Turnbull & Asser

James Sherwood's Musings on Seminal Shirtmaker Turnbull & Asser

Language is terribly important, isn’t it?

I recall the shock when I first heard a newspaper feature of mine – deftly penned with great care I might add – described as ‘content’.

A little piece of me subsequently died when I read in the contract that instead of being a writer I was now considered a ‘content provider’. How joyless is that? It is as if some linguistic Witch Finder General has decided to toss the English language onto the bonfire of the vanities.

A similar slap was administered by an editor I have worked with for longer than we both care to remember. The subject was late payment (natch) and I was reassured that ‘all our suppliers are important’. Suppliers? How very dare you!

There was I, thinking my job description was as editor/writer when all along that steady flow of golden prose was merely supplying a commodity as bog standard as a palette of industrial strength loo roll.

Where will this blunting of the English language lead?

A prima donna assoluta performing at La Scala might become known as a vocal facilitator or a gold medal-winning athlete an energy supplier. Speaking of athletes, I was appalled by the BBC at the last Olympics turning ‘medal’ into a verb. Talk about Tom Daley hoping to medal was all a bit Cyril Smith for me.

You will not be surprised to hear I won’t be dashing to Smythson any time soon to add ‘supplier’ to my card. As it happens I don’t have a title on my card though I think odd job man would probably sum it up.

The lines of inquiry that make up my career at present are distinctly odd. Only last week I found myself in a sound recording booth at Wise Buddha studios on Great Titchfield Street. I’d been asked to write and present a half hour audio book called Marilyn Monroe’s London for an app project in association with Bespoke…

turnbull & asser gatsby

What else is new on the Rialto?

The Turnbull & Asser project (a biography of the company to be released this fall) has thrown me back into the 1960s and 70s in search of a species known as the peacock male. I’ve researched Savile Row in the Swinging Sixties but it is not a decade I could go on Mastermind with and win.

With T&A we are fortunate to have guest appearances in some of the most important fashion films between 1963 and 1974 including The Italian Job, Get Carter and The Great Gatsby.

Turnbull & Asser’s shirts are distinctive. You remember the scene in The Great Gatsby when Redford throws a rainbow of silk and voile shirts around Gatsby’s dressing room? Serendipitously Fitzgerald had written the shirts scene into the original novel, the film’s producer David Merrick was a T&A customer and the brand itself was wildly fashionable in the 1920s. So the appearance of the shirts and the T&A boxes were all in keeping.

carter-cl1-overview (1)

Now product placement is an industry, that kind of gentlemen’s agreement in an artistic endeavour would not happen without tens of thousands of pounds changing hands. Fortunately there are actors who will insist on a particular firm to dress them on film.

Ralph Fiennes requests Anderson & Sheppard suits while Michael Caine’s shirts have been made by Turnbull & Asser since The Italian Job in 1969.

What began as a search for Noël Coward as a client of T&A’s in the 1920s and 1930s for his silk dressing gowns took me to the 1960s again.

I discovered the Master having dress shirts made for his appearance with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in the 1968 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore entitled Boom. Coward plays a surreal character called the Witch of Capri. He wears a claret velvet dinner jacket and T&A dress shirt and bow tie.

When I’m researching a sartorial history I am always keen to get the facts straight. Every company has its stories but I like to check them. It is lazy to find a great film still and attribute the shirt, tie or dressing gown to a firm like T&A.

Fortunately we have the customer ledgers to prove or disprove an order. We also have T&A alumni who were there from the late 50s and can spot the house’s work in photographs and on film.

death on the nile turnbull & asser

Most thrilling discovery so far is Turnbull & Asser’s friendship with Oscar-winning costume designer Anthony Powell. Powell has costumed some of my favourite films such as Death on the Nile. To know that Turnbull & Asser appears in so many of Mr Powell’s films despite not being credited (as few ‘suppliers’ were) is to add another piece to the jigsaw.

Until next time…

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Letters from Bloomsbury Square, James Sherwood

James Sherwood ‘s biography of Turnbull & Asser will be published this Autumn.

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