Are Women Saving Savile Row From Extinction?

Ben Pignatelli for Distilled Post

Fashion may have changed since the days of Pride and Prejudice, but many formal occasions still require a suit of some kind. For weddings, funerals, job interviews or just days when you want to look your £6,000 best, there is only one place to go - Savile Row, London. 

Although the fictional James Bond is probably the most famous client of the Row, others include Lord Admiral Nelson, Emperor Napoleon III, Tsar Alexander of Russia, Winston Churchill and Charles Dickens. Even today, Savile Row is still the benchmark for bespoke tailoring, and the first stop for anyone trying to make an impression in a suit.

Although it boasts a hugely successful history, Savile Row is not what it used to be - fast fashion and a general move towards informal casual wear meant that many tailors found themselves bankrupt and out of touch. The Pandemic did not help matters. Some attempts at remodelling and thus appealing to a younger audience had limited success. Eventually some great household names, such as Kilgour, had to close their doors for good. 

At what seemed to be the final hour, several female tailors breathed new life into the streets of Savile Row and Jermyn Street, at a time when they seemed superfluous and old fashioned. In the vein of Alexander McQueen (a traditional tailoring training paired with a deep understanding of modern fashion), these women have transformed Savile Row.

Men and women’s fashion

Despite some changes in style, men’s formal fashion still follows the same general set of rules it has done for centuries. The occasion will denote the level of formality, be it a suit, dinner jacket, or morning suit, for example (hence the swiftness with which men can dress for formal occasions - there is no ambiguity with what to wear).

In contrast to these strict rules that men must adhere to, women traditionally do not have the luxury and as such must try to dress in the general theme of the evening, often quite a daunting, and time consuming task. But the idea of a woman wearing a ballgown to a formal occasion is less common than it once was - with women now firmly cemented in the workplace (although there is still a long way to go before we can see real equality of the sexes), the industry of bespoke women’s suits is breathing new life into the once vibrant Savile Row.

Le Smoking by Yves Saint Laurent in 1966 was an early example of traditionally male formal wear made for women. Unsurprisingly, Le Smoking was pivotal to changing fashion forever - Cate Blanchet cutting a figure Sean Connery would be envious of in her latest film, Tár, serves as evidence for this. In fact, founder and CEO of The Deck Daisy Knatchbull’s first work was, like Le Smoking, a women’s dinner jacket, or tuxedo.

Sexism and Savile Row

Although a woman in a suit would not turn any heads (in outrage) anymore, there is still the hangover of tradition, and with it sexism, on Savile Row, and in men’s tailoring generally.

In a 2022 article for The Rake, several notable women were asked about their Valentine’s Day plans, Daisy Knatchbull and Caroline Andrew, two leading female tailors, included. Although a relatively harmless article, it was clear their gender was the only reason they were being interviewed - no male tailors from the Row were present, and the suggestion no doubt would have been met by ridicule. 

One source who got to an interview stage with a leading fashion house (the source asked it not to be named) was told she could not be hired on account of her age and gender - she was told in no uncertain terms that she could not be hired due to the possibility she could become pregnant in the next few years. The outdated and offensive (not to mention illegal) nature of this situation serves as evidence that the Row was in dire need of a makeover. 

Knatchbull, Gormley and Andrew - Savile Row’s Triumvirate

Like Caesar, Pompey and Crassus before them, these three are pioneering monumental change at the very heart of bespoke tailoring, and show no signs of stopping. 

These three women have ‘challenged the sartorial norm’, energising the traditionally male area, and invigorated the industry in the process. There is a strong history of women in tailoring, but as finishers (roles such as sewing the buttons or lining to a suit, jobs assumed to be roles for women). Women used to be barred from the Front of House on account of ‘tradition, class systems and protocol’, the Row has finally moved on with the times. 

Unlike the stereotypical Savile Row tailor, an ancient, wise old man from the East End who looks like he was born in his studio and has never left, many of the female tailors are young and forward thinking. Gormley set up her business (exclusively for women) when she was just twenty, Knatchbull and Andrew similarly young. As more women are looking for bespoke or made to measure suits, the appeal to be tailored by a woman grows too.

Knatchbull who began her career in Huntsman, possibly the most respected, traditional tailor on the Row, and also studied under the great fashion editor Lucy Ewing, a good example of her plethora of influence and experience. 

Knatchbull famously wore a suit to Royal Ascot in 2019, an event possibly more famous for its fashion than its horse racing. She was the first woman in tails and a top hat inside the royal enclosure. Her decision to wear traditionally male formal wear is reminiscent of Frida Kahlo’s famous family photo, where she donned an elegant three piece suit, rather than a traditional Mexican dress, like her sisters and mother. 

It was a statement to the fashion world, and to Savile Row especially, that things were changing. Since the event, Ascot has begun encouraging women to don a suit if they wish. 

Unlike Knatchbull, who merely runs the business, Caroline Andrew is herself a cutter as well as a business owner. After being rejected from several tailors she decided to start her own brand and has been a key name in Savile Row since. 

The tradition stitched into the linings of Savile Row, although charming, means it refuses to evolve with changing fashion trends. As a style usually only came about when a King decided it, often tailors on the Row are painfully stubborn when it comes to tradition. Forward thinking, fashion conscious people like Andrew, Gormley or Knatchbull help curb the impeding elements tradition has over innovation.

Is this a turning point for global fashion?

Dressing outside the norm and still being respected in work and social life is a battle that has been continuing throughout history. Katharine Hepburn was infamous for wearing suits, something much more frowned upon in the early 20th Century. For the most part even today, particularly in a professional setting, people tend to stay in the lanes denoted to them by society.

Knatchbull argues suits are more than simply fashion, they are a mindset that represents power and independence, hence her desire to open the market outside of only men. Although criticised for wearing ‘boys clothes’, Knatchbull is adamant women can and should be able to wear traditional menswear as well as dresses or other traditionally female items of clothing. The success her and other female tailors have had seem to represent an end to the outdated mindset that suits are for men and men alone.