Men shopping? A load of billiard balls

February 8, 2002

Katrina Honeyman reveals how one man managed to lure male shoppers out of the closet and take the embarrassment out of a feminine pursuit - thus setting the stage to make the buying of clothes suitable for 'real' men.

The sartorial extremes of David Beckham and other icons of present-day masculinity may be neither typical nor seriously imitated, yet men as active consumers of their own wardrobe are now less unusual than they once were. Before the early 20th century and the emergence of a more enthusiastic shopping habit, male interest in clothes shopping was confined largely to the wealthy, the artistic or the sexually creative. But after the first world war, there was a renewal of interest in men's suits, which eventually led to them becoming a mass masculine dress. This renaissance was supported by the activities of the multiple tailors, most of whom were based in Leeds. Among these, Montague Burton - a forerunner to the Burton menswear chain - was the largest and most influential. By the 1930s, 150,000 suits a week were being produced and sold in Britain. A standard woollen two or three-piece garment of sombre shade became customary dress for British males of all social groups for many occasions - as photographs of contemporary football terraces indicate - and by 1939, it was an unusual man who did not own at least one tailored suit. The suit lost its universal appeal from the 1950s only as more informal male clothing became increasingly popular and it became confined to Sunday-best outings.

The interwar popularity of the suit depended on the ability of the multiple tailors not only to make an attractive garment, but also to persuade men, reluctant or otherwise, to buy their product. In their quest for the enthusiastic male shopper, the multiples were aided by contemporary attempts to portray a new culture of masculinity in which "real" men could shop without appearing effeminate. Evidence from interwar advertising indicates that men were at least potential customers, and the content of magazines confirm men's essential participation in the new consumerism of the 1920s and 1930s. Lifestyle magazines facilitated the commercial development of masculinity and encouraged the view that utility and practicality, rather than vanity, motivated male interest in fashionable clothing.

During the interwar years the retail menswear outlet became a common feature of the British high street. The centre of even the smallest town contained at least one multiple tailors' shop, and very often several were grouped together in close proximity. The outlets of the Leeds multiple tailors conveyed a particular style, encapsulating masculine good taste, and constituted a space in which men would be comfortable shopping for suits. An integral component of the multiple tailors' strategy was the construction of the shop as an egalitarian masculine sphere, but not necessarily one in which the act of consuming appeared to predominate. Montague Burton, whose vision and command of the market established a standard to which others might aspire, placed the "shop" - or, more accurately, "order point" - at the centre of his business strategy. He masterminded the design of the shops and the code of behaviour of his sales staff. Burton's shops had uniform internal and external architecture. They were considered to be "outstandingly handsome", and the dignified internal decor of oak and gunmetal created a "manly" space, bearing little resemblance to a shop as traditionally understood.

The masculine structure of the shop was complemented by the fact that all employees, except the "invisible" female cashier, were men and by the conventional masculine demeanour required by the male sales assistants. The duties, responsibilities and codes of dress and behaviour for all involved in the selling of suits were specified in great detail in various company guides, authored by Montague Burton himself, which provided the basis for the six-week course of classroom instruction for the carefully selected apprentice tailoring salesmen.

Much of the learning, however, took place on the job as the style of experienced salesmen was observed and imitated. The Manager's Guide, the Burton retail staff bible, contained upwards of 700 exhortations for male employees. Appearance and smartness were essential ingredients of Burton's blueprint for the creation of masculine good taste. Typically, the sales staff, from manager to apprentice, worked in black and stripe suits over white, stiff-collared shirts. Such garb, standard among lawyers and bankers, helped to create a male, non-shopping atmosphere. Courtesy and politeness were considered as crucial as "energy, virility, sparkle and buoyancy - these are the positive (and very male) qualities to be looked for in the ideal sales assistant".

The comfort of the male customers was thus prioritised. It was acknowledged that not all men willingly embraced their role as consumers and were to be enticed. "Let Burton dress you" was emblazoned on the windows of Burton's shops, conveying a multilayered message, which included a hint of seduction, an element of male ignorance, but above all indicated the passive role that men were expected to play in the purchase of a suit.

The taking of customers' measurements was a potential minefield. Unless procedures were strictly followed, especially when measuring the inside leg, the carefully rehearsed welcome could be compromised. Strict protocol was to be observed to minimise embarrassment. Burton's guides emphasised tact and diplomacy. "Before taking (outside leg) measure, notice if the top of the trousers customer is wearing is in the correct position. If you think it is too high or too low, consult him on the matter." With respect to the thorny issue of the inside leg measurement, they state: "Ask customer to pull his trousers well up; then using the long metal end of your tape, place it as high up in the crutch as possible and continue to the shoe heel."

The location of Burton's and other tailors shops was also important to the successful construction of the consumer as masculine. Recognising that men were busy, and sometimes reluctant to engage in a specific shopping expedition, stores were commonly sited near workplaces with opening hours to suit. "As we cater for men who work up to 6 o'clock," Burton's manager's guide stated, "an hour in the evening is worth more than the rest of the day."

Other aspects of the Burton strategy conversely attempted to catch the potential customer - especially the young man - at leisure. Every effort was made by the company to let surplus floor space for male recreational pursuits. Where possible, the storeys above or sometimes below the shop floor were used for billiards, which served partly to catch the passing trade, but also to confirm the edifice as one in which respectable manly activities took place (neither drink nor women were permitted in the Billiard Halls managed by Burton's). Such was the success of this strategy that it quickly became common knowledge that a game of billiards could be enjoyed "above Burton's". It was quite possible, therefore, to visit Burton's without necessarily aiming to make a purchase, and a diffident potential consumer could be lured to the building without being identified unambiguously as a shopper.

In mass marketing and mass production, the men's clothing industry of the interwar years encouraged the shopping experience of male consumers. Although the suit itself, a ubiquitous garment at the time, turned out to be a blip in the history of demotic dress, the male as consumer of his own clothing shows no signs of being a passing trend.

Katrina Honeyman is senior lecturer in economic and social history at the University of Leeds. She is contributing to the "Clothes shopping: retailing, fashion and style, 1700-2000" conference at the University of Wolverhampton on February 13.

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