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Gentleman's Attire

To pretend to be a gentleman, go to London and get suited
Jonathan Kandell
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

(continued from page 1)

Our conversation takes place at The Ritz on a Sunday afternoon, where Simon and his wife, Cheri, have brought their 6-year-old son, Theo, for a rite of passage towards becoming a gentleman -- tea at the hotel's Palm Court. Daylight streams through the central glazed skylight, illuminating the palms, the hanging lamps that look like birdcages, and a central niche with the sculpture of a woman surrounded by angels. Looking around the room, I see a number of mop-headed youngsters with their parents, but also foreign visitors of my age from the Middle and Far East.

Tea, in seven varieties, is served in silver teapots with silver milk jugs and tea strainers. There is also a triple-tiered tray: on the bottom level, finger sandwiches of smoked salmon, egg and watercress, cucumber, and turkey and cheese; a middle tier of freshly baked scones with jam and clotted cream; and on top, a selection of afternoon tea cakes. Simon demonstrates to his son the proper way to pour tea through a strainer; the most important part of the ritual is not to let a drop of tea stain the table. Being an aspiring gentleman, I'm all eyes and ears. But Theo, a budding violinist, is instead riveted by a familiar melody from a harp being played a few feet away. When the bill for tea ($42 a person) arrives, I recognize the harp strains -- the theme song from The Godfather -- and settle without protest.

My next morning is spent getting fitted for shirts at Turnbull & Asser on Jermyn Street. "From prime ministers to princes, to mere earls and baronets, Turnbull & Asser has dressed them all," reads the store catalogue. But Steven Quin, the salesman, assures me that most clients are untitled, "successful, well-established men in their 40s and 50s" -- a profile within the parameters of my fantasies.

I will have to place a minimum order for six shirts, at prices ranging from $173 to $314 per shirt, depending on the quality of the fabric. Among the swatches of different cloth in ascending quality, I pick out: a classic poplin woven from Egyptian cotton, with quite a bit of body, in a blue-and-white gingham check pattern; two triple-color stripes, also in Egyptian cotton; a super-fine, soft cotton in a cream herringbone pattern; a light, almost silky, white-on-white with the vaguest of stripes, in what is called Sea Island quality cotton; and one shirt in the shop's top-of-the-line "two-fold 200" fabric -- a cool, dense cotton with a silky feel -- in a solid blue.

For my two least expensive shirts, I ask for a three-button cuff that is a Turnbull & Asser trademark. For the middle-priced shirts, I select two-button cuffs with round corners. And for the priciest shirts, I choose French cuffs to accommodate cuff links. Next come the measurements -- 13 in all, including one of my left wrist that takes into consideration the thickness of my watch and its band. My shoulder pattern, called a yoke, is prepared in cardboard, while my torso measurements -- front and back -- are silhouetted and cut out in thick paper. The sleeves, cut separately, are also patterned in paper. "We will keep your patterns for up to 20 years," explains Mr. Quin. "As you expand, we expand the pattern."

Within 10 days, a sample shirt will be ready and sent to me in New York by parcel post. I will be asked to wash and wear it a few times. If I'm happy with the shirt, the store will go ahead with the balance of the order. The total bill comes out to $1,160, a princely sum, although fulfillment is at less than royal speed. Once, after suffering a polo injury, Prince Charles had the store create special one-armed shirts with matching slings, and wrote back that they were made "not only wonderfully well, but with breathtaking speed." Had he waited the nine weeks it will take for my order, his arm would have already healed.

In a celebratory mood, I walk across the street to Wiltons for a lunch of a half dozen rock oysters ($15) and a broiled Dover sole ($38). The quality of the décor, service and food has remained unchanged for many decades. Waiters in black suits and waitresses in white nanny uniforms move about at a pace bordering on haste. For those who wish privacy, curtains still separate some of the heavy wood tables. The succulent oysters and the thick, meaty flatfish need no other seasoning than a squeeze of lemon.

The following day, on the top floor of The Ritz, I pay a visit to Mr. James, advertised as "one of London's few remaining traditional gentlemen barbers." His real name is Demitriov, and he still speaks with a charming Greek accent, despite a half century in London. His small establishment looks like an early twentieth-century barbershop, with an old-fashioned leather-backed chair and an assortment of clippers, combs and straight razors carefully arrayed on an open shelf. His guest book is filled with grateful remarks from actors, lords, MPs, generals and board chairmen. But when I ask about his most memorable client, he mentions John Kenneth Galbraith, the very tall, former Harvard economist. "I had to stand on a bench to cut his hair," says Mr. James, only about five and a half feet himself.

Mr. James is that rarest of diplomats, a credible flatterer. "Most important is to achieve a balance by making your hair fit your face and forehead," he tells me. "In your case, I would not even think of using a part." It's a nice way of suggesting that my current swept-back look perfectly suits my receding hairline and bald patch. As I step down from the chair, I also appreciate the fact that this is one of the few times I'm leaving a barber shop without an intense desire to shower away stray hairs down my neck. "Now you are ready to meet anybody on equal terms," says Mr. James, adding his $45 fee to my hotel bill.

It's just the sort of confidence booster I need as I head to Home House, a private club where I have been invited to lunch. Located a 10-minute walk from the hotel, the club is named after its original owner, Countess Elizabeth Lawes Home, who built it as her 18-bedroom residence in 1777. At the time, its location, Portman Square, was the most fashionable address in London. But the Jamaican-born heiress suffered the usual biases towards colonials, and was described by one of her contemporaries as "unattractive aside from the size of her fortune."


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