Soho Then: Ep. 3 - Fashion & Tailoring
Press play, listen, scroll through the transcript, and take yourself back to Soho then with the images in this photo-based podcast...
Clare Lynch: Welcome to episode three of the Soho Then photo-based podcast. I’m Clare Lynch, audio producer and Soho resident. This programme consists of six themed episodes released monthly from December 2018 to May 2019. Each episode has a corresponding collection of photographs that you can scroll through as you listen.
In this episode we explore the topic of fashion and tailoring in Soho’s past. Martyn Borovick is our guides with contributions from former and present-day residents and workers sharing their memories of Soho from twenty or more years ago.
Martyn Borovick: My name is Martyn Borovick. I’m 75, I’ll be 76 in June. And I started work in Berwick Street in July 1958. It was in a family business called S. Borovick Limited, in late ’31, early ’32. My father was working at number 14, Di Lando and Sons. He worked in a fabric house there. And my uncle used to float around, helping do odds and ends. He was very friendly with the person that owned the premises that we’re in now, offered to buy the property and from there it developed. It was a wholesale business, retail business and theatrical business.
The first show I remember working on was in July ’58, Berman’s, it was separate then. The head office was in Irving Street, off Leicester Square. And they had another little branch in Orange Street. And there was a chap there called Noel Howard and I used to go down to him and he’d show me designs by Cecil Beaton for the black and white scene from My Fair Lady.
Rina Rottondo: My name is Rina Rottondo, and I was born at 62 Old Compton Street on the 7th of February in 1926. ‘Round here, when I started work, it was all dress making. It was either catering or the rag trade. I mean, my mum and dad and my brother went into catering, but my sister and I, we went into dress making. Kingly Court, just off Beak Street, they were all little factories, used to be like all little rag trade places. Tichfield Street was full of dress departments.
Martyn Borovick: There was a showroom in Great Portland Street called Phyllis Taylor. There was a company called D.P.Gowns. That was evening wear. One in D’Arblay Street, I remember going in there. They had ladies about 60 or 70, they were doing bead work, very intricate, painstaking work. This is going back 55, 60 years.
Leslie Hardcastle: The tailoring industry was here. Enormous tailoring industry. And Mrs Agosti, for instance, you know, she was a seamstress. I used to go up there and she had a beautiful dress on her kitchen table. She had tissue paper over the table and this dress. And this dress…
“Look at this dress… clrrrrkkk [ripping sound]” tearing it a bit, ripping the stitching off.
And I said “What’s that dress?”
And she said, “Oh… well… I’m doing alteration, shortening here … da de da de da de da…”.
And I said, “Who are the people?”
And she said, “Oh, Hardy Amies”
“How much is that dress?”
She said, “300 guineas”
Well, 300 guineas was 300 guineas in those days. She was ripping it apart!
Martyn Borovick: There was an old lady called Elsie, who worked in an upstairs room in Rupert’s Court. And she was a big, fat lady, she used to have her hair in a net, had cigarette dangling from her mouth, gin bottles all over the room, cats running all over the place. But she used to churn out the most phenomenal costumes for the ice shows. We used to do a lot of work on ice shows here. And also, going back 40, 50 years ago, in South Africa there were travelling ice shows. And they used to come over and buy fabric from us as well.
Violet Trayte: My aunt was a tailoress for very famous people… used to do all the hemming of the collars and down here, and also sewing on the buttons and things. That was her job, she was very good at it. And they were great friends of Mrs Gontarsky that lived in the house next door, that had children. Very famous lady Mrs Gontarsky. And they were Jewish and her husband was a tailor, and she was a tailoress, like my Aunt was, that lived in number 19 Peter Street.
Rina Rotundo: I would have liked to have done a bit of tailoring but I never did. Tailoring is not as easy as dress making. I started when I was 15. In Grosvenor Street. The woman I worked for, Madame Rosa, she was a lovely lady. There was her and her daughter. And, she used to make the dresses, the daughter was a milliner, she used to make the hats. And then when I left there I went to work in Great Marlborough Street, D.P. Gowns.
We used to make beautiful dresses there, beautiful they were. They used to be all in a line. They used to be pink, lemon, cream, orange, burgundy, lilac… oh, they… they used to have lace bodices as well. They were beautiful then. The lace bodices were crocheted outside. They used to have velvet, oh they had some beautiful velvet really, oh the velvet was gorgeous, it was. Mind you, the dresses were elaborate. Too elaborate really for the time because there was a war on.
Martyn Borovick: This is a copy of a letter my father sent in 1933 to Germany, because Germans supplied the best velvet. And he informed them that he was compelled to suspend further business with the German manufacturers. And he’s “taken this action after considerable thought. And it’s taken because of the atrocities committed against the Jews in Germany. And not until the powers that be take steps that show practical signs to end the persecution of Jews, I find it impossible to resume trading.” It’s dated 24 of March, 1933. So he was way before his time really.
Rina Rottondo: In the beginning, I used to sew. I used to sew beads on, and press studs on. And anything that needed it, shoulder pads if they needed it and things like that. But afterwards I was taught to cut. I used to cut with a machine with a round wheel like that. Many a time I went through the wiring – BANG! The bloody place used to nearly blow up. I used to remember he would shout out, “Rina?” and I’d say, “I’m alright, Harold!” That was the Guvnor.
The girls upstairs, there must have been about 12 girls on the machines making the dresses. ‘Cuz they used to do what they called ‘piece work’, the more you made, the more you got paid. You see, with me, I never used a machine, I just used to do the hand sewing. So I didn’t get as much as them because they, the machining was easy … vrrrrooom…it just used to go like that, didn’t it? Oh, it was great, we used to have the radio.
Martyn Borovick: We did have at one time there were, all being told, with all of us, I think 13 people working there at one time. It was so busy I think the measuring sticks would catch fire, you didn’t stop measuring, and cutting, and shouting out, “Can somebody take [so much money]?” or whatever it was. At its peak it wasn’t uncommon for me to be working regularly [until] 9, 10, 11 o’clock at night, after we dropped the shutter. The theatre customers would come in at night with the designs for a show, drop the shutter at 6 o’clock, I’d bring in some drinks from the pub and some sandwiches. It was called the ‘Martyn Special’ – Campari Gin and dry martini and we had few of those. So in the morning it looked like a night club had been here but we worked and worked and worked. And there were parcels and parcels of fabric to go in the next day. We didn’t stop working and we worked on every show you cared to name.
Rina Rottondo: Everybody was in the rag trade in those days. We had the stalls on both sides of the street, the market, and you could get everything down there. That’s where Borovick’s started.
Martyn Borovick: This is a City of Westminster, as it was [then], London County Council license to have a stall in Berwick Street. This was issued to my grandfather, Solomon Borovick, who lived out in Edgware, and my father and uncle worked in the shop with him. It was issued 15th of December 1938 and that would expire the 31st of December 1939, at which time, of course, we were at war.
Class of Articles: Silk and Woollen Cloths
Number of Stalls: ONE
Street or Area: Berwick Street area
Position or Place of Stall, etc.: No. 16 opposite
An 8 foot by 3 foot stall
And there were the times, 7am to 8pm Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. Thursdays… half day, til 1 o’clock. Friday til 8 o’clock and Saturday til 9 o’clock at night. You wouldn’t have thought that possible, because now you couldn’t even imagine it.
There were people selling ties, shirts, the fellow with ties, Tosher, used to be big flash ties. And just to the left outside number 15, there was an old Jewish man called Mitchell. And he used to sell tights, ladies’ hosiery. Brian, who used to have a dress stall actually, opposite to where we had a stall. In fact there’s a picture, BFI did a film, 1956, Soho. And there’s a picture of my uncle, outside the shop, speaking to a customer on the stall.
Rina Rottondo: Oh Max, he, he fancied my mum. He was a nice guy, he was alright, but he fancied my mum. We used to laugh… oh…
Martyn Borovick: It was easy when we had one stall. Then we had the other stall, so we had to put them out and then in bad weather you had to rush out and cover them up again. Next door to the Blue Posts was Hilda’s. That was the dress shop in Berwick Street.
Rina Rottondo: Oh, Hilda was the one who supplied me with my clothes. I bought them from Hilda for one reason – they were one-offs. Nobody else had ‘em. And people used to say to me, “Where’d you get your dress?” I’d say, “You’ll never get one like this anywhere.” And you never. They were all one-offs, Hilda’s. And if I wanted something and I didn’t have the money in those days, she used to say to me, “Don’t worry, I’ll keep it for you.” And she used to keep it for me until I had the money. I bought suits, I bought jackets, I bought skirts, I bought tops, I bought everything.
There, that’s that shop, the tailor shop opposite the road, where I had my photograph taken. Brewer Street, felt the cat’s whiskers in that. Oh I used to love my clothes. I was a real smart Alecks when I was young. I used to go to Bourne and Hollingsworth in Oxford Street.
And then we had two Woolworths down there, one up by Marble Arch and one up this end. Then there was Littlewood’s and there was Marks & Spencer’s.
Martyn Borovick: I once went to M&S and they had some trousers, they said “We’ll have them altered for you”. And they used to send them to people in Berwick Street to have the alterations made so they would fit the customers. In fact at the [Borovick] shop now, on the first floor, there is an alteration tailor, Tony Phillips, who used to be in Noel Street. And I remember he used to do alterations for M&S, if I recollect, as well.
Tony Phillips: My name is Tony Phillips, I’m 69 this year. I was born in London and I’m a tailor. Everyone knows Soho for tailoring. You’ve got Saville Row down the road, you’ve got Carnaby Street. I started off to be an electrician. I did it a couple of years but I didn’t like it, it wasn’t me, it got my hands dirty. And greasy. And I couldn’t handle that. And it was always in my mind to work in a shop and be in fashion. I worked for people like John Michael, a chap called Geoffrey Klass who’s got King’s, obviously Dimani, in Bond Street now. And then I got the idea that I wanted to get into real clothing making.
I went to Taylor and Cutter, a tailor school in Gerrard Street. I used to go there two or three times a week and it’s where I learned to do my trade.
Martyn Borowick: A friend of mine, his father was a tailor in the workrooms up in Berwick Street. I inherited his shears when he died. He sent lots of his things to the V&A. But he gave me the shears, his father had the name of Kessell. He was born in Marshall Street, I believe.
Tony Phillips: These are all antiques, these are all vintage. Every one of these but they’re all in working order, every one. There are some that are like, I suppose, 150 years old. There’s a particular pair at the back there that have made suits for Mick Jagger, Clark Gable… The chap that I got them from is a Saville Row tailor called Arnold Grayson. And he worked in Saville Row and in Selfridges, he had a floor up there as well.
Martyn Borowick: Until recently you’d go upstairs and there were two men working in the room. They were separate but between them they’d pay the rent for the room.
Tony Phillips: Leo White was a Jewish tailor. He was in… he used to change around. He’d have a place in, one minute, Noel Street, then he’d move to Dean Street and he was always around, I used to like that guy, he was a character.
David Miller: In them days it was quite a lot of the Greek tailors ‘round in the West End or dress makers.
Tony Phillips: You go downstairs and someone said, “Yeah, you can get some buttonholes done here.” And so I popped in and there was this, this chap sitting in the middle of the room smoking a cigar. And I couldn’t really see him because it was full of smoke. He was just a character, yeah, really nice guy.
David Miller: As far as I know, my father used to tell me there was five or six buttonhole manufacturers ‘round the area. Over the years, rents, rates, businesses change, and they slowly moved out and we are the only ones left, as far as I know.
You’d be talking to people and they’d say “Oh, what do you do?” and it’s always, “What? You do what? Oh, ok…” And then you explain to them a little bit more, like we do a lot of theatres, films, we’re doing quite a lot of the new Downtown Abbey film at the moment, so I’ve been quite busy with that. Um… I just explain to them what we do and then it’s an “Oh, I see.” They just didn’t think that, when you’ve gone to your wardrobe have you ever thought about buttonholes? Just pick up your shirt and you put it on! Your dress and you put it on!
This is a keyhole with a fishtail. Instead of a square end it goes into a thin point so it doesn’t need a bar tack at the end. I think I’ve got 7, 8, 9 Reece buttonhole machines.
When he had them you couldn’t buy ‘em. You could only rent them from the Reece company. And it’s only, I think, 1973 or ’74, along those lines, when the Reece company decided to start selling ‘em. From what I remember, on the Reece keyholes, they was charged by the stitch. The little dial on the side of the machine and it clocked up all the stitches, how many stitches the button machine done, and you rented it that way.
Tony Phillips: We was pulling in customers. I had flyers going around Noel Street and Soho. And dropping them on the Underground and things like that. And people would find them and they’d find me. I’d be in by 5:30, 6 o’clock. And then we’d finish sometimes 9, 10. And then there’s been times when we actually slept there because we were so busy.
Well, there was Klein’s across the road, they were a trimming shop, which was good for me. Because if I needed anything I came upstairs, walked across the road and bought all my bits and pieces in there. I always kept myself to myself. I did my work, did my job, didn’t really mix with tailors that much. And also, that part of Soho was a little bit out of the way. It was like, it’s like being in another country if you like. Just being down that end.
At that particular time I was working in Oxford Street for Mr James – a string of shops, boutiques, and it just came up. There was this guy who had a little place in the basement. And I thought, “Yeah, this is the time to do it, we’ve got to start”. And that’s when I opened up the shop in Noel Street. Late ‘69/’70 we moved in, and then we picked up shops doing alternations, for all shops in Soho.
Alex Duncan: You used to be able to walk in, and go in, they measured you with material. You went back in one hour and you had a pair of trousers. That happened in Carnaby Street. Within one hour.
Tony Phillips: If someone comes in, they want a suit, they buy a suit somewhere and they’d want it fitted. They’d have it fitted and we’d make it look proper on them, you know, ‘cuz if it’s straight off the peg there’s little tweaks, taking in side seams, shortening the jacket, shortening the sleeves, narrowing the lapel. Someone’s had a suit for so long, they’ve lost a lot of weight, they need it all cut down, that’s what we do. That’s what I do. We can really make a suit look tops, you know, really good.
Alex Duncan: I came from Scotland as I guy of 17. I was absolutely blown apart by going in this place which was called Soho. In the ‘60s, you tried very hard not to be recognised as gay. And therefore style was very important. Carnaby Street started with two gay guys. Carnaby Street now, the world thinks of Carnaby Street as all lovely and mod boys and girls. But Carnaby Street in the beginning was a gay street. Because in those days the West End shops closed at 12.30 and the only shops, we discovered, were open were two shops in a place called Carnaby Street.
Wayne Kirvin: We used to go to one place which was Vince. Vince had originally been, since the ‘50s, in Newburgh Street. And that’s where all the guys used to go to get their clothes. John Michael’s was a little bit rich, too expensive, and had, I was naïve, had a little bit of a gay following, you know, it was a little bit outrageous.
Alex Duncan: And those shops were full of clothing which had come over from Italy. In the ‘60s, Italian clothes were absolutely the top thing. And these two shops were the first shops ever to sell what we call ‘briefs’ – underpants – to men. They were like little swimming trunks but they were underpants. And we discovered that, and that’s where Carnaby Street started. And The Kinks had a song, ‘Dedicated Follower of Fashion’. Well, when you hear the words, and you will hear one of the words saying “And he pulled his little pants up very tight”, that’s what it refers to. The first time men’s underwear became small and tight and a fashion item. That’s where it first started.
Lloyd Johnson: Pre-moving to London, when I was a sixteen-year-old, I lived in Hastings. And I used to get a magazine called About Town. And I saw a very small advert for swimming trunks, well they weren’t trunks they were swimming briefs. And this was a very new, more modern take on swimming trunks. So I got a cheap day return to London from Hastings and I went to this shop on the corner of Newburgh Street, just off Carnaby Street, called Vince’s Male Boutique.
So I went in there, the guy was very nice, very friendly. And I said, “Oh, I want a pair of those swimming trunks you advertised in About Town.” And he got the magazine out and he said, “Do you mean these ones?” And I said, “Yes, please.” I chose a colour and for some reason I chose a flesh coloured one…[laughter]. The choice was like black or flesh, I think. He said to me, “Would you like to try ‘em on, sir?” [more laughter] And I thought, “Trying on swimming trunks? That’s a bit odd.” And I thought, “Oh that’s what they must do in London.” So he pulled the changing room curtain open and there, the whole wall at the back of the changing room was a man in a pair of these briefs, you know, like a muscle man, right? A big photograph for all to see. And I could feel myself going red and he gave me the swimming trunks, I pulled the curtain, I tried them on, and I’d just about got them up and the curtain come flying open. And he said, “Do they fit, sir?” [Laughter] And I said, “Yes, thank you, I’ll take them.” And I thought, “Oh, God I’ve got to get out of here.” ‘Cause I felt really embarrassed and I didn’t really know why, you know, because I had no clue about homosexuality or anything like that. Anyway, so I paid for them. And I didn’t stop running until I got to, um, Berwick Street.
Tony Phillips: When I was about 14, 15 we used to come down, buy clothes. We’d go down to places like Ravel, Carnaby Street. But I used to go to the King’s Road, as well. Well when we were in King’s Road, it was really, really flashy. Everyone would wear things like ladies’ boots. Now don’t get the wrong idea, it’s ladies’ boots, crushed velvet trousers, gold lame shirt and a fox fur coat. So, if you come to town, they know where you come from. I used to have an Afghan dog at the time so he used to walk along with me, with long hair. We looked like twins. [laughter]
Alex Duncan: Carnaby Street sold clothes to gay young fellows. That’s where we got the polka dot shirts, the skin-tight trousers, the stretch fabric, the skimpy underwear, the cut tops. Those were from men, initially, in Carnaby Street.
Martyn Borovick: There was a customer, a Greek fellow, selling a fabric it was a rayon jersey, 54 inches wide. It was doubled over on rolls. And we were selling that nationally to ladies’ keep fit classes. And, we had about ten colours and he came in and used to buy 6 or 8 rolls of it. I would take 2 or 3 rolls, he would take 2 or 3 rolls, then he would come and take more, up to his little work room in Carnaby Street. And from that he opened a chain of stores throughout the West End.
Lloyd Johnson: My name’s Lloyd Johnson. I’m 73 years old. I was a bit of a mod when I was a kid. 1966, I eventually moved to London. I’d been living in Sweden for a year. And I’d written off for a job in Cecil Gee’s which was a fantastic menswear shop.
So there I was in London, living in a dreadful bedsit in Stockwell, caught the train to Piccadilly, walked into the Cecil Gee shop in Charing Cross Road. And they put me on the Italian knitwear, on the mezzanine floor, which was great ‘cause I was into that sort of thing. And then lunchtime came and he said, “If you get in any trouble, press this bell and someone will come up from downstairs.” ‘Cause I’d never sold anything in my life. And so I’m rearranging the stock and learning the stock and then I hear a “A’hem” behind me. And I turn round and it’s Johnny Walker from the Walker Brothers. My voice just went “Ooouhhhooouhhh”, I couldn’t talk. ‘Cause to me all these people were gods, you know? And, uh, so I pressed the bell and the guy came up from downstairs and served him. And then when the guy that I was working under come back from lunch, he said, “I think you better operate the lift.” Right? So basically they were taking the micky out of me.
So I went to, I stood in the lift. I didn’t know how high the building was. And the lift only went up one floor. And it was a lift that Cecil Gee had put in so he didn’t have to walk up the stairs and he could just go straight to his office. So there I am like a mug, standing in the lift, and Cecil Gee walks in. He’s got a camel coat on, lots of rings and smoking a cigar. A very, very Jewish look. And he said, “Uh, what you doing, son?” I said, “Oh, they told me to operate the lift today.” He said, “Take me to the first floor.” With a grin on his face. I pressed the button, took him to the first floor. He said, “Come in.” I came in and he sat me down opposite him at his desk. And he was very, very kind to me. He said, “I think you’ll find they’re taking the micky out of you, son.”
Alex Duncan: Young men for the first time, we began to dress up. We began to have a certain style. You paraded yourself. And Soho was the place to parade yourself. You strutted your stuff through Soho, very much so, very much so. Because that’s where we got our clothes. That’s where I first wore a floral tie. And I remember this gentleman walking past me and said, “Would you care for a drink?” And I asked him, I said, “Why did you ask me?” And he said, “It’s because you wear a floral tie.” These kind of little tricks, little knacks, those were what made you see and speak to another guy that you obviously knew was gay. Because of fashion. You began to dress up, you began to get the clothes that were coming from Italy.
We were beginning to wear, in those fair old days men wore either white or blue shirts, we began to wear polka dot shirts, we began to wear pink shirts, pale yellow shirts and very tight trousers. They became fashionable. Cuban-healed boots, shoes – these things men had never, British men had never worn in their lives. And it all began to happen in Soho. It was a colourful community. It was where you just felt alive and different and wonderful.
You’ve been listening to the voices of Martyn Borovick, Rina Rottondo, Leslie Hardcastle, Violet Trayte, Tony Phillips, David Miller, Alex Duncan, Wayne Kirvin and Lloyd Johnson, with added field recordings made by the Radio Enrichment Group at Soho Parish School. Soho Then is a photo-based podcast produced by Clare Lynch and commissioned by The Photographers’ Gallery, a Soho-based public gallery dedicated to photography. Soho Then is s financially supported by The National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund and #MyWestminster Fund. With thanks to National Lottery Players.
Thanks for listening and if you enjoyed the Soho Then podcast don’t forget to like and subscribe and tell your friends to listen too.
Track: On the street where you live
Written / composed by: Frederick Loewe
Performed by: 101 Strings
RKO Music 1965
Track: Ascot Gavotte
Performed by: Andre Previn, The Warner Bros. Orchestra
Written by: Alan Jay Lerner, Frederick Loewe
Columbia Records 1964
Track: Brigadoon Medley
Album: Brigadoon Hits Song hits featured in Ice Capades 1953
Performed by Jerry Mayhall and his Ice Capades Orchestra
Original production music written by Frederick Loewe
Track: Gay time
Artist: Alan Perry
KPM Music 1987
Track: Dedicated Follower of fashion
Artist: The Kinks
Pye Records 1966