Last year, we reviewed Sydney Barney’s book “Clothes and the Man” which was basically
a dressing guide for the London Gentleman of the 1950’s. Today, we want to review Thomas Girtin’s books “Makers of Distinction: Suppliers to the Town & Country Gentleman”
as well as “Nothing but the Best: The Tradition of English Craftsmen from Edwardian to Elizabethan” which were published in the same decade, portraying the craftsmen behind the clothes & accessories for the fine gentleman. Some of you may wonder why I dare review two books at once. Well, the answer is quite simple: it is essentially the same book! Both published in 1959, the title “Makers of Distinction” was written to appeal more to the British Market, while the superlative “Nothing but the Best” was reserved for the US American market.
First, we will introduce you to Thomas Girtin, and then we will talk about the books.
Thomas Girtin – The Author
The British author Thomas Girtin was born in 1913, and later studied law at Shrewsbury School and Pembroke College in Cambridge, England. During WWII, he joined the Royal Artillery and spent the whole war in and around greater London.
It was then that his manifold character really started to appear. During a period of paper rationing, Girtin and his wife first ran a country pub. He then developed a huge interest in the cloth & wool trade and its history. Finally, he wrote a biography about a extrovert 18th century satirist Dr. John Wolcot before he had a go at crime stories, two of which were published.
Makers of Distinction & Nothing but the Best
Although the two books feature different covers, they are almost identical. The only differences are the paper used, the page numbering, as well as the fact that the English version has several photographs, while the American edition features just a few illustrations. Hence, I will talk about them in the following as if they were one and the same.
The book is divided into 15 chapters covering everything from bespoke tailoring, shirtmaking, hatmaking, shoemaking, gun making and coach making to raincoats, gloves, canes, fishing rods, horse saddles, umbrellas, and jewellery. Each production process is meticulously described, and the author understands to present the readers with passages about the origin and development of these trades, which are then mixed with anecdotes of their famous and sometimes erratic patrons. And so we learn, for example, that Mr. Hawes, the founder of the firm which is now known as Hawes & Curtis, invented the backless evening waistcoat as well as a dressing gown with an attached scarf.
Without exception, he only writes about English craftsmen and analyzes their potential for the future. Back then, saddle makers were already on the decline, while fishing rod makers were in high demand.
He describes the hey-day of the craftsmen and shops during the Edwardian Era, and talks about the private club-like atmosphere in many of these establishments, where the London gentry could spend half a day picking out the right shirting material and it was unthinkable to have your shirts laundered by someone other than the shirtmaker. He also reports about the nouveau riche and their lack of appreciation for custom made goods. Interestingly, even in the 50’s, about 65% of English bespoke shoes were exported to the US. Without this support by the Americans, many crafts would have probably died out much sooner.
Unfortunately, the book really lacks pictures. Nowadays, readers appreciate photos, especially regarding crafts, much more. Therefore, such a book would have benefited enormously from a range of high quality photographs (the ones you see in the article are all the pictures you can find in the book). As it stands, the execution of many steps involved in the crafts under discussion are left to the reader’s imagination.
Makers of Distinction, also known as Nothing But the Best, is a tribute to craftsmanship and the history of a lost society unable and / or unwilling to purchase bespoke items. Altogether, it is a good book about traditional crafts that would have been a must read, if it provided more pictures. However, it is a worthy text for readers interested in the origin of bespoke crafts.
The book can be purchased rather inexpensively in various antique book stores and especially online, where you will find a number of copies for less than $5.