Tue. Dec 7th, 2021

Paul McCartney, John Lennon and George Harrison play on the roof of their offices at Savile Row, London, 30 January 1969
The Beatles play on the roof of their offices in Savile Row, London, January 30, 1969 – a long way from their early 1960s trademark uniforms © Ethan A Russell / Apple Corps Ltd.

Anyone looking for a custom suit in the late 1960s would have found London’s Savile Row a frightening prospect. “Death, intimidating, forbidden,” is how Edward Sexton, the veteran tailor, remembers it.

The cramped atmosphere of the fine tailoring shops on the street dressed by the English upper classes was meant to keep the high polloi out. “Heavy oak doors, curtains, no window displays, nothing to attract passing trade,” he says.

Sexton, a skilled pattern-cutter who trained in East London, was still in his twenties when he and Tommy Nutter, a young working-class London tailor, opened Nutters of Savile Row at number 35a in February 1969. Theirs was a newcomer establishment in Mayfair, intended to undermine a stuffy world by offering fine man-made workmanship with exaggerated, classy shape and color (Sexton’s ready-to-wear shop still trades at number 34).

Like Sexton and Nutter, many of their clients were young, working class and made enough money in the creative industries to afford handmade clothing, hard enough to announce their arrival. “Suddenly, young people have made a hell of a lot of money, and it has not happened before,” says Paolo Hewitt, author of Fab Gear: The Beatles and Fashion.

To the established tailors of Savile Row, Sexton and Nutter’s presence must have felt like an ambush. Six months earlier, the Beatles had moved the headquarters of Apple Corps, their business empire, to number three. The Beatles were among Nutter’s first clients: all but a denim-clad George Harrison wore Nutter’s suits on the cover of Abbey road, their 1969 album. “It was a stroke of luck,” Sexton recalls. “It was not an organized photo shoot.” They started seeing customers very quickly, not only from the counterculture but also businessmen.

The Beatles, seen here in 1968, visited a number of designers and boutiques in West London for their clothing © Camera Press / Tom Murray

The Beatles’ fashion influence is back in the spotlight with The Beatles: Come back, the three-part television documentary directed and produced by Peter Jackson, which makes its worldwide debut on Disney + this week. The film consists of previously unseen footage from the January 1969 recording of the studio album Let it be and the group’s last live performance on the Apple Corps rooftop at Savile Row that month – one of the few times the Beatles have performed in uniform, according to Hewitt.

The documentary captures the Beatles’ creative process in the months before they split up. But just as striking is what John, Paul, George and Ringo wear in that footage from early 1969, which is shown in the documentary’s trailer. Their relaxed, joyful feminine attire is nothing like the modernist uniform suits, often worn by Pierre Cardin, in the period between 1963 and 1966, from their early success to when they withdrew from live performances.

In Get back, Ringo Starr – the most confident Beatle – wears a succession of flared blouses in hallucinatory patterns, John Lennon prefers primary colors and his future wife’s fur coat, George Harrison appears in a variety of English Edwardian-style pastels, while Paul McCartney wears mandarin. knitting. It is a visual riot that not only reflects the group’s creative position, but also a wider social and cultural revolution.

John Lennon at the opening of Apple Tailoring in King’s Road, Chelsea © Shutterstock

George Harrison at a King’s Road Club Celebrating Apple Tailoring Opening © Bill Zygmant / Shutterstock

“That period at the end of the decade is becoming very intense in London,” says Teresa Collenette, fashion historian and co-curator of the exhibition. Beautiful People: The Boutique in 1960s Tea Culture, currently on display at London’s Fashion and Textile Museum. Fashion, she says, has changed faster than ever before.

“In the early 1960s it was about the future and mass production. But later the mood changed with the escalation of the Vietnam War, a move towards the rejection of modernity, retrospect, anti-materialism and an interest in a multicultural future.

Cultural commentator and jazz musician George Melly identified these sartorial shifts as early as 1966, when he noticed exaggerated costumes worn by gallery-goers at an exhibition of the work of Victorian illustrator Aubrey Beardsley at the V&A. “I found it impossible to place them,” Melly wrote in the Observer. “Almost everyone gave the impression that they belonged to a secret society that had not yet declared its goals or intentions. I believe now. . . that I stumbled for the first time in the presence of the emerging Underground. ”

Nutters of Savile Row was not the only store from which the Beatles bought their clothes. Their style was shaped by a range of designers and emporiums, including several boutiques in West London, which Collenette described as “almost anti-shops” because their strange garments were wildly impractical: Hung on You, Granny Takes a Trip and I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet between them.

In 1967, the Beatles even ventured into retail, first with the Apple Boutique in Baker Street, and later with the short-lived Apple Tailoring on King’s Road in Chelsea. The former wore expensive clothes in luxurious materials by an elusive Dutch design duo, known as The Fool. Simon Posthuma and Marijke Koger were artists rather than clothing designers, and the business lasted just over six months.

“It was a strange, stylized medieval aesthetic,” Collenette says. “It was a short-lived store that lost a lot of money. There was not much business sense, and there was a lot of shoplifting. But [the Beatles] was trapped in an intense moment, and the class barriers were down. It was a creative project and as soon as it got a little boring, they lost interest. ”

The Beatles at the 'Let It Be' Sessions at Twickenham Film Studios, January 1969
The ‘Let It Be’ Sessions at Twickenham Film Studios, January 1969 © Ethan A Russell / Apple Corps Ltd

According to Hewitt, the group’s late-period experimental clothing reflects another awakening: “They were trying to move away from the tough, working-class macho Liverpool,” he says.

“There is a little [in Get Back] where Lennon is wearing a green shirt, probably a Ben Sherman, worn in 1969 by skinheads. But he has long hair. He mixes it. One of the great things about the Beatles was their wide-ranging music, and they did the same in clothing. That same jumble of all kinds of styles. ”

The Beatles broke up in August 1969, just months after the recording of Get back. The group argued over musical direction, and their lack of a uniform style reflected that tension: “It indicates the move to the break,” Hewitt says.

But that short, late-career sartorial explosion reflects a wider shift that has changed London’s fine clothing industry forever. It was also part of what made the Beatles special, says Collenette: “From a fashion history standpoint, they were exceptional.”

‘The Beatles: Get Back’ will be shown on Disney Plus on November 25-27 with the book of the series being released by Callaway. The ‘Let It Be’ album and box set are out now

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