Turnbull & Asser has long been the secret destination for women of taste.
Take Katharine Hepburn, for example. Not only did this famous Hollywood star pioneer wearing trousers teamed with tennis shoes when most women stuck strictly to skirts, but she also borrowed from the boys by turning to Turnbull & Asser for her silk pyjamas.
Step into the inner sanctum of Turnbull & Asser on Bury Street, where there’s a bank of photos on the wall featuring some of the brand’s most famous bespoke clients. In among Ronald Reagan, David Niven, Douglas Fairbanks and Walter Matthau sits a solitary snap of a smiling Gwyneth Paltrow. A vision of female loveliness almost lost in a sea of men, she signs the image ‘To all the lovely gents at Turnbull & Asser, with much love, Gwyneth Paltrow’. Surely evidence that the company continues to make for women?
‘We haven’t had photos on the wall here for that long,’ explains David Gale, a master shirtmaker who joined the company in 1974 and who is the fount of all knowledge when it comes to Turnbull & Asser’s female clientele. Before photos, Turnbull & Asser kept an autograph book. ‘Look,’ he says, pointing to signatures of famous female customers - Mary Quant, Lulu and Diana Rigg, better known back then as Emma Peel in The Avengers - who all came here in the 60s.
The company holds Joan Collins’ brown paper bag containing her very own personal paper shirt pattern, which is carefully stored behind the scenes.
Aside from the famous, female customers tend to be wives or girlfriends of male customers or businesswomen who need something suitable to wear with their suits. Then there are those of the hunting persuasion, who visit Turnbull & Asser for their stock-attached shirts, an item which, like most with a function, has crossed over into fashion from time to time.
Gale explains there’s a fundamental difference between shirts and blouses, and that a woman’s size is what determines which silhouette she chooses. ‘Blouses have darts and tend to be more fitted than shirts, while shirts have no darts and are an easier fit.’ A typical refrain he hears is: ‘I can’t find a shirt to fit me because of my long arms’, and notes that the neck on most women’s shirts is often ill-fitting, too.
At Turnbull & Asser women are assured of something more exacting than what’s available from most fashion designers geared towards women. Given that most of the alternatives are shirts or blouses that have been mass-produced in a factory far away, and with a fit that is far from perfect, many can’t compete with what Turnbull & Asser has to offer in terms of quality or price, which starts at £235.* In fact, it’s surprising that there aren’t even more women clamouring to have their shirts made here.
Bespoke shirts start at £235, with a minimum first order of six.