Jason Goodwin: ‘As soon as I tried the suits on, we realised that they represented the Three Ages of Man’

Our spectator columnist discusses three suits, donated by the same man to a charity shop, which have seen him through his first through stages of life and made him long for the fine tailoring of days-gone-by.

We have an adored neighbour who lives in a house he built himself and speaks with an accent that has almost entirely died out elsewhere. He has a fund of shockingly funny stories, like the thing a tout once promised him as he disembarked in Port Said, long ago. It’s so rude that I cannot even begin to hint at it here, except to say it included an unexpected reference to Queen Victoria.

One day we were talking about cheese, or buying wine, and I asked him if he’d heard of Lidl. ‘Lidl?’ He echoed, in a voice that might have ordered the troops over the ridge at Tel-El-Kebir: ‘Lidl? My grocer!’

I like to think of Mr Lidl the grocer and of his whistling boy on a delivery bicycle threading the country lanes with another order of frozen roast potatoes and Danish smoked trout, for it is in exactly the same way I claim Oxfam as my tailor.

‘I ripped the trousers with a corkscrew when trying to open an obdurate bottle of wine’

Years ago, when I was barely even a father, Kate bought three rather good single-breasted suits she found hanging in a charity shop in Alton, Hampshire. The tailor’s details in the inside breast pocket showed that the suits had all belonged to the same chap. As soon as I tried them on, we realised that they represented the Three Ages of Man.

One, in an understated herringbone, fitted me like a glove: it was as if I had, that moment, stepped out of a time machine that had whizzed me forwards from Savile Row in 1958, when the buses had black mudguards and policemen directed the traffic.

The 1979 suit, on the other hand, had a stripe and hung off me in loose folds: I could have shared the trousers with anyone going in the same direction or made the jacket double-breasted by simply moving the buttons. The 1960s suit, Goldilocks fashion, was somewhere in between.

Senior woman outside Oxfam charity shop, England UK

I wore the junior production regularly for years, until, one day, I ripped the trousers with a corkscrew when trying to open an obdurate bottle of wine. I moved gratefully onto the 1960s pattern, which no longer required braces, and wore it turn and turn about with a moth until significant portions of it had been ingested. The 1979 suit hangs in a cupboard, because it is still, thankfully, too big for me.

Another charity shop provided me with my all-time favourite, a glorious green suit tailored in 1968 by Kett of Tooting Bec. He made it for a man of similar shape, green wool with a subtle weave, single-breasted, no cuffs, a zip fly.

It was absolutely the business. A cab driver once wound down his window to holler: ‘Nice suit, man!’ A beautiful festivalgoer told me I was wearing it well.

A man came up to me in a shop in New York and said: ‘Love the threads.’ That suit is no longer what it should be. It seems to have shrunk slightly – and there’s moth.

At least one of the Evangelists considered Heaven to be a place free of moth. Matthew, reflecting the inevitable bitterness that goes with having a good suit, advises: ‘Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt… But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt.’

But everyone knows that the sort of sartorial treasures St Matthew and I are talking about don’t appear like they did in the old days. Mr Lidl may be an acceptable grocer, but Mr Oxfam is an increasingly unreliable tailor, for the tailored classes have largely died out, with their worsteds and tweeds. Which has me thinking – perhaps that third suit isn’t entirely out of bounds? I could try it on again, with a pair of braces handy.


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