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Tailor-made for a fashion revolution

    Richly hip: Michael Fish (seated) with celebrity friends including Twiggy, Tom Courtenay and Joe Orton, Photographer: Lichfield
    Richly hip: Michael Fish (seated) with celebrity friends including Twiggy, Tom Courtenay and Joe Orton, Photographer: Lichfield

    In the middle of the last century there was no British man, other than Winston Churchill, with a name better known than Montague Burton. On more than 600 shop facades in prime sites in every town in England, in big white letters against a black background, was "Burton" - and tucked into a curl on the giant initial B, "Montague".

    He became part of the language, deservedly so. He made it possible, almost mandatory, for the British working man to have a decent suit that looked neat and fitted, a not-so-small social revolution. He wasn't alone. There were, among others, Hepworths and Fifty Shilling Tailors (which later became John Collier "the window to watch"). All of them had big factories, all in Leeds but Burton - initially the "thirty shilling tailor" - was by far the biggest.

    Born Meshe David Osinsky in Lithuania in 1885, Montague Burton came to England in 1900 and, after trading for a couple of years as a pedlar, opened his first shop in Chesterfield selling ready-to-wear bought from wholesalers before moving on to made-to-measure where, as some readers will remember, you went into Burton's, chose your material, were measured up, then waited a month for your suit to arrive from the factory. "Deposit with order, cash before delivery, no discount" said the notice in the shop.

    He was an observant Jew. He had a daily maariv service in his factory. In 1939 he received a message from his general manager telling him that antisemites were scratching "Jew" on the windows of some of his shops. Burton replied that he would have relished the opportunity to add "and proud of it." He was a member of the small community in Harrogate, the beautiful spa town near Leeds, which he loved. Though a keen Zionist, when he and his wife died in the 1950s they were buried in the Leeds cemetery in lead coffins so that they could later be transported, not to Israel, but to the yet-to-be-opened Jewish cemetery in Harrogate, where they now lie.

    Montague Burton looms large in an extremely enjoyable new exhibition at London's Jewish Museum about Jews and men's fashion. It's called Moses, Mods and Mr Fish.

    Some may be perplexed by the title. We know what Mods were and we'll come on to Mr Fish but what's this with Moses? Jews have been involved in clothing throughout history. The first mention comes as early as Genesis chapter 37 when Jacob gives his son Joseph a coat of many colours (probably two sizes too big so he could grow into it). But nobody ever said Moses was much of a dresser or clothier. There's no record of him flogging waterproofs at the Red Sea and nothing about fashion in the 10 commandments - no "thou shalt not wear trainers if you're over 25, except for playing sport" ­(though there should be).

    It turns out the Moses in question is E Moses and Son of Aldgate, east London, pioneers who, from a start early in the 19th century, were revolutionising the marketing of men's fashion, though we should also make a nod towards Moses Moss, founder of Moss Bros in 1851 and, since 1897, hirers of formal wear, the making of many a simchah. Before he changed his name he was Moses Moses (so good they named him twice).

    The industrial revolution, the movement of population into the cities and the development of mass society offered a far bigger and more accessible market for new clothes provided the price was affordable.

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    Volume selling at low prices became the order of the day. The Moseses and their in-laws the Hyams were leaders of that trade. Together, they presided over the off-the-peg and made-to-measure markets, with their flair for advertising and opening grand emporia that were a treat to visit - what today is known as "destination shopping." They advertised widely and vividly and were not averse to a verse, even a bad one.

    That it was Jews who revolutionised the clothing trade was only natural. For many reasons - kashrut, opportunity and exclusion - we had always been in the business. Because of the laws of shatnez (prohibition against garments mixing wool and linen) Jews had to be involved in providing clothes for Jews; because of exclusion from many other trades, clothing became one of a limited number of businesses they could do; and because in various countries Jews were historically forbidden from making new garments, they traded in old ones.

    Many, arriving here penniless, eked out a living as pedlars. In the late 18th- and early 19th century there was much negative comment about the sight and sound of Jews selling old clothes in the streets of London and other cities to the English poor who could never dream of affording anything new. This was literally the rag trade.

    With the great influx from Eastern Europe into London's East End at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, there was an explosion of Jewish clothes-making. It was how the majority made a (mostly poor) living, generally in sweatshops where they were exploited - usually by Jewish bosses.

    In choosing who is the hero -superhero even - of Moses, Mods and Mr Fish, there is really only one place to look: to the man born Sasha Goldstein in Lithuania in 1903. He came here aged 10 and transmogrified into Cecil Gee, inventor, innovator, stylist, godfather, Modfather, progenitor of the whole modern era of style in Britain.

    Entering his Shaftesbury Avenue emporium in the late 1950s or '60s was something else - beautiful, exotic, sensationally stylish and quite unlike anything else in England. It contained magnificent staircases, birds in enormous cages and storey upon storey of clothes to die for.

    In his first shop in Commercial Road in the East End in the late 1920s, when he was in his 20s, he was already doing revolutionary things. Hard to credit now, but he was the first to sell shirts with attached collars and he invented the button-through shirt. Before that, all shirts were pulled over your head, nightshirt style. He was the first to put clothes on rails inside a shop rather than having them piled on shelves.

    He understood better than anybody the springs of fashion desire. Savile Row was about being posh, Burton was about being respectable, Cecil Gee was about falling in love. After the war, the years of demob drabness, Cecil Gee went American, bringing a sexy whiff of Hollywood into the London smog. Wide-shouldered, double-breasted suits, hand-painted ties. "Forget the Blitz, here comes the Ritz" he said. The Zoot Suit, very flash, was an assault on English uptightness. And, later, when people took against it - too much, too spivy - he took a turn that signalled the start of modern, and Mod times. He went Italian: box jackets, lovely coloured knitwear, pointed shoes. A whole new wardrobe of pleasure.

    Meanwhile, nearby Carnaby Street, until then a neglected alley, had become a centre of the world - an explosion of boutiques, many of them Jewish-owned, and thousands upon thousands of kids buying this week's new thing then coming back again for next week's. It was Lord John and it was I Was Lord Kitchener's Valet. It was cheap and it was cheerful; it was exciting; it was ridiculous.

    In Chelsea, the shop that was farthest down the King's Road was, appropriately, the most "far out" of Sixties boutiques - Granny Takes A Trip. Owned by Sheila Cohen and her boyfriend, it was part vintage, part psychedelic, properly made, properly extreme. The Rolling Stones went there. You had to be hip and brave even to go in and fairly minted to buy.

    But not as minted as for Mr Fish, in Clifford Street, near Piccadilly.

    Michael Fish, a Jewish boy from Wood Green, north London, educated in Savile Row and gilded Jermyn Street, was the ultimate provider for the hippy rich and the richly hip. It was special to own anything bearing his label "peculiar to Mr Fish" - one could perhaps stretch to a kipper tie (he invented the kipper tie); a chiffon shirt might break the bank, a silk suit certainly would. Without Michael Fish, Mick Jagger wouldn't have had that short, white, Greek–style dress he wore at his Hyde Park free concert in July 1969. And who would have made David Bowie the satin sheath dress for the album cover of The Man Who Sold The World? It was still the rag trade but a far cry from poor Jews shouting their wares on London's streets.

    We take pride in successes in medicine, science, culture, academe, the law and all that. But can any of it compete with the happiness and excitement the shmutter trade has brought to the world?

    For us, like other immigrants, tailoring has often been regarded as a business to move on from. "What's the difference between a tailor and a doctor," goes the joke. Answer: "A generation." And that's the truth, more's the pity.

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