Historian's tailor-made museum partnership


A research collaboration between the University of Leeds and the city's museum has helped produce a fascinating new exhibition examining the history of tailoring.

Tailored: A Very British Fashion, opens today at Leeds City Museum and celebrates the art and heritage of tailoring from the 19th century to today.

Co-curated by fashion historian Danielle Sprecher, a PhD student in Leeds’ School of History, the free exhibition brings together a wide range of examples of British tailoring and explores the legacy that these skills and styles bring to today’s fashions.

It is the public-facing element of the University’s research partnership with Leeds Museums and Galleries, and aims to address some of the gaps in current research, and to fit the suit and Leeds tailoring into the broader context of fashion history.  

Ms Sprecher said: “The Leeds tailoring companies such as Burtons and Hepworths made millions of suits for British men and were significant players in the production and retailing of men’s high street fashion after the Second World War. 

“My project is focusing on the design, making and selling of men’s suits – the primary product of the Leeds industry – and making an important contribution to the much overlooked areas of men’s fashion and everyday fashion.” 

The University has a strong tradition of textiles and fashion research – the collaborative doctoral award partnership between the School of History and Leeds Museums and Galleries is a legacy of work by the late Katrina Honeyman, an authority on the business and social history of the textiles trade who was Professor of Social and Economic History at Leeds until her retirement through ill health in 2011. Her Well Suited: a History of the Leeds Clothing Industry, 1850-1990, was published in 2000.

The exhibition considers this central research question in a wider context, including a consideration of British tailoring history from the 18th century, traditional fabrics used in British tailoring and the reinvention and subversion of tailoring. It also considers the influence of tailoring on women’s fashion. 

The show explores the development of tailoring as a renowned British skill, from Savile Row in London to the Leeds tailoring industry, and includes a major loan from London’s V&A of Ringo Starr’s jacket, made by Leeds-trained tailor Dougie Millings, and a bespoke suit commissioned as part of the exhibition by acclaimed tailor Kathryn Sargent.  

Leeds-born Sargent was the first woman in the history of Savile Row to hold the position of Head Cutter, and is now the first woman to run her own Savile Row tailoring house.  The suit is made from handwoven wool cloth, finished in a Yorkshire mill, and is a pivotal 21st century piece within the exhibition. 

This major exhibition at the city’s flagship museum includes a diverse selection of garments for men and women charting the changes in tailoring and fashion history.  It draws on the nationally important Leeds Museums and Galleries collection, which includes many of the big names of Leeds tailoring such as Montague Burton and Hepworths. 

Tailored celebrates these Leeds tailors’ contribution to men’s high street fashion with the inclusion of a Hardy Amies’ suit for Hepworth’s centenary collection and a 1920s Burton’s dress suit.  

Another high street name with its roots in the city is Marks & Spencer. The exhibition includes an example of the firm’s “sustainable suit”, on loan from the M&S Company Archive, which is based at the University. Other items draw on the University’s ULITA archive of international textiles.

The exhibition also explores the impact of tailoring on style from country wear to formal attire, for the aristocracy to the working class, and includes exquisite examples across the centuries such as a 19th century ladies’ riding habit, made by Leeds’ Legg and Millard, and tailored jackets for working men and women from the 1800s to the 1930s.  

Other items include a child’s silk coat from the 1700s, an intricately embroidered Privy Council uniform jacket, and a Blades of Savile Row 1960s velvet evening suit. 

Kathryn Sargent’s suit highlights the 21st century’s contribution to the tailoring legacy and the creation and display of this bespoke garment is further complimented with work by contemporary fashion designers Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen and Roger Saul for Mulberry.  

Ruth Leach, Curator at Leeds City Museum, said: “We worked hard to ensure this exhibition has a nationally historical context within which Leeds plays a major hand. With the combination of items from our own collection and the loan from the V&A, we are yet again staging a unique exhibition at Leeds City Museum that showcases the best of British history, throughout which Yorkshire’s legacy is woven. 

“It takes on the journey of tailoring with vibrant and engaging displays, and a schedule of events with a wide appeal.  Leeds is rapidly gaining a reputation for staging cutting-edge fashion exhibitions and a reputation we look forward to enhancing with Tailored.”

  • Tailored: A Very British Fashion runs from 17 July to 3 January 2016 at Leeds City Museum, Millennium Square, Leeds, LS2 8BH. It is open every day except Monday (open Bank Holidays) 10am-5pm Tuesday to Friday and to 7pm on Thursdays, weekends 11am to 5pm.  Free entry to all visitors.  www.leeds.gov.uk/Tailored
  • Leeds City Museum is also running a programme of events and activities throughout the year appropriate for a range of audiences including GCSE, further education and higher education students, adult education groups and voluntary interest groups.  Visit www.leeds.gov.uk/Tailored for details.  

Further information

• For University of Leeds enquiries, contact Gareth Dant, Press Officer, on 0113 3433996 or email g.j.dant@leeds.ac.uk.

Leeds Museums & Galleries

Established in 1821, Leeds Museums & Galleries is the largest local authority-run museum service in England and has one of the larger and most significant multidisciplinary collections in the UK. We care for 1.3 million objects which we use to inspire, educate, entertain and challenge the people of Leeds and visitors to our city. We run nine historic sites and visitor attractions, to which we welcome over 1 million visitors each year, approximately 25% of all museum visits across Yorkshire.

The dress and textiles collection at Leeds Museums and Galleries is recognised by the Arts Council’s Designation Scheme as a collection of national and international importance because of the quality and range of the items. From Elizabethan textiles and eighteenth century ladies dresses, to the latest Alexander McQueen coat, the collection gives us insight into 500 years of fashion and furnishings.