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Frank Foster, Shirt Maker To The Stars

November 19, 2015
by the gentle author

Frank Foster, a legend in shirting

There is an anonymous door in Pall Mall on the opposite side of the road from the line of grandiose clubs of St James. Go through this door, walk down to the low-ceilinged basement and you will discover Frank Foster and his wife Mary, who have been working since 1958 in two small rooms that barely add up to any space at all. Yet this modest workshop contains Frank’s entire world of experience as a cosmopolitan conjurer of cotton and silk, who made shirts for anyone-who-was-anyone in the latter half of the twentieth century and is now in his ninety-third year.

Contributing Photographer Colin O’Brien & I found Frank parked behind a crowded desk of presidential scale in the front room, overlooked by a line of large brass scissors mounted upon the wall, gleaming like badges of office. This is where Frank clasps his nimble fingers and ruminates upon the changing world, cogitating his long life and the insights granted to him uniquely as shirt maker to the rich and famous.

‘When I look at my hand, the fourth finger is like mum’s and other fingers are like dad,’ Frank admitted to me in tender recollection, ‘The way the nails grow, I can see their hands even though they are dead.’

Born in Shadwell in 1923 into a family where his father struggled even to raise three shillings a week rent, as a boy Frank was the last person in the East End to catch typhoid in forty-seven years – which he ascribes to eating food scraped off the pavement in Watney St Market. ‘I know it’s true because they came to find me forty-seven years later to see if I was a carrier,’ he confessed to me, ‘Which I’m not.’

‘You have to remember, poor people never had shirts years ago and that’s also why tails were put on shirts because they never wore pants. I didn’t have shirts growing up until some discarded ones came from uncles. I had discarded trousers from uncles too, but when you had grown-ups’ trousers altered, the legs were very wide so you had to be careful not show your three piece when wearing them. We were very poor and I was always embarrassed about that, especially wearing altered shirts that looked ghastly.

I was a youngster when war broke and they evacuated me from Shadwell because the Docks were badly bombed – it was set alight. As a consequence, I went to live with an aunt in Brent, Hendon, which I thought was the country. That’s how I broke away from Shadwell. I was a natural artist. When I was at school, I used to draw and the other kids gathered round to watch. It’s in my soul. I had some success and exhibited portraits in five galleries when I was fourteen  - including The Whitechapel Gallery, East End Academy and Coolings Gallery in Bond St. My paintings were sent to Moscow as an aid to Russia and never came back. But, being a young lad, I had to get a measly job with Bernstein, a printing company in Aldersgate. They produced rubbish – they weren’t fine lithographers. I was a printers’ boy, I earned the princely sum of seventeen shillings and sixpence a week, and I was there on one occasion when Aldersgate St was set alight.

At the same time, I was learning to be a cartographer with the Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries, but it was very boring and I didn’t like it. I was only about seventeen at the time, so after three weeks I just left. Then, like an idiot, I volunteered for the RAF in the Euston Rd for a lovely job which was to be a rear gunner. The life expectancy was about three weeks. When I told my dad, I said, ‘I’m going to be called up so I volunteered.’ I shan’t tell you what he called me. He said, ‘ You f**king mug!’ He went to Euston Rd and told them my real age and they cancelled it all, but nevertheless I did have to go into the army. They called me up as a driver with the Royal Army Service Corps. I was rubbish at all that stuff!

I made my first shirt over sixty years ago, I was art school trained as a textile printer at Central, which was in Kingsway. At first, I made ties and I thought of looking up the Huguenot silk weavers in Spitalfields. So I went there and I found one Huguenot – I couldn’t pronounce his name – who wove some silk for me for ties. He introduced me to what is called ‘crying’ or ‘weeping’ silk. I said, ‘I don’t quite understand what that is,’ so he showed me silk that he had woven and when you squashed it together it made a beautiful noise of sobbing, the yarn was so fine. I bought that silk and made ties of it. A little while after, that stopped and you won’t hear anything of it because it is something specifically done by Huguenots.

I first had a new shirt of my own when I was eighteen. I got it because I had already started printing the scarves and I was earning a great deal of money. I went to Hilditch & Key in Jermyn St. They were a French company then, so my shirt was made in Paris. It was a silk shirt and I paid fifteen guineas which I could hardly afford. It was striped, nothing plain – fancy, trying to show off!

I’m not an expensive shirt maker although I am a good shirt maker. When I first went into business as a young lad, I was making silk squares for scarves that were printed by me by with rubber blocks. The silks I printed were picked up by people who loved the stuff including the royal family and, when I was discovered by them, it gave me a very good income for a while. You’ve heard of Princess Marina? This was 1947, just after the war. I supplied my scarves to Harrods and all the other stores and, while I was out selling, people were asking me if I could supply them with other things.

In those days, I had the Carmelite nuns working for me. They are a closed order but I was in contact with these people. You have to treat them fairly and not exploit them. If you are not honest they will find out. If they think you are making too much profit on their labour, that is also not allowed. Anyway, I conformed and we got on very well. Consequently, I was able to provide other things that the Carmelites could make for me and one of those things was ladies’ underwear, but they wouldn’t make ladies underwear that was black because they considered it not a nice thing, although men think it is a nice thing nuns don’t. Making other things, I discovered they were able to make shirts all by hand with hand-finished button holes. So that’s how I became a scarf maker, an underwear maker and a shirt maker. Not a very good title, is it?

My price when I started making shirts was four pounds, four shillings and that was tough, so I started doing shirt recutting and recollaring for laundries. My first place was 37 Bond St next to Sotheby’s – I make shirts now for the boss. In those days, I was sharing premises with a tailor and paid seven pounds a week, that was in 1956. But I didn’t get on with the tailor so I found a place of my own at 10 Clifford St.

An old boy I made shirts for, he financed me. He asked me, ‘Where do you live?’ and I said, ‘I live a long way out, I can’t afford a flat.’ So he said, ‘Can you afford £12 a week?’ I said, ‘Yes, I think so but I’d also like a workplace.’ So he said,’ Have you £5 a week?’ and he introduced me here in Pall Mall and I signed a lease for twenty-one years for five pounds a week – now it’s four hundred a week, it’s not easy.

I’ve made shirts for almost everybody you can think about. All the Shakespearian actors – John Gielgud, the Redgraves, Lawrence Olivier, everybody. You mention a name and I’ll tell you if I’ve made shirts for them – Marlon Brando and Orson Welles, when they were still slim, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Junior, Cary Grant, Ray Milland, I could go on and on. I’ve done the Bond films for over thirty years.

Orson Welles phoned me from the Ritz one day to ask if I would go round with samples because the designs could only be sanctioned by the Art Director of the film he was in. I said, ‘No, there are hundreds of samples here and I’m just round the corner,’ but he wouldn’t come. He was as far from me as I am from you, pretty much, so eventually we had a stand-off and the studio, they did all the running and fetching. He was making life awkward and that’s what some of these stars are like. They want to tell me about their fathers who are tailors and give me some competition. They want to be know-alls.

Tony Curtis, I didn’t like him at all. I went round to the Dorchester and he didn’t offer me a cup of coffee when I was spending hours with him. Then his kinky wife came out of the bathroom stark naked and said, ‘Oh I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were here.’  These people are not humble, they are used to being applauded, they are in the limelight – it’s all false. But Gregory Peck was a gentlemen and Robert Mitchum, although he was tough guy, was a gentlemen too. You have to go through a lot of people before you find the genuine ones.

I worked for Berman’s film costumiers for fifteen years and made shirts for Norman Wisdom at thirty-five shillings each and never made any money but was introduced to lots of film stars. So Norman Wisdom, being a mate of mine, we shared a flat. We both bought food and when I was buying Nescafe he was buying Camp Coffee. I said to Norman, ‘Why do you buy this crap?’ ‘You’ve got to remember Frank, I was a boy soldier,’ he replied. Norman was badly treated by his father who used to throw him up in the air as a child and drop him, and that’s how Norman learnt to fall. He always took me to a restaurant in Tottenham Court Rd called Olivelli’s. It was all theatricals. The ones that went there were down and out, yet they were lovely people. I never had money to eat there but Norman had plenty, he generated more money than the Bond films. He liked the ladies but he was married, that’s the reason he shared a flat with me.

My production of shirts is very small, I’m a top grade shirt maker. My shirts you can turn them inside out and the insides are better than the top side of many so-called famous shirt makers. Nowadays I am very limited how many I can make because I can’t get people to do it. People don’t want to come into trades where they they have to use their hands, they don’t want to make things by hand, they don’t want to cut things by hand. They want to do everything with modern machinery. We still use a button hole machine that is a hundred years old. It’s an antique but works beautifully.

The secret of making a good shirt is skill, patience and knowing about textiles. Every piece of cloth we sell is high quality. We charge £175 per shirt. If you want a silk shirt made out of fine quality Macclesfield silk, we charge you the same money as a cotton one. We’re not a greedy company – I’d like to be greedy but it’s not in my nature. Coming from a poor family, I know what money means.

I love making shirts, I can look at an individual and when I measure him, I can see all the problems and the build. So when you leave here, I’ll remember your build and how you stand and hold your head. That’s not me trying, it comes – I can’t tell you how. I remember fine details about people, their eye colour, and their hair, how it grows. It’s a strange thing, I suppose the eye becomes accustomed to noticing these things.

When someone comes in, first you measure the neck. You have to notice the space between the shoulder and the bottom of the ear. People with thin necks can take a deeper collar. People who are fat with a short neck need a collar that balances with the shirt. You then measure the front shoulder to see how wide that is and from there you go down to the half-chest, across the top of the chest. From there you go to the abdomen and then to the hips and then to the waist. We don’t use shirt tails, we cut shirts with square bottoms and side vents. Our shirt tails are very smart, especially when men like to disrobe in front of their females. Then you have to do the cuffs, and cuffs have to be measured according to wrists. Where watches are concerned, you have to make allowances for rich people who have bulky complicated watches. We then do what is called a ‘button gauntlet’ to enable rich men to have the choice – if need be – to have the choice of rolling their sleeves up. Workers don’t have button gauntlets because no-one gives them the choice or option to roll their sleeves.’

Frank as a young man

Frank at his desk – ‘I’d like to be greedy but it’s not in my nature’

Frank demonstrates his hundred-year-old buttonhole machine he acquired sixty years ago

Mary Foster

Frank’s parents and grandparents

‘That’s what some of these stars are like – they want to tell me about their fathers who are tailors and give me some competition…’

Frank Foster - ‘I love making shirts’

Photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien

FRANK FOSTER SHIRTS, 40 Pall Mall, St James’, SW1Y 5JG

I am going back this week to be measured for a shirt by Frank, so you may expect a further report

You may also like to read about

Maurice Franklin, Wood Turner

Aaron Biber, Barber

Jack Corbett, Fireman

21 Responses leave one →
  1. November 19, 2015

    I loved reading that story – what a lovely Londoner!
    What an interesting life.
    You sound like great fun.

    Please, somebody, tell us more about crying silk.

  2. Georgina Briody permalink
    November 19, 2015

    What a fascinating story. To think I worked in Pall Mall and did not know he was there, I am also a descendent from Spitalfields Huguenots and, yet again, have discovered something new about silk weaving. Wonderful.

  3. Sue permalink
    November 19, 2015

    Wonderful piece.

  4. November 19, 2015

    utterly compelling and “Yes” to crying silk.

  5. James permalink
    November 19, 2015

    I understand what Mr. Foster means regarding noticing fine details. What a great chap and an enjoyable piece of writing. Thank you.

  6. Vicky permalink
    November 19, 2015

    Loved reading this, sorry when it ended.

  7. Penny Dolan permalink
    November 19, 2015

    Thank you so much for telling us all about your work and history, Mr Foster. I absolutely loved this piece!

  8. November 19, 2015

    An inspiring and fascinating story — I hope Mr Frank Foster can still manufacture many shirts in future!

    Love & Peace for PARIS
    ACHIM

  9. aubrey permalink
    November 19, 2015

    Trying to enlist as a gunner made me laugh. I enjoyed the piece very much.

  10. Pauline Taylor permalink
    November 19, 2015

    This man knows how to tell a good story, I enjoyed reading it very much. Thank you.

  11. Laurian permalink
    November 20, 2015

    Thank you for sharing such a lovely story

  12. Elizabeth permalink
    November 20, 2015

    Wonderful story I was mesmerised. Frank is a very interesting character and I am glad I have been ‘introduced’. to him. I would love to know more.

  13. Elizabeth Stormont permalink
    November 20, 2015

    My son in Hong Kong told me the link. A very hard start to life, but a fairy tale ending. My best wishes to Mr & Mrs Foster.

  14. November 20, 2015

    What a historian Frank is! I learned SO much from this article. Living history, for sure.
    And yes, please–more about crying silk.
    More stories from Frank, please.
    Enjoy your shirt fitting, GA!

  15. Patrick permalink
    November 25, 2015

    Frank made for me wonderful shirts in 1993 – 1994 and i had lunch with him in a good restaurant and i can tell you the shirts were wonderful but the Man also.

  16. Ian Silverton permalink
    November 29, 2015

    Great tales Frank,40 Pall Mall now on my list for a new shirt,do not get the bit about Norman Wisdom,in the James Bond films????? which one???? cheers.

  17. Julie Barrett permalink
    December 13, 2015

    What a brilliant article!
    I was fascinated by Frank’s story and I’m sure he has many a tale to tell, I would love to hear more…….A real character and wonderful craftsman.

  18. Nick permalink
    April 22, 2016

    Truly fascinating insight into a real craftsman. I loved reading this.

  19. Denis Foster permalink
    December 9, 2016

    Very interesting gentleman.

    I think I have a connection with Frank Foster. I am aged 74!

    He had an older step/half brother William Ernest Foster – born 30th May 1919 – my father!

    He died in July 2010. He served in the RAF from 14.02.1938 and retired as a Sqn. Ldr on 31.12.1975. He never allowed conversations about his experiences during WW II. Nor did he speak about any relatives other than Uncle Ted.

    My father had an older step/half brother Edward Randall who served many years in the Royal

    Navy, and lived in Dartford, Kent in his latter years.

    His mother, my Grandma Rose, nee Everson, his mother died in November 1975.

    She was a glassblower before she married for the first time.

    I would like to make contact with any of Frank Foster’s surviving relatives if it is allowable and they are agreeable.

  20. Darren McGavin permalink
    January 11, 2017

    As a postman who used to deliver to FF Shirts at 10 Clifford St, I became acquainted with Frank many years ago. Someone who could leave you opened mouthed with some of the stories he would tell you about the rich and famous. I can recall Bernie Ecclestone being a frequent visitor most mornings. After chatting to Frank and leaving, you always felt 10 feet higher. A wonderful and very wise man.

  21. Sarah-Jane permalink
    March 15, 2017

    What an amazing history. Having read the later article I know you are no longer with us, thankfully Mary & Sam are carrying on your wonderful traditions. I’m saving up (at 64 yrs old) to hopefully purchase one of your masterpieces

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