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Frank Foster, Shirt Maker

August 29, 2016
by the gentle author

Celebrating the seventh anniversary of Spitalfields Life with a week of favourite posts from the past year

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 © Estate of Colin O’Brien

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

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11 Responses leave one →
  1. August 29, 2016

    I’m a relative new comer to Spitafileds Life a former East Londoner who has lived in New York City for over 30 years. I feel privileged to have read this piece and am now trying to figure out how to convince my wife that we need to spend 175 quid of our money on a shirt !

  2. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    August 29, 2016

    I wish, at times like this, I lived in London so that I could visit Frank Foster to shake his hand and say “hello” and maybe listen to some of his ramblings. Till 120. Thanks
    Melvyn Brooks
    Karkur Israel

  3. August 29, 2016

    A force to be reckoned with – Frank Foster.

  4. August 29, 2016

    Frank is a real pro in life and is a talent for shirt making and of course design, he is priceless. Our manufacturing base is disappearing fast with production going global. Having said that the UK is good for finding niche markets with young people showing interest. London is big hub using the railway tunnels and unlikely buildings/backrooms where single and small groups get cracking, these guys are true entrepreneurs. It usually ends up with being a way of life with small mark-ups for them. These ‘trades’ have been shown many times on Spitalfields pages by GA showing gin, cheese, bag making etc. This is an exceedingly good write up by Frank he tells all, to sum this is a super blog and will be liked by us all I am sure. More of the same please. John B

  5. Paul G permalink
    August 29, 2016

    Fascinating. What a memory Frank has at 93… and what memories – including his revealing insights into the manners (rudeness) of self-obsessed celebrities like Orson Welles and Tony Curtis. These are priceless recollections and thank you so much for sharing this conversation with so many others. Your blog is a gem – a diamond a day!

  6. Ros permalink
    August 29, 2016

    loved reading this wonderful piece all over again, with Colin’s photos doing a fantastic job too. What a great character and raconteur Frank is.

  7. August 29, 2016

    Interesting story, have to take them some cakes , when I, m in london

  8. Toni Bracher permalink
    August 29, 2016

    Thank you for opportunity to ready this incredible life story. There is so much – 93 years old – what a wealth of knowledge – he and his wife are still running a viable business in the centre of London. I also loved the use of the 100 year old buttonhole maker which ‘works like a dream’. It is a story of triumphing against so many odds from childhood, poverty,breakout of war and creativity and how he worked hard to make it happen. Interesting comments on some of his famous clients too.
    Wishing good health to Frank and Mary Foster.

  9. August 30, 2016

    Great article – I love reading about artisans and their trade, especially when we get to see the person and business behind the craft. And it is interesting to note that his work is still in demand, when people could get it faster/cheaper elsewhere. I love to sew and so that part of me wanted more photos of the shirts and the button hole machine!

  10. David Rice permalink
    September 16, 2016

    The sense of the living history of Frank is conveyed wonderfully. Imagine the sights that he has seen in his long life. I should think the days sharing a flat with Norman Wisdom were very exciting.

  11. Guy Davis permalink
    October 2, 2016

    It is with great sadness that I have to announce the passing of dear Frank on the 30th September. He was my uncle in law. A great great chap and very decent friend. He was working right to the end and I was one of the lucky ones who aside of owning several FF shirts was always taken with his reminiscing of past customers and some tales of the famous I can’t repeat!
    He was a terribly decent generous lovely guy and I will miss him.
    My thoughts of course are with Mary, his wonderful wife and family.
    Rest in Peace Frank
    Guy

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