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A Shirt By Frank Foster

March 15, 2017
by the gentle author

The shirt Frank Foster made for me

Frank Foster was the shirtmaker to the stars. Among other luminaries, he made shirts for Marlon Brando, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant and John Lennon, so you can imagine my astonishment and delight that Frank Foster made a shirt for me. The one you see above.

Yet for a long time I did not think that I would be the lucky recipient of such a treat, even though Frank offered to make a shirt for me when I first visited his workshop with photographer Colin O’Brien to undertake the interview which you can find elsewhere in these pages. I had to admit that his price of £175 for a top quality handmade shirt cut-to-fit was beyond my budget, so Frank insisted that he would do it as a gift as long as I wrote about it. This seemed like an extremely good deal to me, and Frank said that he would make one for Colin too.

A few weeks later, I went back to be measured by Frank and to choose a shirting fabric that I liked. It was a lustrous off-white with woven stripes in mid-grey, alternating between a zig-zag and five fine parallel lines. I chose this because it reminded of those designs for papers by Edward Bawden and Eric Ravilious printed by the Curwen Press. I have always thought that grey and white make an attractive combination.

Frank presented me with a tiny pair of scissors that he produced from his desk drawer which had ‘David & John Anderson Ltd’ engraved on them. He explained this was the name of a cotton mill in Glasgow that closed down in 1979 and from which he acquired a number of old bolts of fine shirting woven in the nineteen-thirties. The fabric I had chosen was one of these.

I left Frank’s basement workshop and walked up Pall Mall in a state of excited anticipation that day. Then fate intervened. My friend Colin O’Brien died unexpectedly which entirely cast a shadow over the proposition. Yet I steeled myself and returned a few months later to ring Frank’s bell, only to be frustrated by lack of any reply. A week after came the news that Frank Foster had died at ninety-three years old. I had just missed seeing him again by a matter of days and this compounded my sadness over the loss of Colin. In these circumstances, my notional shirt sank into insignificance as a frippery and I let go of any disappointment, recognising how privileged I had been to interview Frank and record his story.

Then I received an unexpected phone message early this year from Frank’s daughter Sam to say that my shirt was in the workshop, awaiting a fitting. Frank had made my shirt! All this time, it had been waiting for me. I called back immediately and Frank’s wife Mary answered. ‘Shall I come down tomorrow?’ I asked. I wish you would,‘ she answered.

Even though only one sleeve had been completed and the collar was yet to be added, it was immediately apparent that the shirt fitted perfectly. Two weeks later, I collected my finished shirt and I wear it now for the first time as I write these words. What a curious experience to wear a shirt that fits my body for the first time in my life. It is more substantially made with a sturdier collar and cuffs, stronger seams and more robust buttonholes than any shirt I ever had before. It also has long tails, so it can never come untucked from my waist.

Mary and her daughter Sam welcomed me to Frank’s workshop, newly spring-cleaned and organised from when I first visited. I was overjoyed to learn they are going to carry on the business, for the sake of their many long term customers and for anyone else who might like a Frank Foster shirt. Mary revealed that she joined Frank as a seamstress at fifteen years old and, after fifty-three years of working alongside him, she is more than qualified to continue his work.

‘Wear it lots,’ said Mary with a smile, as she handed me the beautiful shirt folded up in a bag. I certainly will. And now that she has the pattern, I shall start saving up for another one.

Frank Foster Shirts, 40 Pall Mall, St James, London, SW1 5JG

No appointment is necessary, just ring the bell between 11am and 5pm any weekday

The scissors that Frank gave me – David & John Anderson Ltd

Frank Foster at his desk by Colin O’Brien

“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 Foster

Mary Foster by Colin O’Brien

Frank in his heyday

Frank with his wonderful collection of shirting

Mary and Frank with their daughter Sam

Frank shows off his hundred-year-old buttonhole machine

Frank fits James Caan for a formal shirt

Dear Frank, With appreciation of some wild shirts, Vidal Sassoon

Georgia Brown with Lionel Bart in a Frank Foster shirt

To Frank, Thankyou for the lovely shirts, sincerely Harry Secombe

Racing Driver, Jackie Stewart in a Frank Foster shirt

Ringo Starr wears a Frank Foster shirt while flying PanAm with Vivien Leigh

Peter Sellers in a Frank Foster shirt

Due to the you, I’m ‘in the shirt’ - Norman Wisdom

This shirt is flamboyant even by Frank’s standards

You may also like to read my original piece

Frank Foster, Shirtmaker to the Stars

My Spring Shirt

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Jim McDermott permalink
    March 15, 2017

    What lovely, unpretentious people – and at that address! I wish Mary all the best for future business (if I lived in London I’d put at least £175-worth her way)

  2. Marguerite Scott permalink
    March 15, 2017

    Thanks so much for your blog, which gives me regular enjoyment. None more so than today. I absolutely love the story of your shirt, the wonderful reflection of a man with an eagle eye, clever fingers and a soft heart.

  3. March 15, 2017

    Lovely!
    Please though, Gentle Author treat your shirt to a proper hanger and consign the wire one to the recycling.

  4. March 15, 2017

    Today we have a ‘diary of a shirt’ by a writer who knows all about words and is in the comfort zone with this piece, nice one GA. With care these hand crafted shirts will last a life time the answer lies in superior fabrics I like Egyptian cotton that breathes. Long stranded stuff don’t need ironing. Years ago a spare collar was thrown in as well by some. When one wears a hand crafted shirt it feel just right; ready to face a brand new day. Frank has done his bit for the top end shirt trade !Mary and Sam keep Frank’s legacy/business going quality does matter and you can provide it. We all loved Colin’s photo work on this site. Poet John

  5. Paul Vangelder permalink
    March 15, 2017

    Another wonderful visit to Frank Foster’s fascinating Pall Mall ‘workshop’. Splendid that his wife is continuing the great handmade tradition. I wish I could have met him. And that Colin had lived to wear his shirt, too! Enjoy yours…

  6. Jenny Lee-Kench permalink
    March 15, 2017

    What an amazing man. Loving his desk, surrounded by such beautiful clutter!!

  7. Paddy Keogh permalink
    March 15, 2017

    Love getting these stories in my inbox every morning,reading them makes a great start to my day.

  8. March 15, 2017

    Clothes make the man. I had a Dad who was a clothes horse, on a beer budget. But, oh boy,
    did he look great in his duds. I smiled to learn the inspiration for your fabric choice……Bawden
    and Ravilious. So grateful to hear the story of Mr. Foster and his elite clientele.
    Thank you for this daily dose of essential optimism, and wear your handsome shirt in good health.

  9. March 16, 2017

    Mark Twain: “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.”

    A lovely shirt and a lovely piece.
    Well done.

  10. sparrowB29@gmail.com permalink
    March 16, 2017

    Isn’t that Vivian Leigh with Ringo?

    B

  11. Ros permalink
    March 16, 2017

    That is one fab shirt, even though it has a bit of sadness in its back story. I know when you wear it you’ll remember both Frank and Colin with affection. Enjoy!

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