A Shirt By Frank Foster
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.
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