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So Long, Frank Foster

October 3, 2016
by the gentle author

Costume designer Jane Petrie – who first introduced me to Frank Foster – sent me a message recently to say that Frank had made me a shirt which was ready for collection, so I rang his doorbell in Pall Mall each time I visited the West End over the last few weeks but discovered no response. Then his nephew wrote yesterday to convey the sad news that Frank died on Friday aged ninety-three.

Known as ‘Shirtmaker to the Stars,’ Frank grew legendary for his abilities in tailoring and design. It was commonly said that, ‘A Frank Foster shirt is better than a facelift.’

I still carry the tiny pair of scissors Frank gave me as a keepsake of my visit to his workshop last year accompanied by the late Colin O’Brien.

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. You could walk through this door, descend to the low-ceilinged basement and discover Frank Foster and his wife Mary, who had been working there since 1958 in two small rooms that barely added up to any space at all. Yet this modest workshop contained 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 who was then in his ninety-second 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 clasped his nimble fingers and ruminated 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 ascribed 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

15 Responses leave one →
  1. Susan H permalink
    October 3, 2016

    “…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” – what an extraordinary description! I would so love to hear the sound of silk sobbing.

  2. Ardith permalink
    October 3, 2016

    I’m so sorry to hear about Frank. I can only imagine the sadness you feel, certainly so soon after losing Colin. My deep condolences, Ardith

  3. penny Hancock permalink
    October 3, 2016

    beautiful and moving piece, what a sad loss.
    I wonder what has happened to the button hole machine?

  4. Marnie Sweet permalink
    October 3, 2016

    So sorry to learn this exquisite gent is gone now, too, with Colin.
    I feel privileged that you introduce me to your friends and I mourn their leaving.
    How is Boudica? Did she make the button parade this year?

  5. October 3, 2016

    Thank you. That’s such a lovely piece about Frank Foster. As ever, I love your writing. So much heart and so much obvious love of people and such a passion for genuine, talented people with actual stories to tell and honest opinions to share on our changing city. Thanks

  6. October 3, 2016

    What a lovely man! Great photos from Colin.

  7. October 3, 2016

    loved reading this, what a fascinating gentleman to meet, wish i’d had the chance.

  8. Sharon Carr permalink
    October 3, 2016

    A great story yet again, O Gentle Author, and thank you for telling Mr Foster’s story. The Frank Fosters of this world are the salt of the earth. RIP good sir.

  9. Paula permalink
    October 3, 2016

    Sounds like a fascinating man. Enjoyed reading

  10. October 3, 2016

    I hope you wear your shirt lots. What a long and interesting life Frank had.
    And how many personalities he must have met. I have a feeling he knew a good egg!

  11. Jane Petrie permalink
    October 4, 2016

    I was sad to hear this news, I spoke to Frank on Friday afternoon, so he was in his workshop the day he died. You wrote a lovely piece and I’m pleased to see it published one more time in memory of an endlessly generous and fascinating craftsman. Jane P.

  12. October 4, 2016

    Mr Frank Foster — R.I.P.

    Love & Peace

  13. Paul Pendyck permalink
    October 4, 2016

    Sad news. I have known Frank for nearly 50 yrs. He was a good friend of my step dad. In fact, Frank was his best man when he married my mum. In the summers which I would spend in London he employed me as an errand boy. At the end of the day I used to take the material and patterns from his Clifford Street location to Pall Mall (his current location). I moved to the US 35 years ago but whenever was back in London I always stopped in for a chat and a cup of tea. He said I was like a son to him. I will miss those visits but fortunately I have many memories and a number of shirts that he made for me. I will wear one tonight. Love you Frank.
    As Frank would always say.
    God bless.

  14. Ros permalink
    October 4, 2016

    I loved reading this piece again and seeing Colin’s excellent photos. I’m sad to hear that this wonderful and effervescent man has died but he had a long and full life and it sounds as if he was working to the end. I hope you are eventually able to collect your shirt which I’m sure you will treasure. How special to have one made by him.

  15. Shawdian permalink
    November 13, 2016

    All the Greats have gone this year.
    Is there something in the air.
    R.I.P Frank and Blessings
    To all who knew him.

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