Haute couture for the clergy Lucy Lethbridge
Discreetly hidden away in the shadow of Westminster Abbey is Watts & Co, Victorian supplier of bespoke chasubles, cassocks and splendid clerical garments. Lucy Lethbridge tours the workroom
Have you ever wondered where the clergy get their kit? I don’t mean just the beautiful vestments worn in church but the everyday clobber – the white collars and dark shirts. Well, as it happens, quite a few of them, those of a high-church tendency particularly, go to a firm in Westminster.
Since 1874, it has been making and selling everything the modern and not-so-modern cleric could desire, sartorially speaking. Watts & Co is the haute couture end of clerical garmenting, the Christian Dior of the vestry.
The firm is tucked away in a discreet building, designed by Lutyens, on a corner of Tufton Street, near Church House, in the shadow of Westminster Abbey. Watts has no shop window. The showroom is in the basement and the rest of the floors are given over to workshops where an astonishing degree
of skill and time goes into creating beautiful costuming.
Watts has impeccable lineage in church furnishing circles. The firm was founded by George Gilbert Scott, son of the architect and leading light of the Gothic Revival, Sir George Gilbert Scott, and father of Giles Gilbert Scott, who took Gothic tradition into the modernist era, and designed the first red telephone box. The current director is enthusiastic, young Robert Hoare (pictured), fifth generation of the Scott family at Watts.
When I arrive, the showroom is full of boxes, as a team were off to the Episcopalian Bishops’ Conference in Austin, Texas, where Watts will have a stand. But don’t modern Episcopalians have modest, evangelical, tastes?
‘No,’ Hoare says. ‘They love embroidery!’
The United States is one of their biggest markets, but the embroiderers produce work for cathedrals all over the world. And with each part of the liturgical year represented by different coloured vestments (the chasuble is the silk cape worn over the alb, so-called because it is white), the range is wide. A parish will need violet for Lent and Advent, for example; white for Maundy Thursday and All Saints; red for Palm Sunday and Pentecost; black for All Souls and Requiem Masses; and green for all the other days of the year ( feria).
There are rails groaning with clerical sartoriana: chasubles, copes, cottas and cassocks. There is a toppling pile of birettas, the three-cornered hats with pompoms worn by Catholic priests of a traditional persuasion. (Incidentally, the splendours of Catholic vestments, from the 16th to the 19th century, are being exhibited at Indar Pasricha Fine Arts.)
There are purple and red socks, top-quality clerical collars (Watts is the biggest manufacturer of collars in Europe) and everyday black, blue and grey shirts for all seasons. On a tailor’s dummy there is a chimere – the long garment with smocking at the back worn by bishops that is redolent of both Trollope and the Tudors. As a new history of vicars – A Field Guide to the English Clergy – shows, today’s religious clothing still owes a lot to yesterday’s.
Everything at Watts is made in Britain, with the sole exception of the birettas, which come from Italy. The wools, silks and sumptuous brocades are woven in Suffolk and Yorkshire and bespoke garments are hand-stitched in the workrooms in Tufton Street.
How can the average, underpopulated parish or struggling vicar afford all this sumptuousness? A new ordinand receives about £1,000 from the Anglican church for necessary supplies of collars and cassocks. Watts offers a ‘special ordination deal of cassock, surplice, preaching scarf and white stole’ – a snip at £600. The newly ordained Jonathan Aitken was kitted out here.
In a maze of workrooms, tailors, pattern-cutters and embroiderers are at work. Celia, who has worked at Watts for 60 years, is making the red trim on a canon’s cincture (cassock belt) with tiny stitches, keeping the fabric even with an old-fashioned flat iron. Next door, they are working on an altar frontal in blue damask from an original design by George Gilbert Scott. Everywhere is colour and Gothicry: patterns of pineapples, thistles and acanthus leaves, Frocked priest: Jonathan Aitken, 2018
the historical influences written into the design names – Holbein, Memling, Bellini and Crivelli.
Upstairs, Suzannah is cutting out yards of violet wool for a bishop’s cassock, complete with the detachable cape known as a soutane. The finished article will take eight weeks and several fittings. ‘It’s like having a Savile Row suit made,’ Suzannah says. It will have piping, double cuffs and lots of little covered buttons from top to bottom. One cassock might not even see a bishop out – what with the expanding girths that are a pitfall of the job. And they’ll need two: a summer weight and a winter weight.
Like Savile Row, it’s very expensive. Hoare says, ‘If they want a cassock in Polish polyester, ordered online and delivered the next day…’ We all pause for a minute in quiet horror at the thought.
In the 1960s, clerical wear was in the doldrums. New priests rejected the traditional and embraced polyester. It was Elizabeth Scott, Hoare’s grandmother, who ensured Watts’s survival through ‘sheer drive and determination’. In recent years, there’s been a ‘definite shift’, Hoare says, in the interest in old-fashioned, clerical garb. Not all priests want traditional dress (‘Evangelicals wear T-shirts’) but those of a high-church flavour go the whole hog. For an ordinand with a passion for brutalist architecture, the embroiderers recently incorporated images of his favourite buildings on to a preaching stole.
The high Victorian look is very ‘in’, Hoare says. His sister runs the interior decorating side of the business, producing fabric, tassels and brocade for the National Trust, for example. The Watts Victorian Gothic style slips easily between sacred and profane: you will find it in Annabel’s nightclub, on the catwalk for Vivienne Westwood and on the Rev Richard Coles, who commissioned a gold waistcoat to wear on Strictly Come Dancing.
But it’s the chasubles and the copes that steal the show with their jewel-like colours and trims. Stitched by hand, each chasuble comes in one of four cuts, Semi-gothic being the most popular. Christine, in charge of the workroom, is from a couture bridal background: ‘Twenty years of white and ivory and I was desperately seeking colour.’ She has certainly found it here. The embroidery is dazzling, all done by graduates of the Royal School of Needlework.
Female clergy (the wildest dreams of George Gilbert Scott could not have come up with such a notion) have further expanded the possibilities. A woman priest is no longer content to stick on a cassock with a couple of darts added. At just £79, this season’s most popular garment in Watts’s prêt-à-porter collection is a knee-length blue dress in broderie anglaise with detachable dog collar. A gold, fit-and-flare dress in silk damask, with a 14th-century design incorporating a chained hart, costs nearly £2,000. In the States, they’ve sold six!
Watts supplies costumes to film companies and the Royal Opera House; it dresses the popes in Madame Tussauds. It’s a global business. African churches, in particular in Ghana and Nigeria, are eager purchasers and ‘tend to the ornate’, Hoare says. He points to a processional cross – ‘That’s off to Lagos.’ Apart from costume and regalia, there are chalices, censers, croziers, incense, communion wafers, baptismal shells and candlesticks.
When Hoare arrived eight years ago, his aunt worked here every day with a pint of sherry and a stack of cigarettes and still using a portable typewriter. Now it is an intriguing mix of ancient and modern. Piers, recently down from Oxford with a degree in history and politics, is in charge of expanding brand awareness through social media. They recently started hosting ‘clergy-themed parties’ in the cavernous offices upstairs. It sounds a bit larky… but I am assured that the under-forties clergy ‘do’ with drinks, canapés and a talk on vestment history was a huge success.
I wonder if they sell hair shirts? Probably not. But I’m sure they could run one up. Made to measure.
‘A Field Guide to the English Clergy’ by the Rev Fergus Butler-gallie (Oneworld) is published on 4th October
‘Apparrell’d in Celestial Light’, Indar Pasricha Fine Arts, London SW1, 26th September to 3rd November
Robert Hoare with (left) Spanish-style Comper Cathedral silk chasuble, designed by Sir Ninian Comper (1864-1960), £3,500, and chasuble in cream Gothic silk damask with red Talbot brocade orphreys, £2,390. Below: a display case in the Watts showroom