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

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

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

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