Tag Archives: tailors

Capers of Some Clothing Cranks, As Told by a Talkative Tailor: 1881


Strange Revelations of the Sartorial Trade.


The Painful Self-Denial Which makes Kearny Street Fashionable

Traits of the Tough.

“I should say that a tailor’s life in San Francisco is a hard one,” said a well-known and popular knight of the shears to a Chronicle reporter the other day.

The communicative craftsman was standing in his doorway, whence he could see in all directions gorgeous signs such as “Pickle, the Tailor,” “Sowfine, the Solid Tailor,” “Rosenheim, the Ready Tailor,” “Bosenheim, the Boss Tailor,” etc.

“You see,” said the loquacious but rather disconsolate Sartorian, “what competition there is in our business. The town seems to be populated with tailors, and you will observe that none of them show any of the mawkish delicacy about parading their profession that prevailed when a tailor was supposed to be but a small fractional part of a human being. Instead of regarding themselves as the ninth part of a man, they act as if they considered themselves equal to any twenty-nine ordinary storekeepers. Look at their electric lights and the portraits of themselves that they stick on the walls. It’s a good thing for the originals that most people here can read, or their portraits would make them think that the police had begun to use the dead-walls of the town for the Rogues’ Gallery.

“But the competition among the tailors themselves is not the worst thing in the trade,” said the disgusted knight of the shears. “It’s the cranks who patronize us that shorten a man’s life, and make him lenient toward all murders.


“Here’s one of them just coming,” whispered the tailor, as a shabby genteel young man with the weird history of cheap lodging written on his lank jaw, sauntered into the store and addressed himself to one of the salesmen.

“That’s what we call the expert fiend,” said the tailor, nodding his head towards the visitor. “Watch how he paws the cloths. He is an assistant bookkeeper in a toothbrush factory at $17 a month, and never wore a fine suit of clothes in his life; but he knows more about cloth than my best salesman, who has spent a lifetime in the business. When he is getting measured he will give the cutter a fill about wanting the suit in a hurry for a reception on Nob Hill, but a dressmaker’s soiree on Natoma street is about his fit. Just hear him talk about what he used to do in the East and the distance this one-horse town is behind New York. He can’t get anything here like in the East. Just watch how the salesman will get to his collar,” said the tailor, as he gleefully jingled several half-dollars in his pocket and proudly eyed his assistant. The latter, after showing the expert enough cloth to dress the whole police force, Captain Kentzel [a famously stout police officer] included, whipped out a piece with a great display of animation.

“Ah! Here you are, sir,” said he, with a triumphant flourish of the goods; “something nobby and durable. The only piece left. Sold the rest of it to the French visitors. Genuine imported goods, and the very latest pattern. Let you have a suit for $45, as it’s the last piece in the house.”

The effect of the salesman’s sudden earnestness was a prompt sale. As the captured expert was led away to the recesses, where the cutter lay in wait for him with his remorseless shears, the proprietor chuckled audibly.

“That piece of goods just sold,” said he, “is about the worst in the house. It went on the vaudoo counter months ago, and I was thinking of sending it to the Orphan Asylum as a Christmas gift. We always keep such goods for the expert fiend, and, at the right moment, yank it out and nail him. It takes a man of some experience to know just when to show the expert the piece of cloth he wants to get rid of, but the competent salesman never slips up.


“No, sir. The expert fiend is our Injun. We scalp him just as we do his first cousin, the dry goods fiend, who thinks because he handles a few domestic lines of goods that he knows all about the trade. His ignorance wouldn’t make so much difference if he was willing to pay like anyone else, but he wants to get the best in the house for little or nothing and a discount, because he is in the trade. He generally winds up by leaving his watch as security and sauntering around for a month or two with a door-key or a chronometer. I have a dozen dry goods men’s watches in my safe now and more on the way. If you say anything in your paper about this business, please state that the dry goods man wants more and pays less and pays it more unwillingly than any man in town, except the lawyer. No, sir; we have no use for dry goods men as customers.”

“You don’t do much a credit business,” said the reporter, “or your collection of watches would not be so large.”

“I do none. Mine is a second-class business. The tailors of this town are of three orders. The first class is supported by Nob Hill and does a credit trade exclusively. The second class is supported by a business section of the town and does a cash business. The third class is kept up by Tar Flat and does a cash business. It is the style for the young bloods about town to boast how they hang up their tailor, but you can bet even money every time on the tailor not getting left. Of course there are dead beats who get away with almost any one, but whenever a fellow begins to lay around the store and drop in of a morning to ask after his health, the tailor gets into his shell.


“I will give you the true business how these lords in disguise that you see every afternoon on Kearny street get their good cloths. Getting a new suit is no sudden idea with them. When one of these aristocratic young men wants a suit he comes in and states his case plainly. He is perhaps working in a barber-shop at $7 a week, or more likely doing nothing, and of course his word is very bad. He has no credit at all, in fact. He picks out the cloth for his suit, and pay what he can as a deposit. If the tailor was to go and make the suit, the fellow would never take it unless he got a reduction of about 50 per cent, but the tailor, unless he is very green in the business, insists on a remittance every week until about two-thirds of the price of the suit is paid in dimes and quarters, when he cuts the suit and proceeds to make it. It generally takes about four months to make one of these suits, and when there are only about $5 or $10 due on it the finishing touches are given. About a week before the suit is ready the owner assumes a hauteur that freezes his companions, and announces that he is going to invest in a new suit. He extorts the last installment from some confiding female friend, and next week blooms out in all the glory of the loudest suit in the market and breaks the boys all up. Nobody except the tailor ever knows how much the young man denied himself and how many petty larcenies he had to commit before he could amaze the street with his style. He never does get much style though, for the tailor regards him as his legitimate prey, and shoves on him all the old flash patterns that the expert fiend won’t buy. He gets very nearly as badly treated as the sample fiend, who is a full brother to the expert fiend.


“The sample fiend, having made up his mind to get a new suit, resolves to get the best of the whole trade, and goes down to the wholesale house and gets a sample of the goods he wants. Then he starts out among the retail stores. He is not the man to be fooled. Oh, no! He strolls in and looks at the goods, prices them all, and when he thinks you are quite unprepared, he shoves the sample under your nose and inquires how much can you make a suit the same as that for. We get to such a customer as that at once. The salesman takes the sample and pretends to look at it thoughtfully for some moments, and then says:

“’Now this is very find goods—very fine. In any other store in town, they would charge you $50 for a suit of that; but as we have a big line of the goods, brought from the East, we can afford to make it for $45.’

“This generally fetches the sample fiend as he pays his money and goes off chuckling to himself over his smartness. Instead of getting ahead of us five dollars, though, he loses three times that much. The prices of suits are graded on the work put into them, and we can make more out of a $45 suit than a $50 we cut from the same piece. When the sample fiend goes out, the salesman quietly marks opposite the price of the suit on the books, ‘undersold $5,’ and the trimmer plans the work accordingly. Fifty cents is saved on the vest. The coat is given to some poor workman, and the pantaloons are cheaply trimmed; so the smart sampler gets his suits so badly strung together that the first breeze that strikes it blows all the buttons off. The sample fiend is generally old enough to know better than to try and beat a San Francisco tailor.


“He is as much behind the age as the man who brings his wife with him to select a suit. The average tailor would as soon see the Devil coming into his store as a woman, and I never heard of but one salesman who got even with the sex. One day a man and his wife came in and pulled around all the cloth in the store before the woman found anything to please her. When the man stepped up to be measured the salesman whispered to him so that he could be heard all over the store;

“’This is a very embarrassing position for me, sir.’

“’Why so?’ asked the much-married customer.

“’Because,’ said the malicious salesman, ‘I don’t know which of you I’ve to measure for the pants.’

The loquacious tailor paused to exchange greetings with a motherly-looking lady who passed out of the store with a pale-faced young man, possessing all the characteristics of the embryo “tough.’

“There,” said the tailor, “is a specimen of a customer we often have. That young man is the son of respectable parents, and his mother has a fond hope that some day he may go to the Legislature or own the biggest coal yard in the Tenth ward. The salesman has his work cut out for him to please the pair. The mother would like to dress the lad in broadcloth, like a divinity student, but nothing but the toughest of tough suits will suit him. Twenty-five-inch spring-bottom pants is the height of his ambition, and he has to get them or the suit will never be paid for. If we were to follow the old woman’s instructions the lad would steal off to some hoodlum store, and get rigged out in the highest style of Tar Flat—skin-tight pants, double-breasted, low-cut vest and sack coat with gold-shot buttons and three-inch braid. The salesman has to make the old lady believe that the boy will be dressed for a funeral, but the lad has to be convinced that he will be the envy of Tar Flat in his new suit. Of course it is business for us to respect his wishes, and when he gets into his new clothes every policeman in town will shadow him.”


“Have the second-class stores much of the hoodlum trade?” asked the reporter.

“No, the hoodlum trade is almost confined to the hoodoo stores, where the salesman is a big tough, dressed in the height of the hoodlum fashion. The salesman spends his evenings in the social headquarters of Tar Flat drumming up trade for his establishment. When a suit is finished the news is sent all over Tar Flat and the natives assemble as soon as possible at the tailor store. No hoodlum ever does anything so reckless as to fit on a new suit without the moral assistance of at least six companions. If the new garments have the proper depth of braid and the regulation “spring” the owner is allowed to accept them, and all hands adjourn to the nearest beer saloon, where the tailor does the honors. The hoodlum tailor periodically gives a prize dance, at which the tough salesman acts as floor manager and the cappers of the establishment as the reception committee. The hoodlum tailor finds it hard work to keep his customers, for everything depends on how he stands with the leaders of the gang. Any insult to a prominent tough, such as the reduction of the spring of his pants or the depth of the braid of his coat, is likely to cost the tailor his entire trade. In former years the hoodlum trade was done by one shop, but latterly, owing to the rivalry between Tar Flat and North Beach and the Mission, the trade is divided. It keeps constantly shifting. The true tough never estimates the cost of a suit in dollars. His basis of valuation is a five-cent glass of beer, and when he figures on a garment he judges of the amount of pleasure it will cost him. I once had a customer of that kind who came in and selected a $45 suit and would have paid a deposit if one of his crowd had not figured up how many five-cent beers it would cost him. When the astonished tough was informed that the suit would deprive him of 900 glasses of beer, besides what the barkeeper might stand, he was paralyzed, and went off reflecting sadly on the vanity of dress.”


There is one thing to be said in favor of the tough, and that is that he knows what he wants and is willing to pay for it. In this respect he differs greatly from the doctors and the lawyers, who can discount even the dry good man in shuffling away from their bills. In the long run, though, the tailor gets ahead of them.”

It would seem to me,” said the reporter, “that the tailor gets ahead of most people.”

“Not always,” said the confiding knight of the shears. “The tailor has his honest instincts like any one else, and I can give you this pointer: When an unassuming citizen comes into tailor store and says ‘I want a suit and am willing to pay so much for it,’ he generally gets the worth of his money, as things go. He always proves a great deal better than the smartie who comes in for the express purpose of showing us how little we know about our business, and how much he can teach us.”

San Francisco [CA] Chronicle 18 December 1881: p. 6

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is always a pleasure to hear from a trade “insider,” who can do the dialect. This “confiding knight of the shears,” in an interview richly laden with the vernacular, opens a window into a hitherto mysterious world.

For example, most of Mrs Daffodil’s readers will have an idea of what a hoodlum is. An 1897 dictionary of slang adds the interesting information that

In San Francisco hoodlums, are a class of young fools, corresponding in some degree to the English ‘Arries. The hoodlums, walk the streets arm in arm, upsetting everything in their passage “just for the sake of a lark.”

Spring-bottom pants are wide-bottomed trousers cut on the pattern seen in the tailor’s diagram above. One young man recollected: “I remember one spell in Silverton that we were having our trousers cut with so much spring on the bottom that only the end of our toes were exposed.”

There are subtleties of class-linked location—Nob Hill, Kearny Street, and Natoma Street—implied by context, but now mostly lost to all but the most assiduous historians. Tar Flat, on the other hand, was, as it sounds, a refuge for the “tough.”

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


His Personal Tailor: 1891

Robert de Montesquiou, by Boldini

Robert de Montesquiou, by Boldini

The Peculiar and Novel Fad Indulged in by a Young New Yorker.

New York, Aug. 18. Probably no British prince ever yet had a private tailor; therefore, the distinction of being the first gentleman of fashion to indulge in the luxury falls upon a young member of the Fifth Avenue Club. There is no doubt that the youth is quite the best dressed man in New York. He has that reputation among his friends, all of whom give more attention to their clothes than to any other factor of life. It is well known, for the young man himself has confessed it, that he designs his own garments in water colors after the fashion of theatrical costumes. It is his method to take the latest styles from London and modify or accentuate them to satisfy his better taste. It has always been, so he states, a very harassing thing to have tailors disappoint him in carrying out his painted designs, and he was extremely melancholy over it until, a few months ago while in London, he was introduced for the first time to a young cutter who made for him the very best suit he ever had on.

So delighted was he that he tested the young man on several of his most elaborate designs, and so successful was the workman in each instance that the New Yorker resolved to possess him for his personal use. He found that the young cutter received about $20 a week. He offered nearly double that amount to him to go to New York, and the Englishman jumped at the chance. Now the cutter is luxuriously situated in a fashionable youth’s house, a privileged employe, who does nothing but carrying out the designs of his master. It is the latter’s intention to send his tailor to Europe twice a year in order to be thoroughly in touch with the modes of the passing seasons, and though his friends offer fabulous sums to secure the services of the private artisan, the latter may not enrapture them with his faultless workmanship, for it is in the contract with his master that he shall under no consideration wield the shears for the aggrandizement of any outsider.

Boston [MA] Daily Advertiser 19 August 1891: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: It is a pity that the Boston newspaper was so discreet. One longs to know the name of this water-colouring fashion adept as well as the subsequent career of the young tailor. The nineteenth century was rife with dueling dandies, whose sartorial excesses and numbers of trunks upon arriving at a hotel were widely reported. In Europe, Robert de Montesquiou (seen at the head of this post) was the exquisite, par excellence. In the States Waldere Kirk and E. Berry Wall (“The Human Fashion-plate”) vied for the title of “The King of the Dudes.”  Wall was known to wear corsets so that he might present a flawlessly tailored silhouette.

As for no British Prince having his own private tailor, the Prince Regent, later King George IV, would have found the notion risible. Here is a fascinating blog about Louis Bazalgette, “Prinny’s tailor” for over three decades, written by M. Bazalgette’s great-great-great-great-grandson.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdotes

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.


A Haunted Coat from a “Misfit Clothier:” 1898

A gentleman's cutaway coat. From morningdressguide.com

A gentleman’s cutaway coat.
From morningdressguide.com


Curious Experience of the Original “Misfit Clothier.” 

Denis Shea, the well-known clothier, died at his residence on Washington Heights. After trying his hand at various occupations, he finally embarked in the misfit clothing business. His place on Broome Street is known all over the country—its unique feature being that most of the goods came from the shops of the fine merchant tailors of New York and other large cities. Of this branch of the business Mr. Shea was the originator, and enjoyed practically a monopoly.

  The notion which led to the establishment of the misfit clothing business originated in Mr. Shea’s brain when he worked in a fashionable tailor shop in Fifth Avenue nearly forty years ago. Clothes that did not fit or were never called for he saw lying around the place or packed away to be sold eventually for a song. The fact that the garments were of the highest grade of material and workmanship and that, nevertheless, they brought smaller prices than ordinary ready-made clothes, struck the young man forcibly. He accumulated a little money, and with this as a basis decided to set up in business.

  Mr. Shea used to tell of a peculiar experience he once had in the matter of a cutaway coat. It had come from a Fifth Avenue shop, along with several other garments that had been refused or left uncalled for, and it was sold to a regular customer, who approved it as an admirable fit. A week after the purchase the customer came to see Mr. Shea.

“There’s something the matter with that coat, Shea.”

“It looked to fit you very nicely,” said the dealer. “What seems to be wrong?”

“Nothing that I can explain. It’s a first-class fit, but it doesn’t feel comfortable. No; I don’t mean that it binds or pinches me anywhere. It isn’t that kind of uncomfortable. It’s a sort of nervous feeling as if I didn’t have any right to the coat. It couldn’t have been a stolen garment, could it, that got in here by mistake?”

“Not possible. Came direct from ____’s.”

“Well, just for the curiosity, I’d like to have you find out for whom it was made, and why it wasn’t accepted. I’m sure there’s something queer about it.”

Having occasion to go to _______’s on the following day, Mr. Shea made inquiries about the coat.

“Oh, that was made for Mr. J_____,” said the tailor. “Killed in the big railroad accident in Buffalo the other day. That’s how you came to get that, and a particularly fine garment it is, too.”

“Yes,” said Mr. Shea, “so it is. A particularly fine coat.”

A week later the purchaser of the coat brought it to the shop.

“Give me any price you like for it,” he said. “I wouldn’t put it on again for $1,000.”

“What’s wrong with it?” asked the dealer.

“Well, Shea, you can laugh at me if you want to, but that coat’s haunted.”

“Did you ever see J______, the well-known lawyer?”

“No, but I’ve heard of him often. Let me tell you about the coat. Yesterday evening I wore it, and I felt all through the evening as if somebody were trying to get it away from me. After I went to bed something came into the room and put on that coat. When I jumped out of bed the figure vanished away, and left the coat in a heap on the floor. The figure was that of an elderly man with a white mustache.”

“Very curious,” said Shea. “If I were superstitious I should say that you had seen the ghost of J________. Who was killed in a railroad collision last week. As it is, I’ll take back the coat—yes, it was J_______ that it was made for—and give you another one for it.”

The coat was afterward sold to a Western man, who never reported any peculiarities connected with it.

In his business Mr. Shea became widely known and was often asked to go in to politics, but he steadfastly refused, saying that his business gave him all the exercise he needed. He died possessed of considerable property. New York Sun.

Alden [IA] Times 21 October 1898: p. 4

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire:  Mrs Daffodil regrets that the dreaded Dash of Anonymity precludes her from giving the particulars of J___’s death in the big railway accident near Buffalo.  However, she has heard other stories of haunted clothing: a black velvet jacket that choked the actress whose costume it was; a Civil War re-enactor’s shirt which became mysteriously soaked with blood whenever he wore it into “battle.”  An elaborate shawl haunted by the sinister spirit of the former femme fatale owner. Mrs Daffodil once knew a woman who ran a vintage clothing shop. She told how a woman tried on a white cotton blouse c. 1910 and seemed to go into a trance, describing a festive summer picnic by a lake as if she was actually there. And Mrs Daffodil has previously posted the story of the ghost who ordered a hat.