The tailors who’ve dressed all our 13 PMs
From Macdonald to St. Laurent they all wore Preston clothes with solemn dignity — and Diefenbaker’s just been measured, too
Starting with Macdonald’s riding breeches the Prestons of Ottawa cut and sewed for every Canadian premier. Bennett was richest, Borden jolliest, King toughest; then Diefenbaker racked them with suspense—until he made up his mind
KLAUS E. NEUMANN
In the very good old days of 1868, when Canada was just one year old and suits, made from the finest material, were selling for less than twenty dollars, George Edward Preston, a young tailor from Yorkshire, arrived in Ottaw'a.
He had come across the Atlantic "just to look this country over," but two years later he opened his own shop and was well on his way to establishing Canada’s most distinguished tailoring business.
Today the Prestons are almost an historic institution. They worked for every Canadian prime minister since Confederation and for a countless number of their ministers. Most of the country's governors-general wore Preston suits, and up to this day the Speakers of Commons and the Senate order their robes from the firm.
Their most cherished customer was Sir John A. Macdonald, their wealthiest R. B. Bennett,
and their most troublesome Mackenzie King. Permanent proof of the Prestons' close backstage association with Canadian history are the monuments of Sir Robert Borden and Sir Wilfrid Laurier which now stand on Parliament Hill. When these two statues were commissioned the sculptor had no inkling what the physical proportions of the famous men had been. Only the Prestons had the answer; the missing measurements were supplied from their customer files.
But even outside the field of politics, the list of Preston customers past and present is a roll of eminent names. It includes writers and actors, bishops and famous physicians, publishers, industrialists and just plain millionaires.
Ottawa's international set has always sought out the Prestons. Many members of the diplomatic corps are among their clientèle. Anxious to lay in a good supply of Preston suits before
being sent home, ambassadors of two enemy countries, Italy and Japan, had fittings while RCMP guards watched. The Prestons also cut suits for Joachim von Ribbentrop, later to become Hitler's foreign minister, when he was still a gay-young-man-about-Ottawa and the frequent guest of Government House.
At present there are two Preston firms operating independently of each other. The original store is run by William Preston, eighty-two years old and the only surviving son of the founder. William's shop is still at 217 Rideau Street w here his father worked before him. But Gerald Preston. fifty, William's nephew' and a grandson of the first Preston, opened a store of his own on Ottawa’s fashionable Sparks Street twenty-three years ago.
It is the Rideau Street store which abounds with great memories, William Preston recalls that as a boy he delivered parcels to the house of Sir John A. Macdonald, who lived in Sandy Hill, then Ottawa's most fashionable district. On cold winter days Macdonald asked him to step inside and warm up.
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That men are just as vain as women is an established truth for the Prestons, but it does not seem to hold true for Canada's prime ministers. Most of them were easy to satisfy. They were good, conservative dressers, yes, but they did not make much fuss about the things they wore. The most extravagant demand any PM made of the Prestons was a special inside pocket used by Sir Robert Borden for carrying pencils.
This modesty seems to explain why at the Preston store nothing is remembered about Mackenzie, Abbott, Thompson, Bowell or Tupper, and not much about even Laurier. “Sir Wilfrid was it friendly and very handsome man." William recalls, “who gave us some trouble because he went up and down in weight quite a bit.”
More vivid is the memory of Sir Robert Borden. Tom Stevens, who has been William Preston’s chief cutter and righthand man for the last forty-one years, recalls Borden as a very jolly man who wanted to be a gaudy dresser but was always held back by his wife’s much more conservative taste. Borden would become enthusiastic about a very “loud material for a new suit, but in the end he never failed to accept the one his wife had chosen for him. “In spite of this female restraint Borden was the loudest dresser of all the PMs,” Stevens thinks.
Very much to the Prestons’ dissatisfaction, Sir Arthur Meighcn was unconcerned enough to wear off-the-rack suits. He never ordered any made-to-measure clothing from the Prestons, and the only work they had to do for him were repairs and alterations. But it is an open question which was harder to bear, Meighen’s neglect or the patronage of his successor William Lyon Mackenzie King.
It was a political emergency that first brought King to the Preston shop. King was about to leave for speaking engagements in Quebec’s Eastern Townships when he remembered that some years before an admirer in the Townships had given him a piece ol suiting which lay forgotten in his bachelor household. The prime minister thought it basic political expediency to wear a suit made of that material on his return visit.
Till then all King's suits had been tailored in England. He brought the suitlength to the Prestons, the suit was finished in time, and King was highly satisfied.
“To show his appreciation, and in the hope of winning the votes of our fifty employees. King sent us a lengthy telegram,” recalls Gerald, who at that time was still with the original firm. “But unfortunately he had not lranked his message and we had to pay tor it.
After some years the Prestons lost King as a customer. He wore out his trousers very fast; two new pairs had been delivered to him and must have been stolen in his home. King claimed he hadn't re-
ceived them and refused to pay for them. After long arguments back and forth he finally did pay, but it was years before he did business with the firm again.
The Prestons regained him only shortly before his retirement. King was on the way to England and, according to William. aboard ship he met a very welldressed man. King asked him where in London his suits had been tailored, and the reply was: “They were made by the Prestons in Ottawa.” In London King was highly impressed by the cut and quality of the suits worn by his High Commissioner, Norman Robertson. They too turned out to be Preston-made.
This prompted King, once back in Ottawa, to patronize the firm again. “He came in and ordered two new suits and a new overcoat.” William remembers. “I said I wanted all his overcoats brought down to me to fix them. They were all a couple of inches too long and worn around the collar. And he did send them. Mr. King was a good, conservative dresser, but he should have had a wife.”
R. B. Bennett rates very high in the Preston esteem. “He was not only the country's wealthiest prime minister but also the best-dressed we ever had,” is William’s flattering comment. “He didn't come in to order just one or two suits, he bought them by the half dozen.” During the Depression Bennett sent at least eighteen people in various stations to have suits made by the Prestons at his expense.
One day Bennett came to the shop to tell about a garden-party he had attended at Buckingham Palace. He had noted. Bennett said to a proud audience of Preston employees, that his morning coat had been of exactly the same material as the King’s.
Louis St. Laurent became a customer of the firm long before he entered politics. That was during the Thirties when he was in Ottawa to attend a conference of the Canadian Bar Association. On that trip he ordered two suits; since then he has been a permanent customer. Nothing ever happened to upset the happy relationship between him and his tailor, and to William Preston he is “a very fine gentleman who dresses very correctly.
The new prime minister, John Diefenbaker, didn’t find his way to the Preston shop until just before the Queen s visit to Ottawa in October. He needed a new morning suit for the occasion, but he was so busy that he had no time to come to 217 Rideau Street for the fittings. William Preston and his men had to come to the PM's office, where they tried the suit on between Diefenbaker's appointments. Earlier, Howard Green, the new minister of public works, had ordered a Preston suit. “He was acting prime minister at the time,” William Preston used to say wistfully during the suspenseful months he spent waiting for Dicfcnbaker’s first order.
Seldom before have the Prestons had to pine for attention. When the original George Edward Preston arrived in Ottawa at twenty-two he already knew a great deal about cloth and cutting. He came from an old family of tailors, and had learned his trade at the famous establishment of Messrs. Pope & Bradley at 14 Old Bond Street in London. Here, too, he became acquainted with the agents ol the British textile mills, who later sent their cloth to him in Canada.
His first job in Ottawa was with a tailor name Holbrook, where he won a local reputation at cutting riding-breeches, a specialty which later attracted the patronage of Sir John A. Macdonald.
In 1870 he opened his own store, but six years later a fire wiped him out. He prepared to return to England but two wealthy backers helped him start again. One gave him, rent-free, new shop space in a house at 217 Rideau Street. Three years later Preston was able to buy the whole house for $2,500; today it is valued at $125,000.
William Preston has just one passion — cloth. “He collects it like other people collect paintings”
T wo of George Preston’s sons joined the business and the firm grew to employ about fifty people and turn out up to seventy suits a week. George Preston retired relatively early; he died in 1921 at seventy-four. Charles, the founder’s third son, studied medicine and was already a well-known surgeon when he died in his thirties.
Gerald Preston left the original firm twenty-three years ago, three years after John, his father, drowned trying to rescue two swimmers. Gerald started very much the way his grandfather had, in some obscure back rooms with very little money.
Today his store is as well known as his uncle’s. His array of customers includes personalities as prominent as Viscount Alexander of Tunis, George Drew, whom Gerald calls “a very fastidious dresser,” and Raymond Massey, the actor. Between the two of them, William and Gerald tailored for almost the entire previous cabinet and most of Ottawa’s diplomatic corps. While William tailored for the former prime minister, Gerald supplied most of his ministers.
Uncle and nephew represent the conservative and the progressive wing of the family in more ways than one. At Rideau Street time seems to have stood still; Geo. E. Preston & Sons Ltd. has been in the same place for the last eighty-one years and hasn’t changed much since Canada’s first prime minister walked in to order a new suit.
Only once did William Preston yield to the trend for modernization, forty years ago when a new store-front was built. But up to this day he has not felt the need for a neon sign.
Inside, the store looks like a salon of the last century. The walls are decorated with flowery tapestries; partitions, cuttingtables and fitting-cabinets are made of dark-brown wood; a red dress-uniform on a coat-form is a reminder of tradition, and the semidarkness of the large room helps a visitor to sense the past.
“My uncle collects cloths like other people collect paintings,” Gerald remarks about the large stock of woolens, William Preston’s one and only passion in life. His customers choose freely among them. There is one price for a business suit of any material in the shop—$120.
William still deals with the English firms that supplied his father. “Everything we buy is British,” he says. He prefers the textile mills in the west of England which he insists make the best cloth since they have been at it the longest. Hunt & Winterbotham, for instance, who supply the material for the uniforms of the Governor-General’s Footguards, have been in business since 1532.
Today the Preston staff is not as large as it was—only twenty-five employees remain, but they keep busy. William Preston still comes to the store before eight every weekday but takes life a little easier now by going home in the afternoons.
The pace is less leisurely at Gerald Preston’s store, which looks exactly the way a modern, fashionable establishment of its kind should. With its limed-oak furniture, glass - encased counters and fluorescent lights it achieves a modern
dignity. The proprietor is a soft-spoken man of very correct manners who shows signs of rotundity which his exemplary suits translate into mere robustness.
One of the main differences between uncle and nephew is their attitude toward ready-made suits. William condescendingly comments: “I think they will stay. This is a very nervous time and young people want their suits in a hurry.”
But Gerald sells off-the-rack clothing himself (the reason why he employs only ten people) and sees nothing wrong with them as long as the material is good and the customer a “normal” size. Gerald's ready-mades are priced between seventyfive and ninety dollars, but custom-tailored business suits start at a hundred and range up to a hundred and thirtyfive.
On questions of fashion the opinions of the two Prestons differ widely.
The last revolution William Preston instigated was to bring the shoulder-seam up. “It used to be two and a half inches down the back and I hated it whenever I looked at the men who sat in front of me in church. So I brought it up, right to the top of the shoulder.”
But this happened fifty-four years ago, and ever since William has changed his tailoring style only when changes were forced upon him.
Gerald draws a brighter picture of the dressing manners of the present-day Canadian male: “The trend is definitely tov/ard comfortable, sport-dress type of clothing, but on formal occasions and at cocktail-parties you will find that ninetyeight percent of the people are properly dressed.”
He also disagrees with his uncle’s theory about the “replacement of the male’s outer shell.” William thinks the automobile has ruined the tailoring trade because a new, fancy car nowadays takes the place of a good suit to underline a man's well-being and to “make” his appearance in public.
“All that has happened is that the car has reduced the demand for heavy clothing." Gerald thinks. “We used to sell heavy winter-weight suiting of twenty-two ounces to the yard. Today we could not even give it away. People want fourteen to fifteen ounces.”
Or take the question of vests. Gerald declares, “Ninety percent of my customers like the freedom of being without one.” But William declares uncompromisingly: “All good dressers still wear waistcoats!”
Even on the problem of combating moths, any tailor's mortal enemy, the two do not see eye to eye. Gerald uses a modern fumigator which is turned on every night and is guaranteed to kill any moth that has ventured into the store during the day. William does not believe in this kind of modern machinery. “The best way to keep out moths is to place newsprint over or between woolen materials. The moths w'on't go near the stuff. Only too few people know about this,” he says, claiming that he has helped save thousands of dollars worth of Ottawa carpets by telling people his secret.
Conservative as he may be, William Preston has one modern idea: He strongly advocates bright colors in men's clothes, and he himself greets his customers in very youthful patterns. “Most men are dying before their time because they do not dress brightly enough,” he states.
He thinks that unfortunately men are not very daring, they always pick the same dull patterns for their suits.
As a case in point he cites Harry Southam, the Canadian publisher. Southam. who had bought his suits from the Prestons, once left the firm because, as William tells the story, he found that nobody ever singled him out of a crow-d because of his clothes. The publisher began to make suit-buying trips to England. but after a while he found these expeditions consumed too much of his time and money, so he decided to try the Prestons once more. William agreed to take him back as a customer on one condition: for five of the large number of suits Southam was about to order, he, William, must be allowed to pick the cloth.
“I took the loudest patterns 1 had in the store,” he chuckles, “and Mr. Southam was highly satisfied. Everybody noticed him now, he said.”
Nephew' Gerald, progressive as he appears to be. is still a man of traditions. At his store, too, every thread of material is British, and that goes for ready-made as well as tailored suits. He keeps a file on customers’ measurements which is very valuable around Christmas time. “Ladies walk in to buy gifts for their husbands,” he explains. “When we ask about sizes, the answer invariably is ‘big and tall.’ A look at the husband’s card proves in most cases that he is much smaller than his wife made him out to be.”
Gerald has not seen fit to endorse suits made of synthetic fibre, but much to his horror James Sinclair, the previous minister of fisheries, took nothing else but two of these suits when he visited Russia and China two years ago. They w'ere $49.95 Dacron suits, and Sinclair washed them himself in the bathtubs of hotel rooms because he did not trust Communist dry-cleaning methods.
Gerald Preston thinks that Canadians are getting more clothes-conscious all the time, especially the well-to-do. “The days of the rich eccentric are over. If a man has any sense of public relations at all, he will conform to the proper standards.”
And what are the proper standards? In answer Gerald keeps a clipping of a New York tailor’s advertisement in the Wall Street Journal. It lists: twelve business suits, two dress suits, three dinner suits, Jwenty-three vests, one formal cutaway, one informal black suit, two golf suits, two riding suits, eighteen pairs of trousers, four sport coats, and one brocade silk house coat. In overcoats it recommends four for spring and six for fall and winter. The total price is seventyfive hundred dollars.
Gerald Preston explains that this is a snob ad, and that nobody needs that many clothes. But his own list of “absolute musts” still sounds impressive: eight business suits, one dress suit, one dinner jacket, one morning coat, one director’s jacket and sports and weekend clothes to suit one’s needs. In coats a man should have a plastic raincoat to be left at the office, one proper raincoat, one gabardine coat for the in-between seasons, one slip-on topcoat, one medium-weight dress overcoat plus one regular winter-weight coat.
Even though he thinks Canadians are dressing well. Gerald Preston shows much fondness for his European customers. “The average European.” he says, “knows more about the importance of good clothing than the average North American and he is willing to pay for it.” His first experience along these lines was with European refugees during the war. Later the post-war immigrants confirmed his opinion, and he guided many of them from their first difficult-to-pay-for suit to the complete Canadian wardrobe of the man who has “arrived.”
His diplomatic-corps customers are, of course, in a class by themselves. They are “men of distinction," Gerald says, and he is proud that they like his styles. Very few insist on having fashion features of their own countries incorporated in a Preston suit.
The most exciting diplomat who ever came to the store was Count RossiLonghi, Italy’s last pre-war ambassador, who was very well-to-do because his
family had an interest in the famous wine firm of Martini & Rossi. Sensing that war was to come, and realizing that his own country would not have the clothing he was accustomed to. Rossi-Longhi ordered large numbers of suits for himself and his two sons. But when Italy entered the war the suits were not ready. During the few days before the ambassador was sent home he was permitted to come to the Preston shop for the necessary fittings, but an RCMP constable was assigned to guard him.
Rossi - Longhi’s Japanese counterpart,
Sigiro Yoshizawa, also provided for an emergency. He had ordered fourteen suits from William Preston, but in his case William’s tailors were allowed to go to his residence. “He was a very fussy man,” Tom Stevens recalls. “Everything had to be done correctly, to within fractions of inches. And he must have been scared of stickups, for he always wanted a secret trouser-pocket that opened at the waistband.”
Unlike his uncle, Gerald, as an “Outfitter to Gentlemen,” sells suits and also the things that go under or with them.
His observations permit a discreet look into a male’s most private realm. “Long underwear is definitely on its way out,” he states. “I think it was our generation that gave it up.” He ascribes this trend to the fact that we drive in automobiles now instead of horse-drawn sleighs and never stay outside very long.
Only half the men in Canada now wear braces with their heavier winter clothing, and only a very small number wear them during the summer. Gerald does not think there is anything wrong with a belt, but a man should wear suspenders every once in a while “so that his stomach doesn’t learn to rest on his belt.”
The demand for half-hose, the fullfledged man’s sock, is dropping steadily. At Prestons more and more summer socks and ankle socks are sold during winter. Accordingly, the garter, indispensable to our grandfathers, is almost extinct. Cuff-links become more and more the fashion; they underline Gerald’s statement that men care more about thenappearance now. His shirt sales bear out the findings of scientists that our race is constantly getting bigger. During the twenty-three years Gerald has been in business, men’s most popular shirt-sizes have increased by two sizes.
An inside look into the world of male customs that is of an entirely different kind comes from William’s store: paying their tailor is the last thing Canadians attend to. That has been the experience over the years, and Tom Stevens recalls one remarkable customer who bought a single suit a year. Only when he came in to order the new one did he pay for the one he had received the year before. But it seems that bad financial habits like these prevent neither Preston store from thriving.
The future of the old family business seems well assured. At Gerald's store his son John has just entered the firm. He is the fourth generation in the family firm.
But William Preston has no son to take over from him, and neither of his two sons-in-law is a tailor. In order to keep the business in family hands, Gerald would like to buy his uncle’s store when he retires. It seems, however, that William just talks about retirement and does not really mean it. After all, there is a rear-guard action to be fought for the standards he has been promoting for men’s clothes all his life.
In that case, aren’t Canadians in this prosperous era better dressed than ever before?
“Better dressed?” the old tailor snorts. “Whenever I go uptown I see nothing but windbreakers and all that other rough stuff. You have to look hard to find a well-dressed man even in the House of Commons!” ★