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Duke of Windsor | The King of Fashion

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"I was in fact 'produced' as a leader of fashion, with the clothiers as my showmen and the world as my audience. " -- The Duke of Windsor

Who are the best-dressed royals in the world? Rankings as such seem always favoured by fashion magazines and tabloids. To no one’s surprise, the Princes William and Harry, are frequently mentioned in these topics. But if you ask any ardent sartorial stalwarts, they would assure you that it was the predecessors of William and Harry’s, like Prince Charles, Prince Michael of Kent, and the notorious Edward VIII (later the Duke of Windsor) who have truly inspired the rest of the world about men’s elegance.

Undisputedly, English tailoring has an entrenched leading position in menswear history. In recognition of London as the provenance of modern men’s style, the illustrious Neapolitan tailoring house Rubinacci was called the “London House” by its founder Gennaro Rubinacci since 1932. Hence, UK royals seem to have a beneficiary in sartorial circumstance, from old Hollywood movies to nowadays men’s fashion guiding books, the influence of their wardrobes are profound.

Governor of the Bahamas Duke of Windsor Holding Asparagus Picked by Bahamian Laborers During WWII
Governor of the Bahamas Duke of Windsor Holding Asparagus Picked by Bahamian Laborers During WWII

As one of the most perennial style icons of all times, The Duke of Windsor, back then the Prince of Wales, was dubbed as the best travelling salesman of British fashion when he visited American in the 1920s. His photograph occupied the front page of U.S newspapers, and his attire attracts massive attention among the Americans. “The average young man in America is more interested in the clothes of the Prince of Wales than in any other individual on earth”, commented by Men’s Wear magazine in 1924.

The Windsor’s rebellious and audacious taste start to emerge since he was the young Prince of Wales. His father, King George V, used to chastise him for putting jokes (“flippant remarks” as the King called them) into speeches, just as he criticised the Prince for wearing brogues in the city. But he was always reluctant to show deference to the strict etiquette. The Duke of Windsor recalled, “My father always wore a top hat, and he was surprised that I wouldn’t follow his tradition”, the Prince, on the other hand, prefer to wear a bowler hat or other more casual models.

But for the general public, the Duke was best known for his love story with the American woman Wallis Simpson, for whom the once King of England, Edward VIII, gave up his throne in order to marry her. After the abdication in 1936, and the ensued exile, they became the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and finally settled in Paris in 1953 after the hope to live in England ultimately faded. They remained to live there till the end of their life.

After their pass-away, their home in Paris, Château Le Bois, was bought by Mohamed Al-Fayed (a London-based Egyptian businessman who then owns Harrods and Ritz Hotel Paris) who renamed the property the Villa Windsor and lived in there with his families. In 1997, Al-Fayed decided to sell the contents of the house (that once owned by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor) through Sotheby’s in order to gain more living space of the Villa. Through Sotheby’s nine consecutive days of auctions in Manhattan, New York, it generated over $23million on 44,000 items, seven times the pre-sale estimate.

The lots comprise clothing and accessories belong to the Duke of Windsor, from his wedding suit to his gold Omega wristwatch. Via the curated catalogue, ordinary people had a chance to take a glimpse of the royal highness’s much-coveted wardrobe, which is more eloquent than any words to reveal his character and his lifestyle.

The Duke of Windsor is an up-to-date man, if not “very much ahead of his time” as the Duchess described. Looking at his wardrobe, it’s hard not to notice the lavishness of hues and patterns, which distinguish him from most English nobleman in his era. 

WWI marks the watershed for the popularity of patterns. Before the Great War, there was the stiff, starched Victorian and Edwardian dress routines. But since the early 1920s, the preference of more unrestrained and relaxed attire prevailed.

With his fondness for fox hunting and sports like golf, the Duke of Windsor usually pared sharp patterns with shades of colours on sporting fields and on casual occasions. It was during that time, as the most photographed celebrity in his time, the Duke has been captured and paraded “in any number of audacious consortiums of checks, stripes, and plaids,” noted by the men’s style writer Alan Flusser, “and he wore them all with an aplomb devoid of arrogance, formal and fastidious without a hint of stuffiness”. As a result, when the well-to-do young men, particularly the Americans, saw the “chic fatigué” demonstrated by the young Prince, they instantaneously developed a penchant for such a style.

The Duke’s overwhelming influence on fashion didn’t fade away after his abdication. On the contrary, after accepting the fact that he would never be able to return to England, nor getting a job to serve his country, not even having his family to accept his wife, the Duke and Duchesse were set about to make a lifestyle and image that later being described as International café society with endless social events and entertainment activities. As Sidney Johnson, the Duke’s Valet, remembered, “Our party was always a success”. The Duke even designed the uniform for all the servants and footmen of his grand home in Paris.

In his autobiography A Family Album,  the Duke recalled how his occasional choice of a Rothesay hunting tartan suit in the 1950s has agitated a trend for tartan:

“I happened to wear it one evening for dinner at La Croe near Antibes, where the Duchess and I lived for a while after the last war. One of our guests mentioned the fact to a friend in the men’s fashion trade, who immediately cabled the news to America. Within a few months tartan had become a popular material for every sort of masculine garment, from dinner jackets and cummerbunds to swimming-trunks and beach shorts. Later the craze even extended to luggage. “

Besides his appetite on patterns and colours, the Duke also inclined to less-structured and comfortable clothes, to “dress soft” in his own words. Famously, the Duke of Windsor is a trailblazer in wearing the soft English drape, which is a way of cutting that allows the comfort of movement, thanks to his tailor Fredrick Scholte. The Dutch-born Savile Row master cutter and tailor was wildly believed to be the source of the English Drape, also known as the London Cut. He then imparts this cutting style to a Peter (Per) Gustav Anderson, who is one of the founders of Anderson & Sheppard, the most celebrated tailoring house for their classic English drape cut. Explained by Danny Hall, the Head Cutter in Anderson & Sheppard, on a jacket with the English drap, you can observe the fabric “billows outwards slightly across the chest”, which is the result of “cutting a full chest with a touch more material in the front and the back of the jacket”. Beside the richness of the fabric on both sides of the chest, a highly-cut armhole (allowing the arm to move freely whilst keeping the coat collar on the neck) with a natural shoulder line and light-weighted canvas (for the less-structured visual result) are also key elements that contribute to the relaxed yet elegant Eglish Drape.

With the consummate skills and great eye on details, Scholte designed and cut the coveted sprezzatura silhouette for the Duke of Windsor, whose measurements are nowhere close to any supermodel in men’s fashion world. “Scholte had rigid standards concerning the perfect balance of proportions between shoulders and waist in the cut of a coat to clothe the masculine torso”, said the Duke fo Windsor, who remained loyal to his jacket tailor for many decades through his life.

But for his trousers, he turned away from the traditional English style cutting by Scholte, “I disliked the cut of them; they were made, as English trousers usually are, to be worn with braces high above the waist. So preferring as I did to wear a belt rather than braces with trousers, in the American style, I invariably had them made by another tailor” . Forster and Son was the duke choice for his trousers to be done before the WWII, with whom he had his left pocket made wider without fastening so that he can easily fetch his cigarette case in there. While during the WWII, The Duke was signed to work as the Governor of the Bahamas, he then began to have his trousers tailored by the New York tailor H.Harris: “I gave him a pair of my old London trousers, and he copied them admirably. Since then, I have had my trousers made in New York and my jackets in London, an international compromise which the Duchess aptly describes as ‘pants across the sea’.”

Many of the Duke’s shoes are made by Peal & Co, while the evergreen milliner Lock & Co. are responsible for his hats. His unstarched soft shirts are made from Hawes and Curtis, who also produced the Duke’s ties which are usually tied with a “four-in-hand” knot. In his book A Family Album, the Duke of Windsor acknowledged the media that helped to made him a men’s style icon:

 “I was in fact ‘produced’ as a leader of fashion, with the clothiers as my showmen and the world as my audience. The middle-man in this process was the photographer, employed not only by the Press but by the trade, whose task it was to photograph me on every possible occasion, public or private, with an especial eye for what I happened to be wearing.”

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