Pierre Cardin was “perhaps best known for giving four mop-topped Liverpudlians their collarless matching suits,” according to the obituary of the French clothes designer in The Times this morning. Wanting something closer to the truth, I asked the peerless Beatles historian Mark Lewisohn how it really happened.
Inevitably it was their friend Astrid Kirchherr, a photographer with an instinct for the avant-garde, who started it off. Astrid put her boyfriend, Stuart Sutcliffe, into a round-collared jacket in Hamburg in March 1961, shortly before he left the Beatles to study painting at art college while the others went back to England.
That October, on a trip to Paris, Paul McCartney and John Lennon saw Cardin’s collarless suits and liked them. But it was not until March 1963 — between “Please Please Me” and “From Me to You”, their second and third singles — that they approached the tailor Dougie Millings to ask him to make matching suits for them to a similar design in a silk and mohair blend. Millings was based in a first-floor cutting room at 63 Old Compton Street in Soho, a couple of doors away from the 2 is coffee bar, where other clients, including Cliff Richard, had made early appearances.
The Beatles’ radical new suits were worn that year, in either pale grey or dark fabrics, for stage shows, TV appearances and photo shoots, teamed with white shirts and black ties. Many of us started saving money for cheap copies of those jackets.
It would be tempting to imagine that their habitually well dressed manager played a part here. Not so. “Brian Epstein had no part in any of this,” Mark told me, “but criticism that he made the Beatles wear such stage suits was levelled against him ever after.” By 1965, when they made their famous appearance at Shea Stadium, they were still wearing matching uniforms, but now the ties had gone, the pale beige lapel-less Millings jackets had stand-up Nehru collars and military epaulettes, and the trousers were a contrasting black.
In 2004 one of McCartney’s original by-Millings-after-Cardin pale grey suits was put up for auction at Christie’s in New York. With no reserve, and an estimate of $8-10,000, it was knocked down for $53,775.
* The first volume of Mark Lewisohn’s three-part history of the Beatles, Tune In, was published in 2013 by Little, Brown.