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Collarless Beatles

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.

22 Comments Post a comment
  1. Excellent demythologising there, Richard

    December 30, 2020
  2. An index of 60’s ferment might be the point at which artists stopped wearing ties for live gigs.

    December 30, 2020
  3. Max Ker-Seymer #

    The collarless jacket was already a London clothing trend ages before 1963. Cardin produced the look in 1960. What happened in those three years ? I do know that look was killed as soon as it was adopted by the Beatles and went mainstream. Cuban heels met the same fate as trendy males adopted the Italian shoe styles .

    December 30, 2020
    • GuitarSlinger #

      Ain’t it ironic ? ( genuine irony not the contemporary ‘ hipster ‘ variety )

      The so called greatest trend setters of the 60’s were more often than not in fact the worst trend busters of the era .

      Top it off with the fact the boys couldn’t afford the real thing ( having ‘ knockoff’s made instead ) … and you pretty much sum up the myth that was the Beatles

      December 30, 2020
  4. Thanks for that Richard. I too saved money for a cheap copy of those jackets, and eventually acquired one in dark blue.

    December 30, 2020
  5. Trevor Barre #

    But where, oh where is Lewisholm’s next volume? The first was definitely one of the greatest band biographies ever.

    December 30, 2020
  6. Sandy Murray #

    When the Beatles appeared on TV with these suits, I was still at secondary school,and couldn’t afford a replic. We compromised our school blazers,by tucking the collars inside.Our teachers no doubt, thought we were crazy,but we thought we looked cool.

    December 30, 2020
  7. Sandy Murray #

    When the Beatles appeared on TV with these suits, I was still at secondary school,and couldn’t afford a replica. We compromised our school blazers,by tucking the collars inside.Our teachers no doubt, thought we were crazy,but we thought we looked cool.

    December 30, 2020
    • PeterF #

      I did the same, but my teachers were not amused. I received a number of detentions, one each time I did it again. Cool was that important!

      December 30, 2020
  8. PeterF #

    Thanks for tracking down the facts, Richard. I only ever heard “Epstein put them into Cardin suits,” before. Very amusing that they weren’t even actual Cardins.

    December 30, 2020
  9. mick gold #

    Lennon’s 1970 Rolling Stone interview is full of this stuff: “We were performers… while we played straight rock’n’roll there was nobody to touch us in Britain. As soon as we made it, we made it but the edges were knocked off. Brian put us in suits and all that and we made it very very big. But we sold out. The music was dead before we even went on the theatre tour of Britain.”

    December 30, 2020
    • GuitarSlinger #

      Lennon’s song ” God ” says it all ;

      “……. I don’t believe in the Beatles .. I just believe in me ”

      Suffice it to say of the Fab Four .. John was the only one who eventually grew up and got it right

      December 30, 2020
  10. Colin Harper #

    I can only speak as someone who ‘wasn’t there’, but I’ve always thought those collarless suits looked dreadful. I daresay it was radical at the time but it just isn’t, to my eyes, a good look – whereas, to me, the 1966 Nehru collar gear still looks ‘cool’.

    December 30, 2020
    • GuitarSlinger #

      Hmmm .. interesting ; Well … I was there .. had a couple of these in my closet ( the real thing thanks to a family member in the fashion industry ) as well as a Nehru or two .

      To my eyes they’re both as dated as those ridiculous Beatle poodle cuts . The Cardin IMNHO looking like a pretentious ‘ priest ‘ collar jacket straight out of a Jane Austin movie …. and the Nehru reminding me of all those ‘ fake ‘ guru’s and everything we had completely wrong when it came / comes to the philosophies and religions of India

      Whereas the Austrian Alpine collarless jacket ? That my friend … is timeless

      FYI ; IMNHO = in my never humble opinion

      December 30, 2020
      • Phil in Shrewsbury #

        Your FYI was superfluous. We all know your MO by now.

        December 31, 2020
  11. Hard to deny that Paul grew up as a man.

    https://ianleslie.substack.com/p/64-reasons-to-celebrate-paul-mccartney

    December 30, 2020
    • mick gold #

      Thanks for that. This article is excellent.

      December 31, 2020
  12. Anthony May #

    You probably knew this. Head cantor at https://nobelcanto.tumblr.com/

    December 30, 2020
  13. thanetman1231 #

    How I wish I still owned a bright orange moiré silk Beatles jacket with a Nehru collar which I bought from Kensington Market I think in 1965 or possibly 1966, and for which I had saved several months of my hard-earned Saturdays and school holidays work money. Sigh. . .

    December 31, 2020
  14. There are a few comments here with which I would take great issue but there is little point in trying to persuade someone who didn’t like the Beatles then that they were both great and highly influential. I would however suggest that to pass Dougie Millings off as some cheap back street tailor (not by Richard I would emphasise) is absurd. He was a a very well known tailor to the stars though in the years after Tommy Nutter and Edward Dexter took over that role as evidenced by the clothes worn on a well known pedestrian crossing album cover.

    December 31, 2020
  15. S. Donovan #

    Hi Richard. I thought that seeing Lennon’s statement re how their idea/inspiration for the jacket had come “from Pierre Cardin – I just said” would have been helpful in understanding why people in general (and the obit in particular) had always thought that? More so, given where he said it twice.

    January 2, 2021
  16. Pierre Cardin extended from womenswear into menswear with a fashion show at the Hôtel de Crillon in Paris in 1960 that featured students wearing his collarless and lapel-less jackets. The style was labelled The Cylinder Look by the fashion press.
    Cardin himself had worn a prototype before the show, apparently created for him by his tailor Gilbert Féruch, who had a number of famous artistic clients, such as Pablo Picasso and Yves St Laurent.
    Cardin’s first menswear show proved to be very influential, so it is not surprising versions of the styles were being made in London a few years later by tailors like Dougie Millington, who had many showbiz clients.
    I have never liked these jackets although they remind us that collars and lapels on modern jackets are redundant relics of earlier garments that were fastened and worn differently, mainly for warmth.
    For more on Cardin, Féruch and other examples of the suit’s popularity with musicians, see my book “Sharp Suits” (Pavilion, 2019).

    January 3, 2021

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