A hire shop such as Moss Bros is a refuge from fashion, a place where men with more important things on their minds can get suited up by an unintimidating assistant, with a comfortingly narrow range of sartorial possibilities for them to choose from. Customers at Moss Bros's flagship Covent Garden branch find themselves reassured by the conformity of ensembles like the Classic (black herringbone morning coat, dove-grey waistcoat, pinstripe trousers) and the Sterling (light-grey three-piece with top hat). As a result, these two designs are the store's most popular hires.
"I'm not a very flamboyant person," admits Stephen Thurlow, 32, four times a hire-suit best man, and now strapping on the Classic's adjustable waistcoat for his own wedding. "We've gone for the traditional bog- standard model - we were at a wedding recently where the groom was wearing this ridiculous Wyatt Earp jacket." Stephen and his bride Claire Marley work in California's computer industry, and were actually married last year in a Napa Valley registry office. Now they're back home to do things in style. Although he and his two best men, Graham Rossoll, 31, and Tim Seddon, 32, have eschewed top hats and are supplying their own ties, the wedding is to be quite a grand affair: a string quartet will accompany the champagne-drinking at Eastwell Manor, near Ashford in Kent.
Moss Bros assistant Simon Taylor is busying round his customers with a tape-measure. A mild-mannered taste policeman, he prevents the inexperienced punter from breaching etiquette (going to Royal Ascot in a brown coat, for instance) and provides technical back-up (cravat- tying technique, etc). "The groom is the pinnacle, the centre of attention," he enthuses. Simon wears a neatly fitted three-piece by Philip Heshter . "It's great for a slim guy like myself," he says. He instructs the party not to fasten the bottom button of their waistcoats, in deference to a tradition initiated by Edward VII on some state occasion long ago.
Meanwhile, the shop is bristling with twentysomethings sizing up the standard models. For Alistair Kane, 26, it's the fourth dress-up in 12 months, with another three in the offing. "It's a house of cards," he comments mournfully. Philip, 25, is hiring the Classic as an insurance policy. He's not an usher, he explains: "but it's going to be a posh do, and everyone's going to be wearing a morning suit. Unless of course it's a very elaborate hoax and I'll be the only one." He's not relishing the idea. "I've never worn one before. I don't think it's worth the expense." Alex Kovach, 27, is also calculating the cost. "I'd need to go to five of these things to make it worthwhile buying one," he argues. "But I hate them. I'd rather be wearing an ordinary suit."
Richard Harvey has plumped for the Sterling. "I don't have a great obsession with clothes," he says, "but the whole style of the frock-coat is rather elegant." A widower, he's marrying for the second time; his two teenage sons, James (19) and Oliver (15), are to be best men. James is puzzling over his speech. "I thought I'd better buy a self-help book, but I read one and it was full of crap," he reflects. There are 24 hours to go, and he's toying with the opening line: "I've known the groom all my life."
Richard is trying on his top hat. "I thought I should have one because I don't smoke and it's something to fiddle with. If I was a lady I could have a muff, if the weather was right." On his first wedding-day, in 1977, he opted for a black jacket and pinstriped trousers. "It would be easy to slip away," he says, "but you'd disappoint your family and friends." "Dad's absolutely petrified," observes James. "Well," Dad explains, "it's difficult to put into words. There's the same level of anxiety as the first time, but for different reasons."
The boys are spinning their hats like a pair of jugglers, and it's all Simon can do to get James to put his on. "It's not supposed to ride to the back of your head," he warns, a little agitated. Oliver is more enthusiastic - his (private) school uniform is, he claims, just as formal. Neckwear is the next challenge. "Does it look like a settee?" asks James, fastening his Tuscany Print cravat. Alternative patterns with names such as Caprice Burgundy get compared unfavourably to wallpaper.
Next day, at the wedding reception in a waterside inn near Godalming, in Surrey, the Harveys are looking much more relaxed - despite the intrusion of a goose into the party. James still hasn't written his speech, but he and Oliver are playing Frisbee with their top hats as their father and his wife Annie are photographed by the river.
In Ashford, the Thurlow's guests are enjoying the sun while, in the dining room, the newlyweds pose with the cake. "I suppose they have to take the photographs before the party because people trash the suits afterwards," the groom suggests. Outside, one of the ushers shows us his pinstriped thigh, decorated with a straggly line of stitches. "It arrived with a hole, so we had to do a bit of emergency sewing," he reveals. On the terrace, bridesmaid Wendy Nash is admiring the ushers. "I think men should dress like this all the time,"she coos. "What, to the left or the right?" cackles her companion, a gentleman sporting a nudie-lady tie and an empty champagne glass. And the string quartet get their elbows into a bit of Vivaldi. !