Can Savile Row, the bastion of traditional British tailoring, adapt its style to suit the market of the Nineties?
"A man's first duty is to his tailor," quipped Oscar Wilde. Henry Poole & Co, Savile Row's oldest tailoring establishment, might indeed nod discreetly in agreement. But you would never know it.

This week it celebrates its 190th year with a display of costumes, robes and ceremonial outfits at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Henry Poole is credited with creating clothes and ceremonial items for a vast array of historical characters, including Napoleon, Prince Metternich, Tsar Alexander II, Prince Von Bismark, the Maharajah of Cooch Behar and, curiously, the silky courtesan Lillie Langtry.

Literary lights also flocked to be measured. Anthony Trollope and Charles Dickens left their scribblings frequently for a Poole fitting and, by all accounts, Sir Winston Churchill, a faithful customer, would certainly have admired the outfits prepared for the late Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia.

Current famous clients are not discussed, of course. Royal Warrants framed in antique gold line the walls of the showroom, sharing space with engravings of crowned heads. Brass buttons gleam under glass and club- style ties lie temptingly on an ormoulu table. And all this under the incongruous glare of brass chandeliers and Seventies spotlights.

The display at the museum features some 30 examples of Poole's tailoring, whether in the form of Edwardian parliamentary robes or a half-jacket in black velvet made for Rex Harrison. A privy uniform (1905) in a sharp navy blue decorated with gold, a footman's greatcoat (1895-1910) and what is thought to be Lord Nelson's uniform are included in the antiques selection.

There are, however, many modern examples and one particular contemporary piece - a Daks Simpson lady's riding coat which provides part of the reason for staging the show in such a way. Tailoring is not only about the past. It has as much relevance today as ever; Ralph Lauren was heavily influenced by Savile Row for his autumn/winter 96 collection, which features sharply tailored suits for women and men.

Angus Cundy, managing director of Henry Poole & Co and who began there in 1958, is keen to show how the company is getting ready for the 21st century.

"The whole idea is to show the diversity of a Savile Row tailor," he says. "The Row has not always had the best press. People often think that we're rather fuddy-duddy, but we're not. And I'd like to think that we had led the way to diversification in tailoring. Men all over the world aspire to a Savile Row suit. I wish, though, that more British men would do so. The Americans are our biggest customers, then the French and then the British."

And yet for all that, it takes a brave man to march into any of the Savile Row establishments and inquire about a whistle-and-flute. Far easier to pop into Gucci, dash into Prada, stop by Dolce e Gabanna and finally decide on Armani. But, pound for pound, it's worth remembering that a hand-stitched bespoke suit can be made in the Row for about pounds 1,000. One would have to pay very nearly that for an off-the-peg outfit which, of course, has been tried on countless times, from any salon, no matter how chic the street.

But Savile Row has a serious problem - from its club-style wing armchairs and pea-soup coloured carpets to the frostily formal reception intended to convey respectful efficiency. Its plans to meet the millennium head- on are generally slow off the mark. Tradition is a hard nut to crack.

"I'm not against tradition," says Angus Cundy, who buttons the last button of his waistcoat, so it must be correct. "I don't mind being thought of as classic. It's old-fashioned I don't like."

He cites the recent establishment of such "youngish" bloods as Richard James, whose modern shop is opposite Henry Poole & Co, and Ozwald Boateng, round the corner on Vigo Street, as a good thing for Savile Row in general. And this despite James's fluorescent orange street cleaner's jacket and Boateng's sharp, knife-edge suiting. James's rainbow ties, acid jelly- coloured shirts and mouthwatering iconoclastic tweeds and Boateng's longer line and leaner silhouette are bringing in a new breed of sartorial troops.

But, of course, these latest two are not the first bright sparks. The much-missed Tommy Nutter brought to Savile Row a touch of showbusiness in the Seventies, with his aerodynamic lapels and cinched waists for such worthies as Mick and Bianca Jagger. (And, surprise, surprise, Cilla Black was his first backer.)

Poole's may be the oldest establishment in Savile Row, but the oldest voice is that of Hardy Amies - a few summers off his 90th year. Amies has, over the past few seasons from his palatial headquarters next door to Poole's, preached a style gospel for men and women based solidly on tailoring - the ghillie collar, the five-button jacket, the pique waistcoat.

"Do you know I counted 24 pictures of bare navels in a magazine recently," he says indignantly. "No woman of quality would ever bare her navel."

Well, it's a moot point, but it serves as a reminder that Savile Row is not about fashion but about style. After all, next season navels will be out. A good cut, on the other hand, is always in. Traditional methods die hard here - if they die at all. But certainly a few tailors are facing up to the inevitability of change.

James & James, once tailors to the Duke of Windsor and now to Lords Forte, Hanson and King, among others, has introduced a service that allows for financial compromise. Using a laser-cutting technique, it can offer a semi-bespoke suit for around pounds 400, comparing easily with many designers and even one or two high-street chains.

The difference is that you end up with a quality garment after having been fitted by a master tailor, not a shop assistant eager for a tea break.

Offering semi-bespoke may be, for many, the sweetener they need to consider a fully tailored example. Others, on the other hand, will be happy to order several laser items.

Henry Poole's display at the V&A confirms that despite the rapaciousness of mass-media advertising and clothing designers feted like film stars, tailoring has no equal.

'Dressing the Part', a display of work by Henry Poole, Savile Row tailors, opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Thursday.