No other shops were so easily or instantly recognisable. Burton's were normally built at busy road junctions which, whatever their names on the map, became Burton's Corners and landmarks at which courting couples met on their way to the pictures. Above the shops, there were often smoky billiard halls, dens of vice into which schoolboys peered from the tops of passing tramcars. They became known as Burton's Billiard Halls.
The Billiard Halls - 'saloons', as they were called by decent families as a sign of disapproval - did not fit happily above the gentleman's tailor and outfitter on the ground floor. For Burton's was The Tailor of Taste - a cut above John Collier (The Window to Watch) the Fifty Shilling Tailor, who offered (as his name implied) 'cheap' or 'reasonable' suits, according to his salesman's choice of language.
Burton's extended our boyhood vocabulary. We never quite mastered Montague - the founder's name, which we normally pronounced Montaig. But thanks to the slogan, taste took on a new meaning. In every other context, it was what you did with your tongue - the sense excited by fish and chips, Tizer the Appetiser and Sunday dinner. But at Burton's, taste had a new and special meaning. Taste was the sixth sense by which people with class judged quality.
Quality, class, taste - they were all the attributes we needed when buying a new suit. For as well as a sign of respectability, suits - particularly new suits - were a mark of manhood. They were also one of the most expensive purchases that we, or our parents, ever made. But the sacrifice was essential. Forty years ago, every man who valued his place in society had to possess a suit. It might be old, second-hand, cut down, inherited or threadbare. But it was essential, if for nothing else than christenings, weddings and funerals, to possess a pair of trousers and a jacket that matched each other.
In more prosperous families it was called 'the best suit'. Others spoke with the direct simplicity of the poor and called it 'the suit' as if, being the only one they possessed, it was the only suit in the world. To this day, I possess a best suit, which is only brought out of the wardrobe on very special occasions. Indeed, it exists not to be worn. The smell of mothballs has gone, but the idea of keeping one suit sacrosanct remains. Burton's must take some of the blame.
The suit has, apparently, gone out of fashion - particularly with those hopeful and earnest young men who were such an important part of Burton's trade. These days, they wear designer sweaters to go with their designer jeans and hope to look like a cross between a Hollywood cowboy and a Victorian railway navvy. For a while, Burton's stood out bravely against the tide. Then they were swept slowly away. The retreat began with a relaxation of their own high standards. Earlier this year, Martin McNamee, Burton's managing director, pronounced what amounted to the quietus for its more traditional merchandise.
'Visit Burton's now and you'll see that we've taken our jackets off, literally as well as metaphorically.' The innovation of the shirtsleeved shop assistant was intended to combat the trauma of customers who thought that visiting the erstwhile Tailor of Taste was 'like visiting a bank'. In my youth, the hope of looking like a bank clerk was what drew us to Burton's Corner. Once schoolteachers started to wear tracksuits in class and vicars made parochial visits dressed in woolly jumpers, Burton's - at least the old, real Burton's - was doomed.
Burton's began to lose its real identity a couple of decades before last week's decision to stop selling its own suits and lease out its gentleman's tailoring to William Baird, the manufacturers of the Centaur range. For Burton by Centaur, it will say on the label. Centaur, a mythical beast - with the head and shoulders of a man and body of a horse - seems a strange brand image with which to promote the pin-striped double-breasted with waistcoat. But presumably William Baird have had their choice of name market-tested. No doubt similar precautions were taken when, in the slipstream of the Swinging Sixties, Burton's Corners (which were really Burton's Shops) became Burton's Stores. Then the stores became 'retail outlets' and the names above the big plate-glass windows were sometimes changed to Top Shop, Top Man, and even Dorothy Perkins.
That was the beginning of the end. Dorothy Perkins] In my day, women were barely allowed inside the door. And Top Shop is not the sort of name that could possibly pass in to the folklore that was essential to Burton's success. In the Fifties, we wanted to be smart but we were afraid of being flash. A young man with too much Brylcreem on his hair or a coloured handkerchief in his breast pocket was accused of 'looking as though he had just come out of Burton's window'. We could not have said a thing like that about a Top Shop store.
'Suits,' said managing director McNamee, 'require a lot of selling.' Not for me. Not back in 1953. In those days, no one would dare to go inside a Burton's unless he had a serious intention of coming away with a ready-made suit or leaving a thirty shilling deposit on the bespoke extravagance for which he had been measured. The idea that only Centaurs' shock troops, the highly trained commandos of the retail assault, can separate customers from their money shows how sartorial standards and working-class self-confidence have changed. Forty years ago we would no more have ignored the advice of a Burton's shop assistant than we would have refused to take the doctor's medicine.
I bought my first Burton's suit when I was 17. It was part of a package of purchases - dressing-gown, cabin trunk, briefcase and single-breasted two-piece - in which I invested as a preparation for the great unknown - either university or National Service, according to the results of medical and Advanced Level examinations.
I paid for the lot out of my own bank book. But although I was spending accumulated birthday and Christmas presents, my mother behaved as if she had financed the whole transaction. She insisted on a blue which was so serviceably dark that it looked like black. I matriculated dressed as an undertaker's clerk.
Four years later, and liberated, I visited Burton's Corner in Hull. In the gloom of the artificial lighting, I flicked through a pile of samples until I found what I believed to be the sort of flannel to which I had long aspired - the light grey favoured by sporting parsons and Oxford cricket Blues. It was clear, at the fitting, that at the moment of purchase excitement had rendered me temporarily colour-blind. The suit was electric green. But I did not care. At last I was tailor-made. On the day of delivery, I returned to my lodgings in triumph, carrying the cardboard box which (together with tissue paper) Burton's regarded as essential to the safekeeping of their bespoke product.
I hope that young men who buy bomber jackets feel the same delight when they reach up to the racks of fashionable serve-yourself clothes emporia. But I have my doubts. Burton's, as well as being part of the age of respectability, was a product of an era in which awe and wonder were more common than they are today. Burton's was born and bred in a time of innocence. It is not surprising that they have had to change.
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