Leading Article: A bit of social history gone for a Burton

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The Independent Online
ANYONE who remembers the high streets of Britain between the Thirties and Sixties may find it scarcely credible that, as reported in our Business section today, Burton is to contract out the selling of suits in its own shops. In those days, where there was a high street there was a Montague Burton shop, its vacuously smiling dummies promising a suiting of decent, if unexciting, quality.

Behind the vast chain lay one of those tales of entrepreneurial genius often attributable to Jewish immigrants. Montague Burton arrived in Britain from Lithuania in 1900, aged 15. After working for a Sheffield tailor, he was lent pounds 100 by a relative and set up his own tailoring business with a shop in Chesterfield. Thirty years later he was directly employing 10,000 men and women on the highest wages for clothing manufacture in Europe, and there were 600 Montague Burton shops.

But adaptability is everything in the rag trade, and even by the time Sir Montague died, aged 67, in 1952, his shops were looking dated. From then on the Burton presence has become steadily less visible as the company strove with mixed success, not least during the roller- coaster era under Sir Ralph Halpern, to diversify and catch up with prevailing trends. In this it seems at last to have succeeded: the new Burton look has been well-received by fashion experts.

Yet the old chain deserves its place in social history, along with trams, motorcycle sidecars, Lyons Corner Houses, where live music accompanied tea, and shops in which change and the receipt went whizzing along overhead wires in little metal cylinders. Before the 'Tailor of Taste' arrived, suits tended to be either cheap and nasty or made to measure and expensive. Burton provided decent off-the-peg suits - and overcoats - that bridged the class gap. For not much extra, they could be made to measure.

In handing over its suit business to an outside concessionaire, Burton is acknowledging the need to focus its skills on the sale of casual wear. Suit sales have been moving inexorably downwards, falling by at least a third since 1989. Even some large companies now allow employees to wear more or less casual gear at work. It is not with its suits but its casual wear that Burton has a chance of once again becoming an esteemed feature on Britain's high streets.