Old School Scoundrel: Terry-Thomas

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Terry-Thomas was a gifted comedic writer, comic actor, raconteur, ladies man, television pioneer and film star. A man of infinite cheek and charm; when in Hollywood he compiled a form guide of leading starlets breasts. Dining with Pablo Picasso he enquired of the artist; “does anybody ever say to you, can I have a word in your eye?”

But beyond these accomplishments, the fruity voice and rich vocabulary he was a true sartorialist. Despite all appearances Terry-Thomas, or Thomas Terry Hoar Stevens as he was christened, was born into a lower middle class family in the London suburb of North Finchley.

The phrase “dress for the job you want not the job you’ve got” could have been created for Terry-Thomas, although he dressed not just for a job but for a new life. Desperate to outdistance the humdrum middle-class life of his parents, clothes become an essential part of his escape kit.

His attention to detail and single-minded pursuit of distinction through dress no matter the circumstances are examples any student of style would do well to ape.

For his first job as a junior transport clerk at Smithfield Meat Market he turned up wearing a taupe double breasted suit and green pork pie hat, sporting a clove carnation and cigarette holder, two items that would latter become trademarks of his wardrobe. Known by his colleagues as the man in the carpet slippers, because of his predilection for suede shoes, in an environment of grey and blood stained aprons he cut a peculiarly compelling figure. It was here that he also developed his knack for jokes and comic capering.

In 1942 Terry-Thomas received what he described characteristically as; “a cunningly worded invitation to join the Army”.  Yet even the strictures of service life didn’t stop him, much to the occasional annoyance of superiors. Though not an officer himself, he continued to sport brown suede shoes with his Khakis  – a colour reserved for officers – and even sought out former tailors to make his own type of bespoke battle dress. Entering the forces entertainment corps he readopted his cigarette holder and cut such a dash he was regularly saluted as an officer.

When fame and money finally came his way the lessons were well learned, and he was able to give them full expression. A founding member of London’s Waistcoat Club he amassed a collection of 80 bespoke suits, 22 dinner jackets and tail suits and 150 waistcoats. Of this last garment he had every conceivable material and wore them religiously. Top pockets on suits were cut 7 inches long to accommodate his cigarette holders and he even had his boxer shorts made bespoke. He never left the house without a clove carnation, even if he were “slipping out to the pub”.

The only time TT was unable to pursue this life long cause was towards the end of his innings when Parkinson’s disease tragically and slowly robbed him of his wit, his money and eventually his beloved wardrobe.

If you’re tempted to read more on loves, life and wardrobe of Terry-Thomas then I can heartily recommend Graham McCann’s entertaining biography entitled ‘Bounder!’.


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Andrew Williams blogs at BespokeMe and is based in London. His clothing label Bulldog & Wasp represents his philosophy that style is a frame of mind not just a state of dress.

Comments

  1. Will Edwards says:

    Excellent – he did always cut a ‘dash’.

  2. Grace Pomfrey says:

    Lovely piece, and I can recommend the biography, too.

  3. john scott says:

    the man was a genius. i grew up in his era. as a boy[and still today] i enjoyed every minute of him on film.i was born 1950, and caught terry and his contemporaries in their prime, all gone alas! irreplaceable.

  4. Georgina Ashton says:

    I loved Terry’s films, but heard that he was quite the womanizer told to me by a young English starlet who worked with him during the 60′s. Still, he was such a laugh. I was born in 1950 too, and grew up in England, but came to the USA in the late 70′s to marry my penpal.