Shopfitting and window-dressing are ephemeral arts that flourish on novelty; even merchants proud of their long histories and royal warrants want up to date selling spaces. Bootmakers and wine merchants in St James’s may play up antiquity and preserve battered shutters and ripe mahogany but they are the exception. The timeframe of architecture is longer than that of retailing, and conflicts arise. Planners and landlords may discipline exteriors, but once over the threshold shopkeepers go their own way. Misalliances can be read in a seepage of logos and lettering which compromises the conformity of façades (or, if you like, enlivens them). A Mile of Style: 180 Years of Luxury Shopping on Regent Street at the Guildhall Art Gallery until 30 June covers both buildings and shopping. It illustrates an awkward relationship.

Architecturally, Regent Street has changed its appearance in a wholesale way only once. It was dressed in stucco when new, under the general direction of John Nash. It formed the central portion of his grand north-south route from Regent’s Park to Carlton House (demolished in 1827, only a year after the building work in Regent Street was complete). The Victorians made inroads on Nash’s scheme; the Quadrant Colonnades, which cut out daylight and harboured vice, were demolished in 1848 and piecemeal replacements and extensions followed. Then, mainly in the 1920s, the street was rebuilt in stone. Complaints about the new Regent Street have rumbled on ever since. The first substantial breach – it set the Imperial Edwardian tone of much that was to follow – was made by the back elevation of Norman Shaw’s Piccadilly Hotel. ‘It’s a grim business this new stone section of the Quadrant,’ C.H. Reilly wrote in 1922. ‘No one can deny the power of the design. The situation of a bull in a china shop is not improved by the magnificence of the bull.’ It was not just architects who took badly to the transformation. Looking back in 1962, Eric Newby spoke of patrons of the family dressmaking firm who ‘moved out in the 1920s when Regent Street had been demolished to make way for the buildings that make it such a dreary, open ditch and which are now being dwarfed by even more outrageous structures’. The change in scale and the transformation of Regency levity into swaggering pomp was what was most offensive. Yet when one looks at photographs of old Regent Street in the exhibition it is clear that its coherent beginnings, achieved through a mixture of Picturesque planning and formal groups of buildings that take on the character of minor palace fronts, had been much compromised by the 1920s. You can still find grand Nash frontages around Regent’s Park – what is needed for a house has changed little but the demands made on selling spaces have changed a great deal. The Picturesque planning – Nash pointed to the High Street in Oxford – remains only in the curve of the Quadrant.

The price of coherence was, despite much expensive detailing, not just oppression but dullness. There are no buildings in Regent Street even today in which architecture and selling find a common voice, as Selfridges does palatially in Oxford Street and Peter Jones does without bombast in Sloane Square. In Regent Street, Liberty came closest, but (despite a couple of Japanese bronzes on the front) only the timber-framed extension behind is really consonant with the store’s Oriental and Arts and Crafts traditions. Oxford Street is intolerably crowded and ugly and Bond Street an architectural muddle. Regent Street is neither of those things. But crowds and muddle do suggest some distant connection with the shifting excitement of the bazaar and the marketplace.

The exhibition announces Regent Street as ‘Europe’s most famous shopping thoroughfare’. ‘Thoroughfare’ points up the problem. The street plays the Nash game by covering each block with a symmetrical front, and if traffic did not stream by, if you could approach the buildings face on from more than the width of the street, they would register as a grand, if not always elegant procession. As it is, you are hardly conscious of the detail which articulates the walls of grey stone that rise above the bronze facias of the ground floor.

Jaeger swimwear advertisement

Three establishments whose archives have been drawn on for the exhibition – Jaeger, Aquascutum and Austin Reed – were early in the field when ready-made clothing began to challenge bespoke tailoring: Austin Reed, we are told, was the first to offer a ‘high quality ready-to-wear suit’. Comparisons between clothes and architecture come easily. A while ago architectural theorists took on board the notion of ‘loose fit’: the idea that designs in which the functions of spaces are not too tightly specified are more useful than those tailored to the details of a single client’s present requirements. Loose fit in clothes made mass marketing easier. The excellence of handmade shoes and suits arises, in great measure, from their being cobbled, cut and stitched to fit particular feet and figures. On the other hand, army coats made by Aquascutum (the first trench coats really were worn in the trenches) were available in the Crimea and during the world wars, which suggests that an officer might wear one, even if the uniform beneath required the attentions of a firm like those that still advertise themselves as ‘civil and military tailors’.

Aquascutum and Jaeger both made their names with staunchly utilitarian garments. Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen System was the foundation of the English firm. George Bernard Shaw wore Jaeger – his clothes were, like his socialism, vegetarianism and advocation of spelling reform, intended as a rational challenge to convention. These firms’ excursions into fashion were sensible not showy. The descendants of the Aquascutum Field Trench Coat, the Royal Motor Coat, even the Edward VII Cape Coat, are the four-wheel drives of male fashion. They imply manly, active, glamorous lives. In a way they are beyond fashion. There are photographs of Humphrey Bogart, Danny Kaye, Sean Connery (in Another Time, Another Place) and Michael Caine (as Harry Palmer), all belted up and broad-shouldered in coats you could still wear today without attracting comment. We are told that in 2006 Pierce Brosnan became ‘the new face of Aquascutum’. The faces change but the trench coat lives on.

One strand of design theory found favourite examples in simple, anonymous objects – silver spoons, country chairs, industrial sheds and so on – and looked to a future beyond fashion. That this was a mirage became clear when modern ceased to mean new and became Modern, the style. There are still timeless designs to be found in the shops of Regent Street. The street itself isn’t one of them.

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