Ben Sherman - 40 Years Of Style & Attitude In Brighton

By David Prudames | 02 May 2003
Shows a collage of images celebrating Ben Sherman.

Left: Ben Sherman shirts have been iconic fashion items for an incredible 40 years. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

Back in 2003 David Prudames buttoned-down his collar, jumped on his scooter and made for Brighton Museum to take in this super-stylish exhibition.

1963 was a big year; The Beatles released their first LP and in a small Brighton factory one of Britain's most enduring fashion icons was born.

Ben Sherman - Forty Years of Style & Attitude, is on at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery until July 27 and charts the history of a much-loved shirt from Mod heydays, to Britpop revival.

Shows three Ben Sherman shirts on display.

Right: the original button-down Ben Sherman was an instant classic and is a much sought after item to this day. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

The show was put together as part of a year-long archive project undertaken on behalf of Ben Sherman by curator Angela Charles. She has not only tracked down some incredible original items, but has managed to capture the essence and strength of feeling that surrounds the shirts.

As one visitor to the exhibition has written in the guest book: “You'll never forget the first football match, shag and Ben Sherman.”

After a visit to the USA, entrepreneur Ben Sherman was inspired by the smart styling of the Ivy League colleges and began making shirts in Brighton in the early 60s. Success came soon enough as his shirts sold across Europe and the US, and in 1967 a shop, The Jade House, was opened on Brighton's Duke Street.

It didn't take long for the Oxford shirt, complete with a button-down collar, back-pleat and packaged in distinctive black boxes with orange logos, to gain cult status.

Shows Ben Sherman's suitcase and some original shirt boxes.

Left: wherever he went Ben Sherman carried shirt samples, more often than not in this suitcase, loaned to the exhibition by his brother. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

Expansion to Carnaby Street soon followed and as demand overwhelmed the original Brighton factory, production was moved to Northern Ireland. Sherman himself sold the company in 1975 and moved to Australia where he lived until his death in 1987.

On the face of it, it's a fairly typical story about a successful clothing business, but, as the exhibition ably demonstrates, it's so much more than that.

As I approached the glass case containing 40 years of Ben Sherman heritage, even the security guard couldn't resist telling me he still had a pair of Ben Sherman desert boots at home.

The brand it seems is not so much about clothes but a way of life, a label, a status symbol that projects an image and tells the world exactly what you're about.

Shows a multi-coloured ladies Ben Sherman shirt.

Right: although he is better known for his men's shirts, Ben Sherman also made them for women, including this blouse made in 1968. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

With colours that still look fresh today and a style that transforms a traditional item into an original piece of fashion, shirts, either loaned or donated to the collection, form the focus of the exhibition.

It is a fantastic display, but it's location at the back of the museum's fashion gallery would take away some of its impact were it not for the accompanying asides, recorded by committed Ben Sherman wearers.

Bob Spencer, a Brighton Skinhead comments: “The Ben Sherman, that was the ultimate shirt. It was the shirt to wear, the shirt to be seen in.”

Jean Imray, a machinist at the Brighton factory between 1964-1969 recalls making the 'shirtwaister' dresses designed for women. It seems they comprised a men's shirt, elongated to go over the waist and hips: “they definitely didn't allow for women's hips, we weren't all skinny-minis then!”

Shows an original Ben Sherman shirt with a tear from the owner's braces.

Left: once worn by Brighton skinhead, John Byrne, this Ben Sherman from 1970 bears the scars of years spent under a pair of braces. Photo: David Prudames. © 24 Hour Museum.

What really strikes me is the longevity. Shirts lived in and loved during the 60s rub shoulders with those fresh from the machine room this year. The definition of a fashion is that it comes and goes, but the Ben Sherman survived the mods, the skinheads and even the lad culture of the early 90s.

Writing about his shirt in 2003, David 'Dizzy' Cooke explains: “A lot of the time if you're going to a special music night you get suited and booted: shirt, suit, shoes, socks, all the attention to detail... it's the shirt that finishes the whole idea.”

The exhibition does have a distinct whiff of nostalgia, yet it's not a shallow one. Some of these shirts have been treasured wardrobe items, they've grown up as central parts of people's lives and in its ability to convey that, the exhibition is a success.

See the official Ben Sherman website for more information about the man and his brand.

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