I’ll never forget, in my late teens, throwing caution to the wind and embarking on a horse drawn caravan holiday with my friends.
One night, whilst looking for a place to stable our horses, we came across a farmer. He was wearing two collarless shirts: one that appeared grubby covered by one a little cleaner.
As we handed over our ten bob note for the stable fee, we asked him why he’d gone for two layers on such a fine day. He laughed out loud and replied, “Bejabers, this way you can wear them twice as long without washing!”
It was the first of many whiffs of Irish humour we were to encounter during our adventure in County Cork.
Where is this story about shirts leading? Well, earlier this year a Hammond & Harper of London catalogue landed on our doormat and it got me thinking that perhaps it was time to update my own wardrobe.
Henry Ford once famously said that you could have any colour car you wanted, provided it was black. Years ago the same was true of vicar’s dress. They wore black clerical shirts with full collars, black bibs, black suits and black cassocks. Everything was black.
I myself was no exception to the rule. Rather like a child in school uniform, I did not have to worry about what to wear as my 16 ½” tunnel collar black clerical shirt was already laid out for the morning.
But times are changing. Clergy gatherings used to look like a murder of crows but now they fly amongst a rainbow of colours.
Today at Hammond & Harper there is a wide range of styles available and a huge array of colours and fabrics to choose from. So whether you require green raindrops, navy pin stripes, peacock blue or rose coloured shirts, Hammond & Harper are your first port of call!
Already I have succumbed to wearing, for pastoral ministry, a blue medium striped clerical shirt. I look rather impressive in it if I do say so myself.
I was in need of a new shirt so Christine and I decided to visit Hammond & Harper’s headquarters. It would have been much easier to purchase by telephone, email or their web site, but as it turned out, not half the pleasure.
H&H are a leading company in clerical shirts and accessories and whilst the firm originates from London they are now based down the road from us in Haydock, St Helens.
Armed with our trusty sat-nav system we were directed to a secure parking area next to a modern commercial building. As we got out of our car we wondered if cameras were trained on us and if we might be arrested for trespassing.
We had imagined a clerical outfitter to be housed in a little Georgian shop with bow windows. What we hadn’t accounted for was the fact that H&H actually produce and store large numbers of shirts and accessories at their site. Sadly a little Georgian shop simply would not suffice.
Although our first impressions of the outside of the building were a little underwhelming, the inside was about to make amends.
We were personally greeted in the reception suite by the irrepressible general manager Anne and her effervescent and charming assistant Suzanne.
We were treated like a customer at Harrods. Nothing was too much trouble as the ladies went through all the styles of shirts available. Suzanne brought these out at Anne’s jovial command and I removed my upper layers so I could try them on.
I don’t think Anne and Suzanne had ever seen a topless priest before, nor had they expected to be taking part in a clerical fashion show that morning. Yet here we were. Stripped down to the waist, I prayed that the bishop wasn’t about to walk in, prompted himself by an H&H catalogue.
A memory suddenly popped into my head of my appearance in our church fashion show, when I’d been the only male model and the accompanist had played the stripper. I don’t think I’ll ever live that one down.
The Piccadilly Wing
My new shirt was in place but the fitting wasn’t over yet. With a military style order from Anne, Suzanne disappeared again, this time to source several sizes of Piccadilly Wing collars. A Piccadilly Wing, I was told, was the collar of choice for formal occasions.
As I had never worn a loose collar in my life, there was no chance of me fixing the two collar studs in place without significant assistance. So it was all hands to my throat – Anne’s, Suzanne’s and Christine’s.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that my life flashed before my eyes at that moment. Although I did fear for my life a little, that was until we’d safely accommodated my Adam’s apple. I sensed the eyes of the other departmental staff on us, glued to the scene as if it was the set of a Harold Lloyd film.
A minute later Christine and I departed with three shirts, one Piccadilly Wing collar and a receipt for my purchases. When I turned to wave goodbye, there were tears rolling down Anne and Suzanne’s faces. Were these tears of laughter or pride at a job well done?
Either way, I think they knew they hadn’t seen the last of me. I will certainly be returning to Hammond and Harper for my next clerical shirt fitting.
The Rev Priestly Brook, an Anglican priest, retired in August 2012 from the Colne and Villages Team Ministry in East Lancashire. His Bishop has granted him a licence with Permission to Officiate. He is married to Christine, with six grown up children. He is a well known preacher and after dinner speaker in the North of England.