For three centuries, the gentlemen’ clubs of Mayfair and St. James have upheld their proud, private traditions. But a host of exciting new challengers are arriving on the scene – and they’re playing by very different rules.
In 1957, an American photographer named Burt Glinn was covering the Arab-Israeli border conflict, when his eye was caught by a short letter in the London Times;
It is curious to note the number of men, some of whom obviously should know otherwise, walking abroad in a bowler hat and brown shoes. This could not have happened once.
Junior Carlton Club
Pall Mall S.W.1’
Those few short sentences were enough to catapult Glinn from Jerusalem to London, eager to discover what could drive a man to such passionate outrage over another man’s shoes. The portfolio of photographs that resulted, The British Gentleman’s Private World, ran in Esquire the following spring, taking readers inside a hidden London — a London of bespoke tailors and shoemakers, of tea parties at Buckingham Palace and cocktails at Chelsea Barracks, and of the great gentlemen’s clubs of Mayfair and St. James. In places like Whites, the Reform Club or the Athanaeum, a man could idle away his leisure hours (or all his hours, if leisure was his full-time occupation), safe from prying eyes and tutting wives. Much like the gorgeous buildings which housed them, these clubs were relics of another time; and Glinn, whilst photographing them, was acutely aware that they seemed close to disappearing. The Swinging Sixties were just around the corner, and the heyday of the gentleman’s club seemed to be drawing to its inevitable end.
Fast forward to today, though, and the opposite seems to be the case. Many have fallen by the wayside, but over fifty of the old guard are surviving — and in fact, not so much surviving as thriving. Many have softened the rules against admitting female members (although there are still some notorious holdouts), but there’s otherwise little evidence of standards slipping. Dress codes are still sternly upheld, service is still smoothly unobtrusive, and discretion is still indisputably upheld.
But the world around them has changed. First there was Annabel’s, the scandalously successful, unashamedly cool Berkeley Square nightclub (the only nightclub, incidentally, that the Queen has ever visited); then the Groucho Club, the bad-behaviour hub of pre-millennium Cool Britannia, its name inspired by Groucho Marx’s legendary saying; “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member.” And then, of course, there was Soho House, founded in the mid-Nineties and still going strong. All three represented a new definition of society, with memberships drawn from the new aristocracy of music, movies and media, and a far more laid-back approach to the fine art of socialising. Sixty years ago, E.P. Rowell was scandalised by a pair of brown shoes; if he were alive today, Soho House’s strict ‘no tie’ policy might well have sent him over the edge.
Soho House is now a global phenomenon, with branches everywhere from an old Berlin department store to a Sunset Boulevard penthouse – and its East London sibling, Shoreditch House, has become notorious for its rooftop pool (a wildly popular feature which allows for the wearing of scarcely any clothing at all). And there are an endless stream of new arrivals entering the fray. 5 Hertford Street, Library London and Alfred’s (a member’s club housed within Dunhill’s magnificent Mayfair flagship) have all made their mark on the scene in the past few years. But thinks seem to be ramping up again, with a slew of New World interlopers. With the Chiltern Firehouse, New York hotel supremo André Balasz made an old fire station on a Marylebone backstreet into one of the world’s most talked about hot-spots – and its impossible-to-get-into VIP bar, the Laddershed, set a new standard for desirability. Membership here is one-night-only, granted to the privileged few by bestowing a gambling chip or playing card. One day you’re in – the next, you’re out. Over in Hoxton, fellow New Yorker Michel Achenbaum is hard at work readying The Curtain, a nine-storey combination of hotel and member’s club which promises to challenge Shoreditch House head on. And back in the West End, the old Adelphi building on the Strand will soon play host the London outpost of NeueHouse, the American members’ club whose house rules boil down to a disarmingly straightforward one-liner; Be Nice.
Clubland today is more energised, more exciting, and more eclectic than it’s ever been. Old school, or cutting edge? Plush tradition, or urban minimalism? Jackets and ties, or trainers? It may be time to finally rip up the rulebook, once and for all.