By Willa Petschek
June 16, 1980 12:00 PM

During the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, a misty-eyed member of the House of Lords remarked to an African dignitary, “What a great day for the Queen!” “Yes,” came the observant reply, “and what a great day for Moss Bros.” Indeed it was. Moss Bros, which is pronounced Mossbross and spelled with no period after Bros, is the ultimate in rent-a-tux. On that festive day 27 years ago, Westminster Abbey was stone wall to stone wall with morning coats, top hats, full-dress uniforms, medals, swords and every elegant accoutrement imaginable from the 120-year-old London firm. Even noblemen whose titles were loftier than their incomes gratefully picked up the required velvet-and-ermine robes from Moss Bros at $88 for the day.

From its dignified headquarters in Covent Garden and its 32 branch stores in Great Britain, the company dresses 60,000 customers a month. Among them have been kings (Feisal and Umberto), generals (Eisenhower, Patton and de Gaulle), Presidents (Ford) and about half the attendees at next week’s Royal Ascot races. “Without Moss Bros,” Douglas Fairbanks Jr., a loyal customer, once said, “British pageantry wouldn’t be the same.”

Those not to the manor born are also welcome. “After God comes the customer” is the motto of 64-year-old Basil Moss, the ruddy-faced chairman and former Royal Navy commander, who answers to “Mr. Basil.” He and “Mr. Monty”—his Harrow-educated cousin Montague Moss, 56, who is deputy chairman—make sure the selection is vast and the quality high. Monty tours the branches while Basil handles the home front.

In stock among hundreds of items are 8,000 gray top hats (plus 1,000 black ones for funerals) and 30,000 pairs of trousers, some dating back to the Napoleonic wars. “The test of where a man gets his morning coat is the fit,” says Mr. Basil. “If it fits, we got it for him. If it doesn’t, he inherited it.”

Basil and Monty are the eldest of nine Moss family members in the business. It was started in 1860 by a Talmudic scholar named Moses Moses, who sold secondhand clothing from a cart in the streets of London. By the end of the century his sons, who changed the name to Moss, were renting apparel to indigent actors. After World War I their clientele included down-at-the-heels gentry as well. “In the ’20s,” Basil recalls, “people were a bit shy of us, so we delivered unlabeled clothing in unlabeled vans.”

Then in 1924 a royal garden party was rained out, bringing hundreds of well-to-do customers back at the same moment to make returns and claim their own suits. “My father froze at the sight of so many secrets being spilled,” Basil says, “but it was hilarious. While men squeezed into the changing rooms, their wives sat on the counter tops, laughing and chatting. The stigma of hiring was ended.”

During clothes rationing in World War II, Moss Bros opened a women’s department for rentals and sales. A bride can buy a new wedding gown from a selection of 1,500, then sell it back for half price to the hire department after the ceremony. Recently Monty’s nephew Steven, a fifth-generation Moss, opened a subsidiary called One Up. “It’s for young men whose wardrobe consists of jeans and who need a dark suit for a job interview,” explains Steven, rock music pouring from speakers behind him. Profits at Moss Bros have quadrupled in the last seven years, and the firm is worth more than $8 million, all testimony to the durability of Monty’s credo: “If you are having a party, it’s more of a party if you dress up.”