Recently, we had a vigorous debate on the merits of custom tailoring. Front and center was the very definition of “custom”; did refer only to completely bespoke handcrafting or could one call made-to-measure and its equivalents “custom”?
Jon Green, the noted bespoke clothier and OTC contributor, sent along the following article written by G. Bruce Boyer. As Jon pointed out to me, this argument on the semantics of what is or is not truly custom has been hotly debated for decades and shows no sign of easing.
Quite to the contrary; with one’s ability to hop online and order up a (possibly) custom suit of clothes, sports jacket, shirt or even overcoat, the rift between bespoke purists and everyone else has deepened even more.
So, with thanks to Mr. Green and by extension to Mr. Boyer, let’s see what the preeminent authority on menswear has to say about this thorny issue.
Men used to have but one clothing decision: they bought off-the-rack, from a men’s or department store, or had suits custom made by a tailor. Today a panorama of personalized clothing options–bench-made, custom-made, made-to-measure and special order–make the choices wider but a bit confusing.
In an effort to clear things up, let’s define the terminology.
The term bench-made generally indicates that clothes are made in a shop that has the tailor’s name on the door; further, that he is a master tailor (meaning an expert pattern maker, cutter and fitter). The work is done on the premises, an individual pattern is constructed for the exclusive use of each customer, and there is a maximum of handwork.
Most of the same criteria apply to the term custom-made, except that the work is not always done on the premises, and the name above the door is not always that of a master tailor. More often than not, the head of the establishment is someone–such as a designer–whose reputation is based on his taste and who is capable of providing excellent advice.
“Made-to-measure” clothing differs from bench- or custom-made apparel in that tailors use stock patterns that are modified to fit an individual customer. Construction and fabrics of made-to-measure garments may be of very high quality, but, because no individual pattern has to be created, prices can be considerably less.
“Special-order” suits (which we will not cover beyond this point) are made from unaltered stock patterns, but offer a selection of fabrics stocked by the manufacturer and a choice of two or three basic style models. The customer usually pays a premium of 10 percent. The procedure for the customer is much the same whether the construction is bench-made, custom-made, or made-to-measure. All three processes afford measures of personalization and individuality that are otherwise unavailable.
First, styling–which includes general silhouette and specific details–is discussed. The customer will be asked if he favors a built-up look or a more relaxed one. Italian, English or American interpretations are typical options. Of course, the customer’s preferences for fit and feel are also solicited: For example, will the jacket and trousers sit close to the body or have an easier, fuller fit? Does he prefer a higher or lower shoulder? Will the jacket have a soft or firm feel?
The customer chooses the basic form–single- or double-breasted, two-button or three. From there a plethora of details can be ordered. Should the jacket be side, center or unvented? Will the customer prefer flapped, besom, patch or hacking pockets? A ticket pocket perhaps? How many buttons on the sleeve (with working buttonholes, of course)? How many interior pockets? Lapel width or trouser rise may be an issue.
The trousers type must be specified. Will they have pleats or plain front, cuffs or plain bottoms? On-seam or off-seam side pockets, and how many back pockets? A change pocket, a watch pocket? Swelled side seams? Self-supporting waist, belt loops or suspender buttons? Then there is fabric selection. Any reputable shop will have dozens of swatch books from which to choose hundreds and hundreds of cloths–everything from traditional worsteds, flannels and tweeds to the Super woolens (starting with the Super 80s and going up to the 180s), fine silks, cashmeres, cottons, linens and blends. Lightweight fabrics are those considered to be between 7 and 9 1/2 ounces, medium are between 10 and 13 ounces, and anything over 14 is considered heavy in our climate-controlled age. [See Cigar Aficionado, Summer 1995, for a discussion of fabrics.]
Some tailors will have cloths woven exclusively to their own requirements of weight, pattern and color (often their names will be woven into the selvage–the outside strip of the cloth–as proof of exclusivity). Others simply have an eye for that odd bolt of cloth they know their customers will appreciate.
Finally, the tailor will take the measurements. Here’s where the best shine: meticulous measurements make for a suit that fits. Which is why a good tailor will leave nothing to chance. He will want to measure the length of each arm and each leg separately, the chest under and over the arms, the waist above the hips and the seat below them. He will want to measure the shoulders from one side to the other (called “point to point”), and each one from the middle of the back. He will measure the length of the coat that the customer is wearing (only as a rough guide).
The tailor will measure a variety of points on your body that you never thought had anything to do with each other. All these numbers will be recorded in the order book. Your fitter will note, in his own shorthand system, any little problems or idiosyncrasies your body might have: “EP” might stand for erect posture, “LLS” for lower left shoulder. But never mind if your neck is like a corkscrew, your calves protruding, or your back like a dowager’s hump. A good tailor is part psychologist, part cosmetic surgeon. With a little nip and tuck of the cloth here, a bit of extra padding there, some slight narrowing of the trouser leg or widening of lapel, veritable miracles can be performed. (A practical note: it’s a good idea to wear the same sort of shoes and shirt while being fitted as you’ll match with the clothes being made, since this makes measurements more relevant to the way you actually wear your clothes.)
Before departing the shop you will be asked to leave perhaps a 50 percent deposit, and be given an assurance that you’ll be called in several weeks’ time–say three to six–for a fitting. Bench- and custom-made usually require two or three fittings (the first fitting is merely the shell of a garment), while made-to-measure usually requires only one (for minor alterations, button placement and a few minor details).
During the remaining fitting(s) the garment will be fine-tuned, a quarter-inch chalked off in one place, an eighth added in another, a notation made to ease an armhole just a fraction, or minutely tighten the trouser seat. Button stance will be decided. It’s a good idea at this fitting to transfer anything you carry in your pockets to your new clothes, so any adjustments for a bulging wallet or eyeglass case can be made.
The suit should now be properly balanced (each part being where it should be, and sitting correctly) and comfortable. The buttonholes can now be cut and buttons attached. After a final hand-pressing, the suit will be shipped. The record of the measurements (in the form of a paper pattern for bench and custom), tailor’s notes for alterations, and perhaps a small swatch of the selected fabric will be filed away for future orders. Figure on six to 10 weeks from order to delivery.
Personalized clothing is a true investment. Treated with respect and proper maintenance, it will more than pay for itself. A cheap suit looks cheap even when it’s new; a good one looks great even when it’s old.