Style

Why Bespoke Clothing?

bespoke suit example

An example of a successful bespoke endeavor.

Bespoke what? The word itself has undergone changes since its first use in the 1500’s. Back then, “bespoke” was what you called your outfit.  Your one outfit, the one that smelled of Western European colonization.

“Why yes, the codpiece was bespoke. No, I don’t know why it’s so small. But the godless heathens should be impressed.”


The idea of having something made for you was nothing strange in those days, but as mass-produced items became commonplace, something made to your particular specifications (such as your particular body) became scarce.  Most ready-to-wear suits may not fit you perfectly, but a few may. Most are also made from ugly fabrics, but a handful are tastefully classic. The price range is anywhere from $300 to upwards of $3000 and higher. Something, somewhere, will fit your body, budget, and discriminating bias. So, why bespoke?

bespoke suit styleforum guidelines

All smiles throughout the process.

Indeed, in order to get something bespoke one has to do quite a bit of research, as few companies even offer such services. Fewer still are the tailoring houses that take your measurements, have various high quality fabrics to choose from, and provide fittings for adjustments. Most have to travel great distances to tailoring houses, across state lines, time zones, and oceans.  Others hope traveling tailors visit their city (or a nearby one), but such merchants visit once or perhaps twice a year, which means you may not receive the finished product for one or even two birthdays.  In contrast, off-the-rack suits can be found in any department store, ready for you to take home.  So again: why bespoke?

One word: romance.  Interestingly, a recent article from The New York Times quotes Georgetown linguistics professor Deborah Tannen, saying “bespoke” appeals to our individualism.  Which is partially true: more often than not, those who venture into bespoke have a very specific idea of how they want to appear.  What better way to materialize your distinct sense of identity by dictating your projected image?  Self-love and self-expression often go hand in hand

perfect bespoke suit

The Finished Product

But it’s more than that.  It’s the enchantment with bespoke itself – a medium which takes far more time than the alternative but, to those who appreciate it, returns far more reward.  Even if you never thread the needle, the process of discussing what environment you’ll wear the suit and how you wish to be presented, deciding which fabric you like versus how it will perform examining various technical styles, all contribute to the creation of a unique idea (yours).  You’re excited because you get to dictate the particulars.  But the courtship continues, because it’s during the fitting when you begin to see your idea turn into something tangible.  Sure, maybe a few tweaks need to be made, the tailor makes a note of it, you go out for some coffee, maybe dinner and a drink, shoot the breeze, exchange salutations, make another appointment, and part ways smiling with eager prospects of the next encounter.  Finally you see the finished product – the completed suit – and that’s it.  You try it on, and you’re smitten.  

That’s romance, and that’s the why of bespoke.  Sure, that suit makes you look great, but the process, eliciting feelings of creativity, anticipation and discovery, is the reason to choose bespoke.  Because you can’t find that in any department store.

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Peter Zottolo
Peter works in construction, but has an extensive collection of custom suits which he gets so that he can wear suits on the weekend. Even though he lives in San Francisco, he has never used the word "impact" as a verb. He writes about classic menswear and is one fedora away from being a complete dork.

Categories: Style, The Tailors' Thread

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11 replies »

  1. “The word itself has undergone changes since its first use in the 1500’s.”

    The first attested use as an adjective, according to the OED, is from 1755, and it’s defined more or less in accord with its present meaning. There’s also “bespoken”, more obviously from “bespeak”, which has attestations in the 1400s, when it referred to one’s actual speech (one of the examples is “a mayden wel bespoken”, as in, people speak well of her), but already by 1607 it had basically its modern meaning (defined as “ordered, commissioned, arranged for”, illustrated in 1607 by “here is bespoken work”).

    And if you’re talking about the 1500s, how many people were going to a tailor in the first place, as opposed to wearing home-made clothes out of homespun cloth?

    • I can’t say how many people went to tailors, but I’ll hazard those that did bespoke less than what is bespoke today. Lower life expectancy, fewer showers and changing of clothes, less disposable income…yessir, it was a hard time indeed to make a living as a tailor. Hardly any middle class clients existed to keep him in business, and that pesky plague kept killing off the handful of those that did. Nowadays we have “bespoke cocktails”, and even Burger King makes it “our way.” Hooray for progress!

  2. In response to the email that led me to this page, if your suit takes 2 years to finish and is a complete headache and logistical nightmare as you have described it… go to a different tailor. That, or you may be too busy for bespoke fittings, even though you can afford them.

    • Two years is certainly not the norm, but it can happen. Anderson and Sheppard, for example, comes to San Francisco but once a year. If you figure the first visit is for fabric selection and taking measurements, the second visit is for the fitting, and the final visit is the year after that, then it could very well be two years before you see the final product. Most traveling tailors, however, visit to two or even three times a year, so the vast majority of those you use them don’t have to wait such extremely long periods. Traveling directly to the tailoring house can be expensive, but can also be a good excuse for an enjoyable vacation, and just one stop amongst many points of interest along the way.

      • While that does sound like fun, I personally would use another one of the many capable tailors in San Francisco rather than waiting two years for the final product. Nothing wrong with traveling tailors, but I think you’re doing your client a disservice if you make them wait that long.

  3. re: The Finished Product.
    I understand that pants are worn shorter these days and I’m just a grumpy old poop, but shouldn’t the sleeves be of more or less similar lengths?
    I have several bespoke suits, and would like more, but my tailor, who didn’t charge nearly enough for his excellent work and was thus overworked, up and died a few years back. he will be missed.
    So as long as I never gain any weight, I’m cool.

    • The sleeves of the jacket are good; the shirt sleeves just hiked up a bit. It happens especially when you’re not a professional. Good luck on keeping your weight steady. Let me know when you figure out the secret 🙂

      • I’m kind of a pain that way. Same weight for the last forty years or so, and no reason to think that’ll change. Still wear a twenty-five year old suit on occasion.

  4. As a custom clothier specializing a real niche market (leather garments for both men and women) I have to agree that two years is more than a bit ridiculous, even taking into account travel- there is the internet, digital photography and the mail , which I use regularly with long distance clients. (I re-measure all my regular clients every two years at least. Small lifestyle changes can change the body subtly but in ways that will affect fit. ) As for the romance I also agree with all the points here. And or my part, I take great pride in creating pieces that my clients love & will own and wear for many, many years to come. The pieces I create are true expressions of each client and I am rewarded by their appreciation of my work and with their loyal repeat business. I love my clients!

  5. As a New York based bespoke tailor we spend a great deal of time when taking measurements and discussing the clients individual preferences. We ask them several questions to achieve perfection in the selection of color, fabric and styles that are just right for them. Once this is done, the personal pattern is stored and clients can continue to use that same pattern to place orders for future custom suits. However we do recommend customers to get themselves measured again every two years as people tend to change over time.