There’s no doubt that bespoke clothing is an indulgence. It takes more time, money, and decisions on the part of the customer, and more planning and care on behalf of the makers. On the other hand, it’s not at all wasteful in the ways that fast fashion will always be; bespoke clothes only get made because people want them, not because there are shelves to be stacked. In a world where so many consumer goods are mass-produced yet essentially disposable, bespoke has a rare virtue: it cannot be purchased thoughtlessly.
Shirts are the easiest entry into bespoke. They are cheaper and faster to make and alter. Fitting is, on the whole, less complicated. And since most wardrobes have many more shirts than they do suits, you are taking less of a risk if your tastes change dramatically from your first commissions.
This guide isn’t to shirt makers but to the decisions involved. As a reference, I’ll use Simone Abbarchi, from whom I recently ordered a denim shirt at a trunk show in London, but what I will cover applies to any good maker. Bespoke here refers to clothes made on an individual pattern, cut for you personally, and stored digitally or on paper. However, most of these points also apply to made-to-measure, where the pattern is adjusted to your needs from a factory model.
The first decision when ordering bespoke shirts should be the most important: cloth. It’s best to start by thinking about context: hot, cold or temperate environment? Formal, casual, or something in between? What will you wear with it?
You could write pages about this, but here are the basics: for formal shirts, smoother, finer fabrics are best. Broadcloth, twill, and fine herringbone. For casual shirts, more texture is better. Look at Oxford cloth, linen in summer, denim and cotton flannel in winter.
Solid colours are more versatile, and you probably want to start here, but fine stripes and graph checks add variety for formal shirts, wider (‘university’ or ‘butcher’) stripes and checks can suit casualwear.
Asides from appearance, you might also want to think about performance (ie., how much will it wrinkle?), comfort (how does it feel? how warm will I get?) longevity (how will it age?) and price. Your shirt maker will be able to advise on all of this. I decided to make a casual shirt, and with some discussion with Simone we picked out a light blue denim from Albiate (a denim specialist in the Albini group).
As a bespoke customer, you have less choice in fabric than the large manufacturers, but you get back in exchange unlimited choice in design. Measurement makes all the difference. As in all bespoke, you want to be measured by the person who will cut the pattern and/or oversee its production, rather than a salesperson.
In my case, the whole thing took only a few minutes, with Simone calling out numbers in Italian to his colleague Giuseppe, measuring neck, chest, waist, wrist, and biceps, and perhaps a few others in the process. He would go on to double- and triple-check these as we continued to talk, seemingly by habit rather than necessity, the same way I check my watch when I already know the time.
Measurement should also take into account the three-dimensional shape of the torso, which is about posture as well as anthropometry: shoulders that hunch forward or pinch back; a flat or curved lower back; prominent or flat chest.
For the tailor, it’s just business, but the whole process can make you feel very aware of your body and its dimensions, in ways I suspect men tend not to feel very often. Whether this is part of the appeal I leave up to you to decide.
Depending on your shirtmaker, and how much time you have, you might have a second fitting in a few days, using an unfinished test shirt, perhaps with one sleeve attached. Or you might try a ready-made sample shirt and have measurements taken on the shirt while wearing it.
Once you have fabric and measurements, what’s left is a plethora of smaller design decisions, each important in their own way. Collar shape and size are the most noticeable. The key points are to think about are whether you’ll wear a tie, and what size is right for your head and shoulders. Alan Flusser says that narrow collars suit wide faces and vice versa. This might be broadly true, but I say try a few and decide what makes you happy.
After that, you’ll want to discuss collar lining and/or fusing (lining makes the collar heavier, fusing makes it more rigid and formal). You’ll also need to choose cuff style (rounded or square, one button, two buttons, or French), button material (though I’d stick with medium mother of pearl) and whether you want a pocket or a placket (the extra strip of cloth which contains the buttonholes) or a plain front.
One option that will affect fit is the style of the back. Since your back tapers from shoulders to waist, it’s conventional to do something with the spare fabric. Pleats are one option (either side pleats, slightly more formal, or a central box pleat, more common on Oxfords and sport shirts). Another is darts: small seams sewn into the waist on either side to remove fabric lower down the body (a technique more common in dressmaking, but also found in some tailored jackets). Stick to pleats if you want something traditional; go for darts if you’d prefer a smoother, more modern look.
These options are too numerous for me to discuss individually, but the general principles are the same: think about how casual or formal you want the piece to be, and think about the relation between fabric and design details.
At the end of the day, the two most common shirts are common because they make sense: the casual Oxford with a soft button-down collar, placket, pocket, box pleat and button cuff, and the formal business shirt in a smooth poplin, with a medium spread collar, no pocket or placket, side pleats or darts and a French cuff.
On the other hand, don’t feel these are the only options. For my denim shirt, I went for a crossover design: casual fabric, but spread collar and plain front. Something formal enough to work with tailoring, but clearly distinguished from businesswear by the cloth. If you’re just starting out, it’s a good idea to just take the advice of your shirt maker on any of these points you don’t feel strongly about. Over time, you’ll develop a taste of your own.
After all the decisions are made, it’s just a question of waiting. For some people, that’s happy anticipation. For others, it’s full of impatience or anxiety about whether the right decisions were made. If you obsess over details, you’ll either love it or hate it. But if you like the sound of commissioning a shirt from the ground up, find a maker you trust and have a try. You may already have access to several in your city. If not, you can look at travelling makers. I wrote more about Simone Abbarchi here. There are itineraries here, and most major makers will also advertise on their website and by mailing list, eg. Budd (London) and WW Chan (Hong Kong).