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Talking the Language of Tailoring: Bespoke and made-to-measure

Here’s a quick guide on what these mean in the world of tailoring.

What does bespoke really mean? Today, when tailored clothing, artisan-made shoes, and handcrafted accessories are experiencing something of a renaissance, you hear the word get used a lot, and sometimes, incorrectly. But when it comes to tailoring, bespoke has a very specific definition, and it’s not “something that’s custom-made for me.” 

Well, in a broader sense, it is. But that’s just it. The same can be said for made-to-measure, which is another form of customized tailoring. Though in both cases, there’s a specific process that goes behind the work, and that’s where the difference lies. 

Made-to-measure explained

Many tailoring shops offer custom suits, though what this usually means is they adjust an existing pattern to match the shape of the wearer. This is what is known as made-to measure. 

And here’s how it goes. First, the tailor (or someone trained in the workshop) takes your measurements. Then they take one of their patterns and make modifications based on those measurements.

Custom tailoring begins with the measurements.
Photo credit: rawpixel.com from Pexels

Say, for example, you’re a size 38, and want a double-breasted jacket. They take a 38 pattern and see how it would fit your body. After that, they’ll make adjustments on the shoulders, the chest, the waist, the length, the sleeves and other parts of the pattern to fit you. 

The next time they call you in for a fitting, you’ll see a partially (or sometimes, completely) made double-breasted jacket. If everything goes right the first time around, they’ll finish the jacket and you can pick it up the next time they ask you to drop by. Tight across the waist, too wide on the shoulders? The jacket goes back into the workshop for a few more adjustments and you come in again for another fitting.

Patterns are designed to fit a wide range of individuals. Still, it’s near impossible to take into account all the differences between individual wearers. But what you’ll get is a garment that’s custom-made to fit you, and it will usually wear better than anything you grab off the rack.  

Bespoke defined

In tailoring terms, the process that goes into a bespoke outfit is far more involved. Bespoke tailoring means that a pattern is made from scratch. No wide range of other people to think about, no catch-all designs. This is a pattern that’s meant specifically for you, and only one of it exists in the world. 

First, the tailor (and it usually is the tailor) takes your measurements. While he’s at it (and it usually is a he), you might notice a few additional notes being taken—posture, movement, the way you sit down, a slight difference in the shape of the shoulders, and so on. All of these are accounted for, and all of them go into the final garment. 

A bespoke suit by Sartoria Raffaniello
Photo credit: Pat Mateo

But before you get that, you go through a number of fittings. Sometimes, it takes just a few, sometimes it takes more, but every time you drop by, the jacket, trousers, or shirt gets closer and closer to suiting you. It is, by no means, perfect or magical, but it’s likely close enough.  

How well a bespoke garment fits or looks depends largely on the skill of the tailor, and that’s not even considering the particular style that he’s trained in, or the particular type of clothing that you’re having made. Some tailors specialize in the Neapolitan style (see our stories on Luigi Dalcuore and Noriyuki Higashi, who have both visited Manila) and some make specific items like shirts (you can look up our stories on Luca Avitabile and Rikuou Kukimoto). Even more so than a made-to-measure article, bespoke clothing will wear and drape better than anything store-bought. 

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So what’s the difference, then, and when do I go for either?

The answer isn’t as clearly cut as you would hope, and a lot of it depends on what you need or want. In both cases, you get a range of options: number of buttons, the type of fabric, the general look, and so on. Both will give you a garment that’s made for you.

Price is a consideration, of course. Made-to-measure usually comes out less expensive, though the more options you go for (especially when you choose the more luxurious fabrics) the gap gets narrower. At a certain point, or if you’re looking for a very specific style that only a certain tailor can provide, you might want to consider going bespoke instead.

Made-to-measure is usually faster though, so if you’re planning on heading out on a trip soon, or need something to wear on short notice, this could be someting to look into. And given the skill range of the tailors available now, made-to-measure has never been more attractive.

Les Leston shirts are said to be some of the best in Japan.
Photo credit: Pat Mateo

And then there are those times when neither will get you what you want: an iconic jacket, a signature cut, a unique design, a specific fabric made for a brand. If you can fit into an off-the-rack piece, even with some minor alterations, then that’s certainly a good choice as well.

All the options are out there, it’s just a matter of personal taste. But whichever one you choose, style is always a mood, a feeling, an approach, and there’s no better way to find it than by simply heading ot there and trying things on.  

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