The Overuse of the Word Bespoke
Many words are injured in the process of selling clothes to the public. Think of the words “timeless,” “classic,” and “artisanal.” All perfectly fine words, but sadly robbed of their meaning once fashion writers get to them. None of them sadden me more, however, than how the word “bespoke” gets abused. In the last year or two, it’s increasingly used to describe anything that’s custom made, and even a few things that aren’t.
So what is bespoke? The word originally came from shoemaking, but gained in popularity through custom tailoring in England, where lengths of cloths were said to be “spoken for” or “bespoken” by another customer. In this way, it means a lot more than “custom made clothes,” but rather a specific process of making garments. It’s perhaps easiest if we think of “custom made clothes” as an umbrella category, and then think of the different ways custom clothes are produced.
The first is made-to-order, where a customer tries on a stock garment, and then picks out certain trimmings or materials for his order. The cut is the same, but the materials are customized to his preference.
The second is made-to-measure, where in addition to picking out the materials and trimmings, a customer’s measurements are taken. Those measurements are used to adjust a pre-existing stock pattern through a computer-aided design (CAD) program. Here, we get a customization of not only the materials, but also of the cut.
The third is bespoke, where not only are the cut and selection of materials are customized, but the garment is made through a series of fittings. The key difference between bespoke and made-to-measure is not, as is popularly believed, in how the pattern is made. Indeed, there are many bespoke tailors who draft their patterns by adjusting “block patterns,” not too unlike how made-to-measure uses a CAD program (only here it’s done by hand). No, the key difference is that with made-to-measure, you typically only get one fitting, whereas in bespoke, you usually get three. In addition, anything on the garment is customizable - how much adjustment needs to be made to accommodate for your posture, how high or low you want the button stance, how you want certain areas to be cut, etc. 
All things being equal, the advantage of bespoke is that you can get more precision in the fit and style of your garment. Theoretically, going through multiple drafts should allow your garment to get better and better, though the extra time and labor this takes also means it’s typically a more expensive process. 
Of course, things are not always equal in the real world, and how well a garment can turn out will depend on a number of variables (the skill of the tailor, the mood he’s in while making your garment, and even your own skill in bespeaking a garment). Just because something is bespoke doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better than made-to-measure or even ready-to-wear. One of the biggest advantages to ready-to-wear is that you can put something back on the rack if you don’t like it. That’s no small thing.
Should you ever be in a place where you’re ordering a custom garment, and it’s advertised as bespoke, ask how many fittings you’re getting.* Some use the word bespoke to put a little glitz and glamour on their services, while others use it to refer to a very specific method of making clothes. I think it’s a shame that real bespoke tailors are having their word co-opted by marketing men, but at the very least, you as a customer should know exactly what you’re buying. 
* Note, this process of multiple fittings is mostly relevant for suit jackets and sport coats. Other bespoke garments, such as shirts, can be made using different processes, which can also vary by region. 
(Pictured above: A bespoke tailor pressing a pair of trousers at Henry Poole & Co in 1944)

The Overuse of the Word Bespoke

Many words are injured in the process of selling clothes to the public. Think of the words “timeless,” “classic,” and “artisanal.” All perfectly fine words, but sadly robbed of their meaning once fashion writers get to them. None of them sadden me more, however, than how the word “bespoke” gets abused. In the last year or two, it’s increasingly used to describe anything that’s custom made, and even a few things that aren’t.

So what is bespoke? The word originally came from shoemaking, but gained in popularity through custom tailoring in England, where lengths of cloths were said to be “spoken for” or “bespoken” by another customer. In this way, it means a lot more than “custom made clothes,” but rather a specific process of making garments. It’s perhaps easiest if we think of “custom made clothes” as an umbrella category, and then think of the different ways custom clothes are produced.

  • The first is made-to-order, where a customer tries on a stock garment, and then picks out certain trimmings or materials for his order. The cut is the same, but the materials are customized to his preference.
  • The second is made-to-measure, where in addition to picking out the materials and trimmings, a customer’s measurements are taken. Those measurements are used to adjust a pre-existing stock pattern through a computer-aided design (CAD) program. Here, we get a customization of not only the materials, but also of the cut.
  • The third is bespoke, where not only are the cut and selection of materials are customized, but the garment is made through a series of fittings. The key difference between bespoke and made-to-measure is not, as is popularly believed, in how the pattern is made. Indeed, there are many bespoke tailors who draft their patterns by adjusting “block patterns,” not too unlike how made-to-measure uses a CAD program (only here it’s done by hand). No, the key difference is that with made-to-measure, you typically only get one fitting, whereas in bespoke, you usually get three. In addition, anything on the garment is customizable - how much adjustment needs to be made to accommodate for your posture, how high or low you want the button stance, how you want certain areas to be cut, etc. 

All things being equal, the advantage of bespoke is that you can get more precision in the fit and style of your garment. Theoretically, going through multiple drafts should allow your garment to get better and better, though the extra time and labor this takes also means it’s typically a more expensive process. 

Of course, things are not always equal in the real world, and how well a garment can turn out will depend on a number of variables (the skill of the tailor, the mood he’s in while making your garment, and even your own skill in bespeaking a garment). Just because something is bespoke doesn’t mean it’s necessarily better than made-to-measure or even ready-to-wear. One of the biggest advantages to ready-to-wear is that you can put something back on the rack if you don’t like it. That’s no small thing.

Should you ever be in a place where you’re ordering a custom garment, and it’s advertised as bespoke, ask how many fittings you’re getting.* Some use the word bespoke to put a little glitz and glamour on their services, while others use it to refer to a very specific method of making clothes. I think it’s a shame that real bespoke tailors are having their word co-opted by marketing men, but at the very least, you as a customer should know exactly what you’re buying. 

* Note, this process of multiple fittings is mostly relevant for suit jackets and sport coats. Other bespoke garments, such as shirts, can be made using different processes, which can also vary by region. 

(Pictured above: A bespoke tailor pressing a pair of trousers at Henry Poole & Co in 1944)

Cut, Make, Trim
If you enjoyed our series on custom shirts, and are now thinking about having some made, consider supplying a tailor with your own fabrics. The process is known in the trade as “cut, make, trim,” or simply CMT. By giving the tailor your own cloths, you can save money on the mark up that the tailor would otherwise charge for the fabrics in his books.
Supplying your own fabric is easy once you know where to go. For good, affordable basics, I strongly recommend Acorn, an English shirting merchant that is known for selling quality, workhorse fabrics. They have a variety of weaves and designs. Those above a 150 thread-count can be fairly expensive, but much of their stock is priced affordably. Their oxford cloths, for example, are about $20 per yard, including shipping. The quality is as good as, if not better than, most of what you’d find in stores.
To go about this process, you just need to figure out which shirtings you’re interested in, and then ask Acorn to ship you some sample swatches. They’ll arrive in small, clipped books like the ones you see above. You can sit on these for a bit. Figure out which you like best, consider their texture and color, and put them against the various trousers you think you might like to wear them with.
Once you decide what you’d like, find a tailor that will take CMT and have Acorn ship them the materials. Of course, which tailors are available to you will vary by region, but two online custom shirtmakers, Cottonwork and ModernTailor, confirmed with me that they would take CMT orders. Cottonwork charges $45 (including shipping) and ModernTailor $25 (not including shipping). ModernTailor is a bit cheaper, but their workmanship isn’t as good. One of my shirts from them, for example, had its seams fall apart in the wash, which is something that has never happened to me before. Still, if you’re on a very tight budget, $25 plus the cost of fabric can be very attractive.
Most men will need about two meters of fabric, depending on the width of the roll and their body size. You should confirm with your tailor exactly how much he thinks you need. Assuming you’re of average size, however, that means you can get a custom shirt made from good fabric for about $75. If you’re feeling iffy about the process of measuring yourself, remember that both Cottonwork and ModernTailor can copy an existing shirt if you send it to them. Your new shirt will fit in the exact same way. 
You can take a look at Acorn’s shirting selections here. Fabrics in 36” width tend to be of higher quality, but they’re also more expensive. My favorite (affordable) lines in the 60” range are King, Oxford, and Windsor. Check out their full collection to see what else you might like. 

Cut, Make, Trim

If you enjoyed our series on custom shirts, and are now thinking about having some made, consider supplying a tailor with your own fabrics. The process is known in the trade as “cut, make, trim,” or simply CMT. By giving the tailor your own cloths, you can save money on the mark up that the tailor would otherwise charge for the fabrics in his books.

Supplying your own fabric is easy once you know where to go. For good, affordable basics, I strongly recommend Acorn, an English shirting merchant that is known for selling quality, workhorse fabrics. They have a variety of weaves and designs. Those above a 150 thread-count can be fairly expensive, but much of their stock is priced affordably. Their oxford cloths, for example, are about $20 per yard, including shipping. The quality is as good as, if not better than, most of what you’d find in stores.

To go about this process, you just need to figure out which shirtings you’re interested in, and then ask Acorn to ship you some sample swatches. They’ll arrive in small, clipped books like the ones you see above. You can sit on these for a bit. Figure out which you like best, consider their texture and color, and put them against the various trousers you think you might like to wear them with.

Once you decide what you’d like, find a tailor that will take CMT and have Acorn ship them the materials. Of course, which tailors are available to you will vary by region, but two online custom shirtmakers, Cottonwork and ModernTailor, confirmed with me that they would take CMT orders. Cottonwork charges $45 (including shipping) and ModernTailor $25 (not including shipping). ModernTailor is a bit cheaper, but their workmanship isn’t as good. One of my shirts from them, for example, had its seams fall apart in the wash, which is something that has never happened to me before. Still, if you’re on a very tight budget, $25 plus the cost of fabric can be very attractive.

Most men will need about two meters of fabric, depending on the width of the roll and their body size. You should confirm with your tailor exactly how much he thinks you need. Assuming you’re of average size, however, that means you can get a custom shirt made from good fabric for about $75. If you’re feeling iffy about the process of measuring yourself, remember that both Cottonwork and ModernTailor can copy an existing shirt if you send it to them. Your new shirt will fit in the exact same way. 

You can take a look at Acorn’s shirting selections here. Fabrics in 36” width tend to be of higher quality, but they’re also more expensive. My favorite (affordable) lines in the 60” range are King, Oxford, and Windsor. Check out their full collection to see what else you might like.