The easiest way to improve your wardrobe is to take things to the alterations tailor. Since clothes are designed for an idealized body, they often fit everyone and no one in particular at the same time. That means you can often improve the look of your clothes by having things nipped and tucked here and there — taking in the waist or shortening the sleeves, adjusting the length of your trousers so they fall perfectly over your shoes. For a few bucks, you can get off-the-rack clothes that look 90% on their way to being custom made.
We’ve written dozens of guides on alterations. And while it would be too much to include everything you ought to know in one post, we thought we’d gather the basics into a simplified guide, then include some links to suggested readings from our archive. Pair this with our service directory on how to take care of your clothes and you’ll have most of your clothing services covered.
HOW TO FIND A QUALITY LOCAL TAILOR
Tailors are a bit like barbers. It can take a bit of work to find a good one, and once you do, you should hold on to them for dear life. The quality of your alterations depends on the quality of your tailor — and finding one in your area isn’t always easy. Here are three ways you can go about it:
If you live in a big US city, search clothing boards such as StyleForum, Reddit’s Male Fashion Advice, and Ask Andy About Clothes. Denizens there are often a bit more discerning than most when it comes to quality tailoring, and they’ll be able to point you in the right direction. The downside? Since most members are based in major US cities, you’re more likely to find suggestions if you live in or around a major cosmopolitan center. If you don’t, you may need to try some other strategy.
Another way is to search for recommendations through local upscale establishments. These can be anything from small, independent menswear boutiques carrying brands you admire to large department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus. Or they could be single brand shops such as Ralph Lauren or Tom Ford flagships. They may also be high-end hotels, such as the Four Seasons or Ritz Carlton.
Ask the managers there if they have suggestions. Some clothing stores have in-house tailors they rely on for alterations, but many will send out work to a local shop. Others, such as hotels, may just be plugged into the local network for high-end services. Call a few places, ask for recommendations, and see if one or two names keep popping up. If you can narrow in on a consensus among some trusted sources, it’s likely those places do good work.
Failing that, there’s always Yelp. Yelp reviewers aren’t always the most reliable, and just because a place is rated well doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good. But trawling Yelp for recommendations will be better than just venturing out on your own. Hedge your bets with a new shop by sending in something inconsequential or easy — say, hemming a pair of cheap chinos or altering an affordable button-up. Once you’ve established they do reliable work, you can slowly move your way up to more complicated jobs. Don’t throw in all your chips at once. Save major surgery jobs for when you’ve confirmed the tailor is good.
KNOW WHAT CAN BE ALTERED
Let’s start with this: almost any alteration can be done, it just depends on how much you’re willing to pay. At a certain point, the job becomes so complicated and expensive, you’re better off finding something better off-the-rack. This is the difference between converting a car into a drop-top convertible and just buying that convertible outright. Sometimes it’s better to just purchase the thing you want and adjust at the margins.
Figuring out what can be altered heavily depends on a case-by-case basis. There aren’t any hard and fast rules here, but there are some basic principals you may want to consider.
- The more complicated the alterations or garment, the more expensive the job. Again, it’s good to keep costs in mind here. Suit jackets and sport coats are more complicated to alter than shirts, and thus alterations are more expensive. Similarly, if a casual jacket has some unusual, hard-to-modify details — such as a leather jacket with unusually placed studs — it may be difficult to work around those parameters. When judging something off the rack, take into account the extremity of the alteration needed, where the alteration needs to take place, and the complexity of the garment’s construction. All of these will factor into your costs.
- Make sure the garment fits in certain places. You generally want certain areas to fit perfectly off-the-rack. Jackets, shirts, and sweaters, for example, ought to fit perfectly through the chest and shoulders at the outset. If the chest and shoulders don’t fit right from the get-go, put the item back. Similarly, trousers should fit well through the thighs and seat. Getting those areas altered can be difficult, if not impossible.
- What are some common alterations? Some alterations are so common, you almost don’t even need to think about them. Suit jackets and sport coats often have a bit of a roll between the shoulder blades, which can be taken out for cheap. Sleeves are commonly taken up (although the job can be a little more difficult with working buttonholes). The waist on shirts and jackets are often nipped; trousers are frequently always hemmed; and the waistband on pants can be taken in or let out within reason. You can also taper trousers and jeans from the knee down, giving them a bit more shape. See this post for a list of common alterations.
- Consider the material. Wool garments can sometimes be easier to alter, especially if you’re looking to let out things, because the surface nap covers up any holes. Crisp linens, fine cottons, and especially leather, however, will leave visible holes.
- Changing details. Often, we’ll get an email from a reader asking if certain details can be altered on a garment. Whether a structured shoulder can be changed into a soft one, or a roped shoulder modified into something more natural looking. Or whether a wide lapel can be changed into something more modest. The answer is often yes, but it’s risky, expensive, and not worth it. Typically, you’ll end up with something that costs a lot of money and still doesn’t look quite right. Stick to simpler jobs. The one exception is taking out the lining in a jacket, at least through the back.
- It’s easier to take things in than let things out. The reason is because, in order to let out a garment, you need enough material inside (what tailors call a seam allowance). Most companies don’t build in that much seam allowance, however, because doing so costs money. So, if you’re shopping off-the-rack and something feels a bit tight, your best bet is often to just size up. See this post on our guide for letting out clothes.
- Can This Be Altered? The answer is almost always yes, yes, and yes. But not all tailors have the equipment or skills necessary to do every job, so sometimes you need to find a specialist. See these posts for how to alter leather jackets, sweaters, and neckties (your local alterations shop can likely take care of the rest).
FURTHER READING: Common Alterations; How Much Should Suit Alterations Cost?; Can Leather Jackets, Knitwear, and Ties Be Altered?; Removing the Lining From a Jacket; How to Eliminate Blousing on a Shirt; How Long Should a Suit Jacket or Sport Coat Be?; and Yes, You Can Shorten Shirt Tails
PAY ATTENTION TO CERTAIN AREAS
When it comes to getting good alterations, half the battle is finding a good tailor. The other half is having a good eye. While you should always rely on your tailor’s advice, you should also pay attention to some key areas:
Collar Gap: This is numero uno when it comes to making sure your garment fits well — particularly for suits and sport coats, but also casualwear. With few exceptions, such as mountain parkas, all jackets should stay glued onto your neck, even when you’re moving around (again, within reason). A collar gap is when the jacket hovers from your neck, suggesting that maybe the cut and fit aren’t quite right (see above). Jesse wrote an excellent explainer a few years ago.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear whether a collar gap can be fixed. “A lot depends on the exact cause, the severity, and the make of the jacket,” says Chris Despos, a bespoke tailor in Chicago. “If the shoulders need to be squared up, there’s only so much you can do before you cause other kinds of issues. If the back needs to be shifted, you’re limited by how much extra cloth is available at the hem. It’s hard to diagnosis these things without seeing a client in person.” Your best bet, says Chris, is to take things into a local alterations tailor and be prepared to return the garment if things don’t work out.
Shoulder Divot: The dreaded shoulder divot was once the mark of pure shame on clothing boards. And it’s still one of the most common fit defects on suits and sport coats. The term refers to the small indentation that can happen on the upper part of the sleeveheads, which ruins the otherwise clean line running down from the jacket’s shoulder and into the sleeves (see the photo above).
People often think this happens because the shoulders are too wide, but it’s actually the opposite. While shoulder divots can occur from poor workmanship or design, they’re often because the jacket’s shoulders are too narrow for the wearer. You can get this fixed at a local alterations tailor, but the job is often complicated, expensive, and can cause other issues (letting the jacket out along the back seam, for example, can cause mismatched patterns). Instead, just size up. Tutto Fatto a Mano has a great post about this.
Sleeve Pitch: For suits and sport coats, sometimes the sleeves don’t hang smoothly because their rotation — or pitch — don’t match the natural pitch of your arms. So, when you’re standing naturally, if your arm is a little too pushed back or forward, it can cause wrinkling along the front or back of the sleeve. A StyleForum member once put together a nice little illustration showing this effect. The good news is that a tailor can usually alter this for you.
The Back of Trousers: When you’re at your tailor’s, utilize that three-way mirror and see how your trousers hang from the back — it’s one of the easiest things to miss. You can always see how trousers hang from the front, but it’s often the seat and the backs of the legs that have issues. These areas should drape cleanly, like you see here on Panta’s custom-made trousers. To be sure, you probably can’t get something to fit that exact off-the-rack, but it’s better to be closer to the ideal than not. The good news is that these issues can sometimes be adjusted by a local alterations tailor, but a lot depends on the exact cause of the problems, the severity of the issues, and the make of the garment (much like a coat’s collar gap). See our post on common fit issues with trousers.
Cuffs and Breaks: If you’re sending in pants, decide beforehand how you feel about cuffs and breaks. Whether you cuff your trousers is a personal choice, although they should be left off the most formal of suits, such as tuxedos. We have a full guide on cuffs here. Breaks, on the other hand, are a bit more by-the-rules. The break of your trousers is where the hem touches the shoes, and unless you’re wearing something fashion forward or avant-garde, you should avoid things that are either pooling around your ankles or cropped. Instead, go for either a full break, slight break, or no break at all — but make sure the hem of your pants are still touching the shoes. Again, we have a full guide on breaks here.
Darting Shirts: One of the most common alterations jobs is slimming down a shirt. And depending on your body, you may find that you can’t get as much out as you want through the side seams alone. In such cases, you can consider darting the back. You can see an example of a darted shirt above (the faint lines near the sides of the shirt are darts).
Darts are folds that have been pinched and then sewn into a garment. They’re basically a way to add shape – turning a flat piece of cloth into something with curves. When put into the back of a shirt, they do two things. First, they’ll take out the fullness at the lower back, helping reveal that hollowed shape. As a result, you’ll have a bit more of a sculpted look. Second, they’ll help slim down the shirt when the tailor can’t take any more out of the side seams. See here for our full guide on darting shirts. (Pro tip: Tutto Fatto a Mano has a cool post here about darting jeans so they better cover a prominent seat. Maybe something your local tailor can also do for you).
FURTHER READING: Can a Collar Gap be Fixed?; The Details of Sleeve Pitch; Deciding Whether Your Trousers Should be Cuffed; How Much Should My Trousers Break; The Difference Between Darts and Side Seams on Shirts; and How to Eliminate Blousing on a Shirt
SOME GENERAL TIPS FOR SUCCESSFUL ALTERATIONS
Rely On Your Tailor’s Advice. Don’t micromanage the process too much. If you get a good tailor, he or she should be able to guide you towards better decisions. Rely on them for their advice. They’re the professional, after all.
Pay Attention to Fit. With that said, the tailor isn’t here to style you. Go into this process with an eye for how you’d like clothes to fit (we have tons of guides). You should also decide on things such as cuffing and breaks, as mentioned above. And be wary of going too slim. A tailor can always take in a garment, at least as much as your body will allow, but that doesn’t mean it’ll look good. Getting clothes slimmed down too much is the most common mistake of new and overeager customers.
Take Things Slowly. Can’t decide between cuffing and not cuffing trousers? When in doubt, always cuff. Because while you can always remove them, you can’t put cuffs into trousers if there’s not enough material. Similarly, if you’re unsure about a certain alteration, err on the side of caution. Certain things can’t be reversed, so try living with a detail or cut for a while before deciding how you feel about it.
Wear the Right Clothes. When bringing things to your tailor, you’ll typically try on the garment in front of them, so he or she can pin and chalk things at the right places. That means you should be wearing the kind of clothes you plan to wear with the item. So, if you’re bringing in a suit, arrive in your dress shoes and dress shirt. If you’re sending in a casual coat, bring along a sweater. This way, you and your tailor can get a better sense of what needs to be done in order to get these outfits to look right.
Account for Movement. Don’t forget to account for movement. Shirt sleeves should be long enough so that the cuff stays at your wrist when you move your arms. Linen garments wrinkle, which means it’s ok for sleeves and trousers to be a little longer than usual — they’ll come up to the right length once you wear them for a few hours. And trousers ride up a bit when you walk, so be careful of getting things too short. Otherwise, too much of your ankle will show when you hit your stride or sit down.
The Makeshift Shoe Horn. Sometimes, when changing in and out of pants, your tailor may not have a shoehorn. In these cases, use something like your credit card. A thick plastic card, when placed between your heel and shoe, basically does the same trick.
THE TAILORS WE USE
Put This On’s team is spread across five cities, so we thought we’d put together a list of the tailors we use. To be sure, these aren’t the only reputable establishments in these areas, just the tailors we’ve personally relied on for years and can vouch for. If you happen to live in or near these cities, and don’t already have a tailor, consider these places. We think they do exceptional work.
- The Bay Area: Advanced European Tailoring in Berkeley and Tailors’ Keep in San Francisco (second of which is pictured above)
- Los Angeles: Pro Tailor in Koreatown and Sid Mashburn in Santa Monica
- Washington, DC: Field English Custom Tailors
- New York City: Wazin Custom Tailor and Alterations
- Chicago: Peter Field Alterations and Paul Chang Custom Tailors