The Art of Bespoke Tailoring
The knowledge and art of cutting and sewing cloth, constructing clothes from a pattern, developed over time in Europe between the 12th and 14th centuries. The first reference in the Oxford Dictionary for the word ‘tailor’ was in the year 1297.
The Middle Ages had the notion that clothing is just a means of concealing the body however in the Renaissance came the expression of ones self through clothing. That was the beginning of fashion in Europe where all clothing was ‘custom made‘. Not just tailoring but the art of tailoring was born.
As towns became great cities, and then states, to finally empires of power, fashion always followed. First Italy, Spain and France became the center for fashion. In the middle of the 17th century men began to give up the fancy and overly outrageous wardrobes that had been a staple of their wardrobe since the 16th century, and now began to wear coats, vests, and breeches, the three components we can begin to identify as modern dress today.
Across the Channel, the English moved away from the highly decorative and fancy style as well, and took up a more practical conservative form.
English tailors, particularly those in London, now came to dominate the fashion scene in the 19th century. First, the English had evolved a style for masculine clothing that was a subtle blending of landed gentry, sporting attire, and bourgeois business wear produced in the tremendous wake of the Industrial Revolution. Secondly, aristocratic court clothing had not been constructed so much with a concern for fit as it had with concerns for decoration, fabric, and color. But when the shift away from ornamentation and ostentation began to occur, fit became the criterion of dress for men. We take it for granted today, but the idea of “fit” as a criterion for men’s clothes is a fairly recent one. It is an idea calling for great skill in execution.
The English tailor was trained to use woolen cloth, and over years of experimentation and practice he developed techniques for “molding” the cloth close to the body without exactly duplicating the true form of the wearer. In short, the tailor could now actually develop a new aesthetic of dress: he could mimic the real body, while at the same time “improving” and idealizing it. It was no longer a question of voluminous yards of flowing silken brocade. Men became “gentlemen” (itself a 19th century term) and frowned upon gaudy display in favor of discretion, simplicity, and the perfection of cut. It was, in terms of fashion, the culmination of that radical turn taken in mid-17th century: the Modern had finally arrived, and the Modern was the tailor’s art.
There have been tremendous innovations in these past hundred years in fashion and the art of tailoring: sewing machines now do the work on straight seams better than could be done by hand; new fabric technology has history produced more comfortable cloths; fashions have adapted to more leisurely, climate-controlled lifestyles. But tailoring is still, and likely to remain so, an art. It has not been brought down to the level of a science. The tailor still believes in making personalized clothing, statements of fashion for the individual, as he always has done.
Even since the invention of ready-made, cheaply-produced clothes in the middle of the last century, the demise of the tailor has been predicted. Like the panda and the whooping crane, it has been said, the march of modern life is against him. Mega-international corporations seem to own everything, calculatedly obsolete gimmickry abounds, and Coca-Cola now sells clothing as well as soft drinks by the millions of units. But craftsmen have indeed managed to survive in this age of the mass-produced and quickly thrown away, even to prosper. There is still a clear need for the uniquely personal and individual in our lives. In this age of the shoddy and the quick, the vulgar and the mass-consumed, tailors can still be counted on to champion uniqueness and quality. It is the hallmark of their tradition and in recent years we have seen an uprise in the demand for custom made clothes, especially custom made suits and custom made tuxedos.
It seems like the art of tailoring might make a come back and a big one at that.