Bespoke, tailored, suiting and shirting: why language matters
“The problem is that these terms — bespoke, custom, made-to-measure, benchmade, hand-lasted, and others — used to have definite and distinct meanings. But because of commercial greed and lax legislation, they are now used indiscriminately to sell product… So now everyone uses the word “bespoke” to the detriment of the unwary consumer. When anything can mean anything, the consumer must educate himself to a high degree or get robbed. That’s how capitalism works: Let the buyer beware.”
– G. Bruce Boyer
I have a simple litmus test when it comes to assessing men’s clothing companies that has nothing to do with fabric, cut or construction: language. When I see “bespoke”, “tailored”, “suiting” or “shirting” I immediately become suspicious because these words are constantly misused.
And I’m not being a curmudgeon about this. I understand that language evolves and meanings change over time. But that’s not what’s happening here. The use of these words is a very intentional attempt to appropriate terms for marketing reasons. And why does that matter? Because eventually these words will become meaningless, to the detriment of consumers and makers alike.
We live in an age of very tight fitting men’s clothes. But instead of calling it what it is, “slim fit”, many makers and sellers misuse the term “tailored.” People now think that what a tailor does is make clothes fit tight to the body. But “Tailored” means, simply, that clothes have been adjusted to fit an individual. Not any individual but someone in particular. And by “fit” I mean that esoteric and undefinable feeling of when clothes feel right on your body. Huge, boxy suits can fit someone perfectly when tailored. So can slim suits. Our concept of “fit” continues to change, which is a natural evolution, but the meaning of “tailored” should remain consistent, if only so tailors aren’t being constantly asked to make suits tighter.
“Suiting” and “Shirting”
On the left: suiting. On the right: a suit.
I put these two together because they are essentially the same: “suiting” and “shirting” are the fabrics used to make suits and shirts. However, every single day, I find reference in articles and ads to “the hottest new suitings” and “shirtings for the spring.” They aren’t talking about fabric. Marketers are using these words to add a bit of sexiness, a bit of that old-world “bespoke tailoring” language to their suits and shirts. To be fair, there is some history of the word “suitings” being used to describe the category of suits. I wouldn’t be surprised if that arose from a misunderstanding: when tailors – who sold suits as well as fabric – would advertise a new batch of “tweed suitings” had arrived for the year, customers might have wrongly assumed they meant finished suits. But the vast, vast majority of the time when the word “suiting” is used by the tailoring industry it means fabric, but when used by marketers, it’s an attempt to make the word “suit” sound more exciting. The problem? Ask yourself: what else are they exaggerating or overstating?
The king of all misused words in menswear. That said, I will admit that “bespoke” is hard to define and you will have trouble finding two tailors that completely agree on a definition. But there is some common ground. And that comes from the most accepted origin of the word: back in the day, as now, the first thing decided upon when creating a custom suit was the fabric. At that point, the bolt of cloth was “bespoken.” Today, however, “bespoke” suggests an entire process. And that also comes from the past, when a custom suit was made in this way: a unique pattern was made for each customer and the cloth cut by hand, by the man who had measured the customer. Most if not all of the stitching was done by hand. Then, a number of fittings were done to insure the fit was as perfect as possible. In short, “bespoke” is a long, labourious process that attempts to create the perfect fit, with no short cuts.
Sadly, today, the word is thought of as a synonym for “custom” and despite a legal challenge by Savile Row tailors, it will continue to slip into meaninglessness at the hands of marketers and salesman (and people who sell couches, bicycles, radiators…)
And the misuse of this word not only misleads customers, it might very well threaten the entire industry.
Take this example: someone who sells made-to-measure suits that are cut by machine and assembled overseas calls them “bespoke.” So does the tailor who cuts his own cloth and stitches almost the entire suit by hand. One suit costs $500, the other $5000. If they are both bespoke, then neither is. How are we to differentiate the hand-craft from the mass-production? My fear is that we eventually won’t be able to, and – as is already happening – men will wonder about spending more when they are already getting “bespoke.” And the already threatened industry of hand-tailoring will fade into history.