Why Custom Clothing?

Why Custom?

By Nicholas Antongiavanni
Author of The Dandy

Why custom?  If you are here, you are interested.  You intuitively know that a suit made specifically for you must be somehow superior.  And you are correct.  But perhaps you do not know how.  This I can explain, under three broad categories: fit, silhouette, and construction.

Fit is the single most important consideration for any garment.  Clothing that does not fit, no matter how beautiful its color and pattern, how expensive its cloth, or how expertly made it may be, is useless.  Who would willingly wear something that does not fit?  To do so is to choose to look foolish.  Take two men: dress one in a $4,000 handmade Super 180s Italian suit that does not fit, and another in a $200 machine-made plain worsted that does.  The man in the cheap suit will look better – much better.  Well-dressed men have long known that money isn’t everything; fit is everything.

Fit is especially important with tailored clothing, which is designed to artfully conceal your defects and shortcomings and emphasize your assets.  Moreover, unlike (say) a sweater or a polo shirt, tailored garments don’t stretch.  They either lay correctly on the body or they don’t.  And they need to fit correctly at a number of places.  To wit:

The neck: the collar of a jacket should sit flush against the collar of your shirt and hug your neck.  There should not be so much as a millimeter of space between shirt collar and jacket collar.  Just beneath the collar, the jacket’s back should lie smoothly.  Ripples here are all too common, and a sign of improper fit.

Proper shoulder fit is harder to describe because stylistic considerations come into play (about which more below), but one may say, generally, that a jacket’s shoulders ought to be exactly as wide as your actual shoulders, or perhaps a fraction of an inch wider.  Your shoulders may crook forward or arch back; the jacket has to account for that.  A well-fitting armhole should be as small as you can tolerate.  This takes some getting used to, but it is more comfortable in the long run, as it allows you to move your arms freely without lifting the jacket or disrupting the way it lays on your body.

Chest fit varies (again, see below), but all well-fitting jackets have some fullness – or excess cloth – over the shoulder blades in back.  A perfectly smooth back may look nice, but lose that fullness over the blades and you won’t be able to move your arms without feeling the coat pull tight across your back, rather like a straight jacket.  The rest of the back, however, should be smooth as a frozen pond, yet curved to conform to the shape of your back, rather like a gentle “S” when viewed from the side.

If the jackets is vented – whether center or side – these should hang straight and perpendicular to the ground.  If any vents gape open, the coat does not fit.  Its length should be determined by three factors: your height; the relative lengths of your torso and legs; and the cut of the coat.  It is hard to give specific rules in the absence of a specific man.  But one may say generally that a jacket that does not cover your seat is too short, and one that appears longer than halfway from the collar to the ground is too long.

Most men wear their jacket sleeves too long.  Proper sleeves end at the wrist, to show about ½” of shirt cuff when you are standing.  Some prefer a little more, some a little less, but ½” is the baseline.

Trousers seem easy to fit, but in fact are the hardest of all.  They seem easy because 99% of ready-to-wear trousers are cut incorrectly, to ride down at the hips.  But this is a bad look for all save the very young and very slim.  Nonetheless, they are cut this way because the ready-to-wear industry knows that trousers cut to worn at the waist will slip to the hips if they are not cut perfectly.  And since they cannot be cut perfectly ready-to-wear, it is best to just cut them to the hips in the first place.  But proper trousers are cut to be worn at the waist.  These present a more pleasing silhouette, lengthening the leg line, covering the gut, and emphasizing the chest and upper body.  Good custom tailors know how to cut waist-rise trousers that don’t slip.

Rise, incidentally, the measurement from the crotch to the top of the waistband.  You want this to be as short as it can be and remain comfortable.  The principle is the same as with armholes: a short rise allows greater freedom of movement and disrupts the lay of the trousers less.

As to length, you have some leeway depending on your preference.  Most American men prefer a generous “break” or excess length over the shoe.  ½” is the upper limit; longer and your pants will look sloppy.  The British tend to make trousers with just a whisper of break.  Some Europeans prefer no break at all, and even like to show sock.

Beyond this, most well-fitting suits (with an important exception; see below) lie cleanly and smoothly on the body.  With the exception of the fullness over the shoulder blades, there should not be a ripple anywhere.  Rippling and puckering and pulling are signs that a suit does not fit.

And beyond this, well-fitting suits take into account any number of irregularities you may have.  If your posture is stooped, your jacket is likely to bunch up at the neck and feel tight in the back; if erect, to pull open in front.  In addition, very few men are perfectly symmetrical in every respect.  For instance, if one shoulder is lower than the other, then the jacket will hang lower on that side when unbuttoned.  When buttoned, the bottom edges will even out, but the lapel on the lower side will bow outward in an unsightly way.

These are but a few of the infinite irregularities which afflict the majority of men.  If you suffer from none of them, and if your size is one of the even numbers commonly stocked it the stores, and if some manufacturer makes a suit that you know from experience fits you well (for not all sizes of the same number but from different makers fit the same way), then you may be one of the lucky ones who can be adequately fit by ready-to-wear clothing.

Adequately, but not perfectly, because ready-to-wear clothing is measured in much larger increments—typically 1-2” along most seams—that custom suits, which are measured in increments of ¼” or less.  But the more important reason is the pattern.  A pattern is like a suit’s blueprints.  On well-made suits, the pattern is a paper template that is laid down on top of a length of cloth and traced with chalk.  The cloth is then cut by hand along those chalk lines into several pieces that are stitched together to form your suit.  It is easy to see, therefore, that the shape of these pieces – and thus the shape of the pattern – will greatly effect the shape and fit of your suit.  On a custom suit, that pattern will be drawn for you alone, according to your individual measurements.  Ready-to-wear suits are made from stock patterns made to fit the “average” man, whoever he may be.  Moreover, on mass-produced suits, the pattern may be a computer image only.  And the suits are rarely cut one at a time; more commonly, several pieces of cloth are stacked on top of one another – sometimes for dozens of suits at once – and the cloth is cut by a laser.  The potential for error and inconsistency rises accordingly.

Finally, there is the issue of fittings.  Ready-to-wear suits are finished before you buy them.  The store’s in-house tailor can alter the suit a little to make it fit better, but there are limits to what alterations can accomplish.  You can forget about accommodating any of the really tricky irregularities discussed above.  Sleeve length, jacket waist, trouser length and waist – that’s about it.  “Fittings” are essentially alterations that are done as the suit is being made – before it is finished.  You try on the unfinished suit; the tailor checks how it fits on your body and makes necessary corrections.  Quite a lot more changes are possible mid-construction than are possible after the garment is done.  This is important, because cloth is unpredictable.  Even if your pattern is perfect, and you’ve had a dozen great-fitting suits made by the same tailor, different cloths tailor and wear differently.  Fittings are necessary to check how a given cloth is coming along as the suit is made.  The number of fittings, and the stages of the construction at which they will take place, will vary from tailor to tailor.  But one thing is certain: with custom tailoring you will get some fittings; with ready-to-wear, you will get none.

Have you ever heard tailors or salesmen or aficionados use terms like “English look” or “Italian cut” or “natural shoulder” or “flared skirt” and the like and wondered, exactly, what it all means?  They are talking about silhouette, about the general outline of a garment, and also the particular qualities that constitute it.  “Silhouette” and “cut” are often used interchangeably, because a garment’s silhouette is achieved primarily through cutting.  The shape of those dozen or so pieces of wool that are sewn together to make a suit determine, in large part, the shape of the finished suit.

Silhouette is often confused with fit, but this is an error.  All garments must fit the same way in certain respects no matter their silhouette.  Besides, as Bruce Boyer – a man who knows tailoring very, very well – once wrote, “the concept of fit is somewhat nonsensical.”  No sensible man wants his clothes to conform exactly to the shape of his body, which may or may not be altogether impressive.  The virtue of tailored clothing is that it improves a man’s actual shape.  This is the purpose of silhouette.

In general, garments may sit close to the body, projecting a slender shape; or they may hang loosely, effecting a wider look.  They may elongate your form or shorten it.  They may effect severe angles or soft, gentle curves.  And they may be structured and built up, which gives a military impression, or else very soft, which makes them appear nonchalant and comfortable.  Structure and softness are determined largely by the type of materials used: a structured jacket will have more padding in the shoulders, and stiffer canvas in the chest.

Those are the basics.  There are well-nigh infinite factors – small and large –that combine to make an actual silhouette.  It would take too long discuss them all, but some specificity is nonetheless in order.  We may divide the coat into five basic parts: shoulders, gorge, chest, waist, and skirt.

Shoulders may be built up or “natural.”  I put natural in quotes because a truly natural, unpadded shoulder – like a cardigan sweater – is rare.  Most “natural shoulder” suits have some padding, but very thin, very soft, and very little.  Furthermore, shoulders may be more or less sloped from the collar to the armhole, or else built up and almost square.  Sometimes they are even concave; that is, they curve gently downward from the collar, and then rise again at the sleevehead.  (Some tailors call this a “pitched” or “pagoda” shoulder.)  Further still, shoulders may be “roped”: that is, the sleevehead may be raised up a tad from the shoulder line.  Another refinement is to make sleevehead a more “oval” shape, rather than conventionally round.  Then there is width: true natural shoulders tend to end exactly with a man’s true shoulder-line.  Shoulders may also be “extended” past the deltoid muscle by a half and inch or so.

The “gorge” is where the lapels meet the collar of the coat.  This may be high (collarbone or so) or lower, in the upper ribs.  The width of the lapels is also a factor to consider, though there is no direct relationship: a coat with a high gorge may have wide or narrow lapels, and vice versa.

The chest of a coat may be full (swelled) or lean (shallow); and draped or clean.  On a jacket with a lean chest, the outer edges of the jacket are pretty close to your actual torso.  A swelled chest means there is extra cloth that stands apart from your chest, making it look wider.  Swell is generally convex: billowing out in a gentle curve from the waist (or bottom of the ribs) and then back in under the armhole.  “Swell” is not to be confused with “drape”, which is excess cloth in the chest that “breaks” or ripples visibly across the hollow area below your collarbone.  A draped coat can have no swell at all but fit very close to your torso at the sides; similarly, a swelled coat may have no drape at all but a chest that lies completely flat and clean.

Three things to think about with respect to the waist of a coat: ) Is there one; 2) If so, where is it?; and 3) How dramatic is it?  Few completely undarted, waistless jackets are made any more, but they exist.  Most coats have a waist of some degree.  Tailors can alter the look of a coat by simply raising or lowering the latitude at which the jacket’s waist is narrowest.  Then there is the question of degree.  Most suits today have reasonably subtle waist suppression, but a few have a really pinched waist.  Also, the suppression may come a sharp point like this: › ‹, or else taper over a longish span, like this: ) (.

The placement of the waist also determines the placement of the buttons.  This is known as the “button stance.”  The middle button (or top button on a 2-button coat) – that is, the button that you actually fasten – should be positioned on the exact latitude of the coat’s waist.  Fashion houses do not always follow this rule, but classic RTW manufacturers and custom tailors virtually all do.

The skirt is the part of the jacket that hangs below the waist.  (In other words, relax guys.  We’re still taking about men’s clothes.)  It may be full or sit reasonably close to the hips.  Some even “cup”; that is, turn ever-so-slightly inward at the bottom.  Also, the coat front edges that fall below the waist button may hang straight, or be flared away from the button (called “open quarters”).  (This is true, however, only of single-breasted jackets.  Only one edge of a double breasted skirt front is ever visible, and it should hang relatively straight.)

Now, getting back to this business of nationality.  It is true that some silhouettes are closely identified with certain countries.  But before I describe the few truly identifiably silhouettes, I must warn you that not all the tailors in a given country cut suits the same way.  There is, for instance, no single “Italian cut.”  There are, at a minimum, several distinctly Italian cuts.  The same is true of English cuts.  For there are a zillion ways that one coat can be different from another, so that truly the number of silhouettes that are possible are infinite.

That said, these are the half-dozen or so enduring classics:

The Sack: Soft, natural shoulder; straight hanging coat with practically no waist; a rumpled chest, center vent, and a full skirt with no flair.  Typically 3-button with narrow lapels.  This is the quintessential “American” silhouette, having been made by Brooks Brothers since the earliest days of the 20th Century.

The “Updated American”: I put this in quotes because the phrase is Alan Flusser’s.  This silhouette has a somewhat bland shoulder that is a bit more padded than the sack but not stuffed.  Its chest less rumpled than the Sack, but not quite clean.  It has a real waist and a straight skirt.  Typically made two-button, with a center vent.  This silhouette was popularized by President Kennedy and has arguable been the most common American cut ever since.

The English Military:very elongating overall; structured shoulder on the natural line, typically with some rope; lots of structure in the chest, which is very clean but with considerable swell; high gorge and waist; lots of waist suppression and a flared skirt.  This cut is derived from British Army uniforms.  If there is a “quintessential English cut,” this is it.  The most common silhouette made on Savile Row.

The English Equestrian, or Hacking: very similar to the above, except that the Hacking is more angular and slightly softer, whereas the Military is more rounded overall.  The Hacking also has a more dramatically flared skirt.

The Drape: This was invented by the Dutch-born Savile Row tailor Frederick Scholte, who perfected in the late 1920s, and died in the 1950s.  The shoulder is natural, with no or minimal padding, and a gentle downward slope.  Often the shoulder is extended by half an inch or so to let it fall over the deltoid for a rounded look.  Very high armhole, and very full upper sleeve.  Generous drape in the chest and over the shoulder blades; very soft chest.  The skirt is usually quite closely fitted.  This is still the specialty of a handful of English, Italian, and American tailors.  This silhouette really shines double-breasted.

The Neapolitan: This is the Italian version of the Drape.  The differences are: it never has any padding; the shoulder is not extended; and the larger upper sleeve is “pleated” into the armhole, resulting in a slightly irregular, shirred look along the seam.  Also has dramatically open quarters when single-breasted.

The Continental: Square, stiff shoulder and stiff, clean chest.  Very lean throughout.  The waist may be pinched on larger sizes, but often these garments are so lean that not much of a waist is possible.  Waist suppression also tends to be more gradual, effecting a “columnar” look.  Close skirt.  This silhouette was born in Rome, spread to Milan, and later crossed the Alps into France.  It is arguably the father of all designer suits.  Custom tailors still do it much, much better, however.

Now you know the basics, and the most important specifics.  Some of the effects are purely stylistic and therefore solely a matter of preference.  Others tend to flatter certain physiques and clash with others.  What follows is a brief discussion of what I personally think works best with which body types.

Shoulders: jackets look best when the shoulders and the hips are approximately the same width.  Shoulders that are slightly wider than the hips are not bad; especially if that mirrors the physique of the wearer.  Broad shouldered men therefore do not need any extension.  But shoulders narrower than the hips look bad indeed – like they belong to a 99 pound weakling.  Thus men with extremely slight shoulders need some extension to balance their hips.  Men whose forearms are bigger than their deltoids also need an extended shoulder, otherwise the upper sleeve will “collapse” into their upper arm under the sleevehead.  And wider shoulders also help balance overly large heads.  Muscular men do not need or benefit from thick, square shoulderpads, which come off as “gilding the lily.”  Shorter men benefit from a pad that raises the overall line of the coat, giving them an illusion of a little extra height.  Some padding also helps men with extremely sloping shoulders look a bit more robust.

Gorge height raises the overall look of a coat; thus a higher gorge benefits the short.  The same can be said of the latitude of the waist, though this really is best set in relation to the actual waist of the wearer.  Lapel width is best calibrated to the width of the man.  A decent rule of thumb is that the lapels of a coat ought to extend about halfway across the chest, give or take a little for stylistic purposes.

I believe that all men benefit from a waist of some degree.  Waist suppression emphasizes the chest, imparting a robust impression, and lengthens the leg line, adding a bit to the illusion of height.  The “Sack suits” popular in the 1950s and 60s don’t flatter a great many men, though some stubbornly adhere to them.  For the most part, the degree of waist suppression is a matter of taste.  I do think, however, that as a general matter only the very short benefit from a dramatically pinched waist.  The very thin and the very stout, on the other hand, benefit from moderate waist suppression, but for different reasons: the stout because no waist will make him look like an egg and too much will make his jacket pull across the middle, making him look like a stuffed sausage.  Pinched waists make thin guys look they are wearing women’s clothes.

“Drape” is controversial.  Some consider it unsightly; others consider it the height of style.  Whatever one’s opinion, there is no doubt that it adds some comfort, but also detracts from the precisely tailored look of a clean, smooth chest.  It works best on the tall and lean, and arguably helps bulk them up a bit.  The stout are better off with smooth-lying garments; they don’t need any extra bulk.  Ditto the muscular.

The last two things that need to be said about silhouette are these: First, for a truly distinctive silhouette to look great on an individual body, all the compromises with fit have to be designed into the pattern from the beginning.  Supposing you could find a silhouette you love ready-to-wear, unless it fits you perfectly, it will have to be altered.  When it is, the silhouette will change – maybe a little, maybe a lot, but some.  Which is to say, the only way to ensure that you will get the silhouette you want and the fit you need is to go to a custom tailor.  Second, the most distinctive and flattering silhouettes are made only by custom tailors and are impossible to get off-the-rack.  Such suits can fit reasonably well and look reasonably good, but they will always look (and be) more “cookie cutter” than a custom suit.  And because the silhouette is designed into the pattern of a custom suit, and all of the necessary compromises with fit are made early rather than late, the end result is really unique: a silhouette that fits and flatters you and only you.  Your custom suit will look like no other, and will truly live up to the billing “custom.”

This is a little tricky, because every tailor makes his clothes a little differently.  But the finest garments – and therefore nearly all custom garments – are made wholly or largely by hand.  On any good jacket, the collar, the shoulders, and the armholes must be stitched by hand.  Otherwise, the jacket will be stiff and lifeless, which makes it uncomfortable, because it will not move with its wearer, and unsightly, because it will look like cardboard.

Also, all jackets – from the softest Drapes to the stiffest Militaries – are strengthened and given shape by pieces of canvas in the lapels and chest.  In the best jackets these are sewn by hand with hundreds of minute stitches, in good jackets this stitching is done by machines, and in all others they are not sewn but glued or “fused.”  Although fusing technology has improved greatly since its beginnings, fused jackets are still always stiffer and less breathable, and they become more so with wear.  At worst, the glue can dry out, causing the canvas to peel away and the cloth to bubble.  Custom jackets are never, ever fused.

Handwork is not in itself the final measure of quality, but it is an indicator of quality.  And while it is true that several top-end manufacturers make ready-to-wear suits with loads of hand-stitching, some of it of the very highest quality, it is also true that they charge as much and often more as a great custom tailor.  And all that cash does not buy you your own pattern, several fittings, and a distinctive – and possibly unique – silhouette.  Think about that the next time you’re perusing the rack at Saks or Neiman’s or Barney’s or Bergdorf.

There you have it: the answer to the question “Why custom?”  The only question remaining – and this is one that only you can answer – is, Why have you waited so long to try it?