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The majority of today’s men wear ready-to-wear or made-to-measure clothes produced in factories. Only a very small minority of gentleman dress in bespoke clothes made by tailors, but 200 years ago every garment was made by hand. This article explains how clothes handmade by tailors have evolved from being an everyday product available in various price and quality categories to something exclusive and expensive.
Menswear Illustration c 1840
Menswear Illustration c. 1840, an era in which every garment was handmade
A Brief History of Bespoke Tailoring
Before the advent of sewing machines in the 18th century, all clothes were cut and sewn by hand similar to the way modern-day bespoke tailors work. However, the desired fit was achieved in a way very different to our times. From the middle ages to the 18th-century, tailors created their patterns with methods that were their trade secret. They were not shared with apprentices until a master tailor handed over his business to someone who had bought it. Many more fittings than today were necessary. Nevertheless, the quality of the handwork was amazing and the fit often very close to the body.
Victorian era tailoring shop
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19th century London must have been like one big tailor shop serving gentlemen from the whole Empire. The West End was crowded with bespoke tailors, shirtmakers and cloth merchants, huge numbers of coat makers, pant makers, vest makers and finishers worked directly from their poor and overcrowded homes in the east end. London was the capital of the first world at the time, and English style and British cloth were internationally considered to be the height of elegance. Even so, tailors prospered across in the world, and their products were available in almost every price bracket, as every man, woman, and child needed clothing. For the mass market, ready-to-wear clothes were not yet available in great numbers, and the poorest citizens often depended on the secondhand sale of worn clothing or clothing that was made at home. Department stores catered to the middle classes. Rich men’s valets often received worn clothes from their employers as a gift or an incentive, some of which was then sold for extra income. In the countryside and the living quarters of the working class, tailors made clothes by hand at affordable prices using cheap cloth, and even then purchasing clothes was relatively expensive compared to the average income of a poor person. Very often these tailors got their main income from making clothes for bigger tailoring houses that had outsourced some of the work to external tailors.
Cutting Systems, Sewing Machines and the Birth of Ready-To-Wear Clothes
In the 18th century, tailors started to think about ways to reduce the number of fittings and so they started to create cutting systems. These systems, in combination with the invention of the sewing machine in 1790, changed the process of garment construction forever. By 1830, the first machine-based clothing manufacturer opened in France to supply uniforms to the French army, and civilian clothing manufacturers were soon to follow.
Ready-to-wear clothes were made in great numbers because military and civil uniforms likewise had to be made at low cost in huge numbers. The ready-to-wear industry applied their knowledge of making uniforms in different sizes to civilian clothes and managed to achieve a very good quality and fit in the late 19th century. Bespoke tailoring was still the first choice for anyone who could afford it and also for some who wanted it but couldn’t afford it. The appeal of bespoke tailoring remained the same: each garment was unique in terms of style and fit to its owner.
Fusing Changed the Industry Forever
A fundamental difference between factory-made garments and the handmade bespoke product emerged when fusing became standard in the ready-to-wear industry in the 1960s. Fusing is a method that joins the interlining with the outer fabric using an adhesive. This adhesive is applied to the interlining. When heat and pressure are applied the adhesive melts and bonds the interlining to the outer fabric. Heat and pressure may come from an iron if you or from a machine. The latter is used by the industry. Fusing saved a lot of time and thus became standard procedure, though it initially resulted in a much stiffer garment. An interlining that is not fused is often termed “free-floating” because it is sewn to the outer fabric at the shoulder seam and with small stitches behind the lapels, which maintained a soft look and feel to the final garment.
Since the 1960s, bespoke tailors have used the term “fusing” in a condescending way to describe the difference between ready-to-wear and bespoke tailoring. The quality of fusing has improved dramatically and nowadays even fused lightweight suits are not necessarily stiff. In fact, fusing may sometimes create a suit that is softer and lighter than the suits that some tailors still produce using fairly heavy interlinings. Prejudice aside, the bespoke suit with handsewn interlinings can be shaped more precisely to the figure and the lapels will have the typical roll of the tailored suit.
Bespoke Tailoring Today
In the modern day, the craft of making clothes by hand appears to be a folly in the sense that the quality of RTW clothes and the availability of made-to-measure garments in all price levels seem to make the traditional tailor superfluous. Bespoke tailoring declined rapidly in volume with the rise of factory-made clothing, but a small coterie of high-end tailors were able to maintain their operations as the last stewards of the craft. Beginning in the 1970s, what remained of bespoke tailoring further declined as tastes in clothing became increasingly casual, lower prices increased the accessibility of clothing, and styles turned away from using traditional fabrics. In the 1980s it seemed that this craft wouldn’t survive, but today the situation is different. It seems that more and more young men are interested in handmade clothes and some even want to learn the trade. Today, dressing in a classic way has found a new audience among men who want to look good while investing in a wardrobe that will stand the test of time. For those men, owning a bespoke tailored garment is still a wardrobe goal.
The Different Schools of Tailoring
Although tailors tend to stress that the tradition of their own country is very unique they do in fact work in a similar way no matter if they work in London, Vienna, Milan or New York City. The basic process of cutting and making garments by hand hasn’t changed much since the beginning of the 20th century. A few machines have been added to the workrooms but it still takes around 60 hours to make a suit.
London Tailoring vs. “La Sartoria Italiana”
From the 18th century until the 1920s, English tailoring was considered to be top quality, just as French fashion led in the world of women’s wear. Nevertheless, tailoring was a very local business with craftsmen offering their particular skills in each country. Every capital of the western world was home to hundreds of tailors and dozens of firms that offered premium quality. After the second World War, the slow demise of tailoring led to a concentration of men’s tailoring in London and Italy. You could still find good bespoke tailors in any European capital and most American cities but with regards to style, the world of menswear became a matter of choosing between English or Italian provenance.
The differences that we see between a suit from London and from Naples are rather the result of different approaches about how a man looks best than the result of different methods. A very popular explanation says that London tailoring is influenced by military tailoring, which results in a more waisted silhouette and pronounced shoulders. Tailors in Italy, on the other hand, are credited with soft tailoring and more flattering shapes. Both assumptions are not correct because London tailors always offered very diverse silhouettes and Italy is home to very different styles too.
The biggest difference between London tailoring and Italian tailoring, in general, is that a British tailor will usually want to create a suit that gives the wearer the appearance of a gentleman from the British upper classes. An Italian tailor strives for an attractive appearance that is not based on a class association; it is more about appearances for appearance’s sake. The Italian male is typically very conscious of his looks; he doesn’t want to look like an Earl, he wants to look like an attractive man.
Thus, Italian tailors focus on creating a cut that flatters the figure with a pronounced waist, a rather short jacket and narrow trousers creating the impression of a slim figure with long legs. Speaking of Italian tailoring in general terms is nevertheless difficult because almost every region offers a slightly different silhouette.
Tailors in the North usually cut a jacket with squarer shoulders, similar to tailors in Rome. Tailors from Southern Italy prefer a natural shoulder with a set-in sleeve similar to the sleeve of a shirt. In general, Italian tailors tend to make a very soft garment with a lot of attention to handwork. Italian customers appreciate good tailoring more than any other nationality on the whole.
Austrian and German Tailoring
Observers from English speaking countries tend to assume that the tailoring traditions of Germany and Austria are similar, which is not the case at all. Despite sharing the same language Germany and Austria are two separate and different nations since the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a twin monarchy consisting of Austria and Hungary. Both kingdoms were home to several nationalities. Tailoring in Vienna was strongly influenced by Czech and Hungarian tailors and by tailors from Triest, while Berlin had developed into the center of German tailoring since the foundation of the Empire in 1871.
Tailors from England, France, and Italy love to refer to the 1930s as the golden age of men’s tailoring, which is not possible in Germany. When Hitler seized power after he was elected Chancellor in 1933 the Nazis wanted to drive out foreign influences from public culture, but they didn’t really succeed. Until the start of the war in 1939, products from all around the world were still popular in Germany and tailors still used a lot of fabrics from England. Despite many Germans being Anglophiles, Great Britain was seen as the major rival and enemy in Europe since the end of WW1 so dressing the English way was not all that popular. The cut of the suits from the 1930s was similar to those made by tailors in most European countries. The lounge suit had become very popular while older gentleman still liked to wear frock coats for formal occasions.
Viennese tailoring was very popular with the rich and famous in the 1930s. German movie stars like to be dressed by Knize in Vienna, the most famous and expensive tailoring house at the time. Marlene Dietrich used to have her famous tailcoats, lounge suits and overcoats made by Knize too. When the Jewish owner fled Austria and reopened in New York City, Dietrich was eager to support him and encouraged friends to follow suit. Austrian society had changed on the outside after the abolition of Monarchy in 1918, the court and his rules of dresses no longer dictated menswear. Fashion became more egalitarian but men from the upper and middle classes still dressed elegantly in lounge suits during daytime and dinner suits in the evening. Morning coats were worn for formal occasions during the day and evening tails for dances and dinners.
Austrian tailors still like to hint at the traditions of their Monarchy although it has not existed for nearly 100 years. In fact, it is difficult to spot the differences between suits made in Austria or Germany because of the dominating Italian influence and the fact that most tailors of both countries use a German cutting system taught by M. Müller & Son in Munich. Only very few tailors from Vienna still keep up a tradition that includes a very rounded, natural shoulder with minimal padding. They will tailor very softly in general with a slightly lower notch and lapels that are narrower than those from southern Italy. Still, these differences will only be perceived by an experienced observer and only a very small number of gentlemen will appreciate the traditional Viennese look and make.
America has been a world of its own with a huge independent textile and fashion sector until manufacturers started using factories in South America and Asia to cut costs. Tailors were inspired by Savile Row or made suits the Italian way that they had learned at home or from their Italian born fathers or grandfathers. The most famous All American tailoring school is the Ivy League Style which was created and cultivated by of a huge number of tailors at the East Coast. These tailors have mostly gone out of business.
Bespoke Tailoring Today: From Trendy to Timeless
Though the industry of bespoke tailoring has declined to a mere fraction of what it used to be, the remaining tailors are the keepers of a venerated craft. In a world in which so few things are truly unique, bespoke tailoring offers the dapper man a chance to own not only something that fits him perfectly but also something that is exclusive unto his wardrobe alone. It’s a way to reproduce the elegant styles and patterns of the past which are impractical for mass manufacturers to use.