BUYING A BESPOKE SUIT
A GUIDE TO THE DETAILS
The acquisition of a bespoke suit is a delightful experience. But – like most of life’s more worthwhile occupations – it is not without its complexities. Many gentlemen, quite properly, have sent questions to me about this or that aspect of buying a bespoke suit. I therefore think it appropriate to offer the following observations – which, I hope, will be of some modest assistance to anyone who is about to embark upon this particular sartorial adventure.
SELECTING THE TAILOR
Personal recommendation is a help in the choice, but be sure to take the advice only of those who themselves dress well. I can vouch from personal experience for all the tailors you will find under the ‘Suits’ section of Bown’s Bespoke. Their prices differ, so – if cost is a factor for you – it is as well to spend a few minutes on the telephone finding out today’s prices (including V.A.T., unless you are visiting from abroad). These will be affected by the sort of cloth selected, but I have found that most good English woollen cloths fall within (or very close to) the lowest price category quoted.
VISITING THE TAILOR
With the fine tailors of Savile Row, I like to make an appointment by telephone, even for a first visit. (It is customary to do this for any subsequent visits.) This ensures that a senior cutter is available at a convenient time. (It is he who will play the crucial role in ensuring that your suit is exactly right.) Always – repeat, always – dress well when you visit your tailor. It is not only a sign of your respect for him and his profession, but it also encourages him [for, like you, he is only human and needs encouragement] to do his very best for you. Properly polished shoes and a starched collar are highly desirable. You will, of course, be wearing a tie.
For the first visit, wear a suit which you like in style, cut and fit. (If you do not yet possess such a suit, select a jacket and a pair of trousers on the same principle.) Unless you are very definite in pointing out anything which you consider to be wrong about what you are wearing, the tailor will take it that your appearance reflects your taste, and will hold ‘your look’ in his mind when making your new suit. Wear a shirt with sleeves of the length you prefer.
Have with you a written list of your specific requirements. (What follows in this article should help you to compile such a list.) As my mind becomes addled with increasing age, I find my own list essential. It requires that one thinks beforehand and avoids the making of rash, on-the-spot decisions. Moreover, nothing is worse, having left the tailor’s premises, than suddenly to remember that one has forgotten to discuss some tiny detail, the omission of which will cause sleepless nights for weeks to come.
Never order more than one suit from a tailor who is new to you. Even the grandest tailor might produce a suit which, somehow, is not quite ‘you’. There will be plenty of time for multiple orders later.
With the ubiquity of the central heating system, heavy cloths are disappearing from tailors’ shelves. I now find that a cloth of 11/12 ounces is quite heavy enough for a suit to be worn in the winter and autumn seasons. Summer cloths are, of course, much lighter.
Wool is the normal material and Huddersfield is the place of manufacture for most British cloths. Do not be overly impressed by the ‘Super 100’, ‘Super 130’ etc. designations promoted heavily by the more modern sort of tailor. The number refers to the weave, and the higher the number, the finer the cloth and the higher the price – or so the theory goes. Better to ignore such number worship and look at the cloth in front of you.
A good tailor will have, perhaps, two thousand or more cloths from which to choose. Spend time looking through the sample books. It is good to have a clear idea of what you would like (blue, black, grey, fawn, pin stripe, chalk stripe, narrow stripe, wide stripe, check, plain etc.), but be ready to make at least some compromise. I have spent too much of my life searching for exactly the cloth in my mind, only to find that it is no longer (or has yet to be) manufactured.
Single-breasted or double-breasted?
The decision between single-breasted or double-breasted is a matter of personal preference. The latter is often a little more expensive, as it requires more cloth. I have now taken a liking to the single-breasted jacket with peaked lapels (the sort normally associated with the double-breasted jacket). I find this combines the flair of the double-breasted with the comfortable coolness of the single-breasted.
The single-breasted jacket should have three front buttons. Two front buttons suggest ignorance; one front button suggests rakishness.
The double-breasted jacket normally shows six front buttons, two of which fasten. This may be increased to eight, three of which fasten. In my judgement, the style in which only the lowest button fastens does not permit the jacket to sit well.
A normal length means that, with your arms hanging loosely by your sides, your fingers should curl up naturally under the bottom of the jacket.
If your frame permits (mine does, but only just), you should have your jacket ‘waisted’. Your cutter will be able, by subtle manipulations, to give you the classic broader shoulders/narrower waist look, so unlike the ghastly, straight-sided, sack-of-potatoes effect of off-the-peg ‘designer’ suits.
A jacket may have one, two or no rear vents. With a single-breasted jacket, I have one central vent. With a double-breasted jacket, I have no vent.
I believe the dictates of style and elegance require a gentleman to show the cuffs of his shirt. This belief determines the length of the jacket sleeve. With my arms by my sides and wearing a shirt with sleeves of the proper length, I like three-eighths of an inch of shirt to show. (This increases when the arm is moved to other positions.)
The lower outside pockets should be straight and have flaps. If you are right-handed, the right pocket should have an inner pocket for tickets and small coins. The outside breast pocket should be deep enough for one’s pocket watch to rest safely.
Inner pockets should comprise a breast pocket on either side and a small lower pocket on the left side for tickets.
Each cuff should have four buttons. As with all the visible buttons on the suit, they must be made of real horn. (At a Savile Row tailor, real horn buttons will be used automatically; at other tailors it will probably be necessary to buy them at one of the cloth shops in Regent Street and take them with you when you make your first visit.) I like all the cuff buttonholes to be working. You will need to ask for this. Some tailors like to make two real buttonholes and two sham ones on each cuff, to facilitate future alteration of the sleeve length. This spoils the appearance.
While you will be wearing cuff buttons which work, it is not proper – indeed, it is the height of vulgarity – to leave any of them open in public.
I recently came across an article in a German magazine which advocated this abominable practice. I reproduce the picture which accompanied this dispiriting message, so that you can cringe at your leisure.
The left lapel of a single-breasted jacket should have a buttonhole for the wearing of a flower, with a loop on the underside of the lapel to secure the flower stem. A double-breasted jacket (and a single-breasted jacket with peak lapels) might in addition have a buttonhole in the right lapel – but this is a matter of individual taste. Some argue that this second buttonhole adds an appearance of balance; others hold it is over-fussy. I am undecided.
It greatly improves the sense of harmony and balance if, when using a striped cloth, the stripes meet each other at the shoulder and lapel joins. To achieve such matches is no easy matter for the tailor, not least because – on the shoulders – it requires a reduction in the use of the padding which helps to ensure a snug fit. But I have yet to meet a tailor worth his salt who has failed to rise to the challenge. Once you have matching stripes, you will not wish to return to the alternative.
As it will not normally be seen in polite company, the colour of the jacket lining is a matter of personal taste. I confess that, in this regard, I am addicted to bright red.
Trousers do not hang properly without the assistance of braces. Provision for braces should therefore be made. The back of the trousers should swoop upwards. Ask your cutter for a ‘braces back’ and he will know what you mean. I recommend that you follow my example and have the buttons for the braces on the outside of the trousers at the front and on the inside at the back. If, like me, you remove your jacket when driving, you will find that this arrangement spares the leather seat of your Royce.
An inner silk lining to the front of the trousers, down to about the level of the knee, will prevent any unpleasant rubbing of the woollen cloth on the skin of your leg.
The side pockets should be straight, not slanted. Rear hip pockets are a temptation to carry items which might ruin the line of the jacket and are best avoided.
Two front pleats on either side of the front should be stipulated. They can point outwards or inwards, according to taste.
Apart from dress trousers, I cannot remember ever having had a pair of trousers without turn-ups. I have them made 1¾ inches high, with 18 inch trouser bottoms.
A zip is a nasty thing, redolent of cheap suitcases and brightly coloured tents. A bespoke suit should have a button fly.