In the storybook tale of how clothing is made, there are three tiers of production, each ascending a luxury pyramid. At the bottom-most level, you have ready-to-wear, which are those clothes we see hanging on racks and in stores, ready to be tried on, coveted, and perhaps even purchased. The next level up is made-to-measure, where a block pattern is adjusted using a client's measurements, and then, we assume, a whizzing, thumping machine somewhere shoots out a custom-tailored garment. Finally, at the capstone of this pyramid, there's bespoke, the highest expression of craft. In the popular imagination, bespoke is about the hush-hush, wood paneled rooms on Savile Row, where tailors work diligently around ancient tables stacked high with heavy bolts of worsteds, flannels, and tweeds. For many, bespoke is "the dream."
That's the story anyway. Men who are just getting into tailored clothing often think they should climb as high up on this pyramid as their wallet allows. But in reality, clothing production systems are much more complicated, and there are good and bad examples of clothes in each tier — quality ready-to-wear, bad bespoke, and everything in between. Rather than being stacked on a pyramid, these systems overlap with each other in meaningful ways. To understand how clothing is made, we have to go back to the early 19th century, when the development of the ready-to-wear industry coincided with the American industrial revolution, emergence of modernism, and American civil war.
There was a time when nearly all men wore bespoke clothes. Before the civil war, most men had their clothes custom-made by a tailor, if they could afford one, or by women in their home. The only ready-made clothing at this time was crudely sewn workwear, often produced for sailors, miners, and slaves. It wasn't until 1849 when Brooks Brothers debuted the first ready-made suit in meaningful quantities, and even then, the quality of these clothes paled when compared to bespoke garments.Keep reading