I’m asked this question by readers and friends more than any other, so I think it’s about time to address it here.
There’s continuing confusion in the general public (and even within the menswear industry) when it comes to understanding the difference between the three offerings in men’s suiting; ready to wear (RTW), made to measure (MTM) and bespoke.
Most people have heard of bespoke tailoring at some point in their lives, few actually understand what it really is (and isn’t) and even fewer would understand made to measure, often confusing it with bespoke, when they’re two different things entirely.
With all of the options explained below, there is no right or wrong option and none of us should, at any point, feel any inferiority or superiority in the method we choose. Finding what works for you is a personal journey, dictated by budget, overarching life priorities and your own personal style.
Fit – Above All Else
Before explaining the differences between RTW, MTM and bespoke, it’s important to highlight the one central priority which must remain as the absolute focus of any new item of suiting. Regardless of the method of construction, level of detail or materials used, fit is the most important outcome to be achieved. A mediocre RTW jacket which fits well will always look a hundred better than a poorly fitting bespoke jacket. No amount of hand sewn “Milanese” button holes or cashmere will change that. Fit is everything. Everything else flows from there.
Ready to Wear:
Until the years following World War Two, ready to wear, at least in suiting, didn’t exist. Generations prior to this, you went to your tailor (who your father often introduced you to) to have your suits made. Post World War Two, the ready to wear suit was created, brought about as the result of improved manufacturing methods developed during the war and partly from the fatigue of war, with men becoming open to an easier approach to dressing, leaving the thinking up to someone else. For the first time, they could now walk into a store (in America this would usually mean Brooks Brothers, who invented and owned the RTW menswear market for the next couple of decades), choose a jacket, have it altered to fit and be done with it. Much easier than going to see your tailor, decide on what you want to have made and return for numerous fittings.
The tragedy of RTW is that it takes away the freedom of choice and personalisation found with bespoke. What you see is what you get, it’s not your creation or design, it is someone elses. Take it or leave it. In the 50’s this wasn’t a huge issue, as conforming to social standards was still seen as incredibly important. So RTW clothing was designed to fit in with the expected standards of dress which were still heavily influenced from the 1920’s onwards.
The additional issue is that achieving a perfect fit is next to impossible. As George Glasgow Snr of Cleverley’s has wisely noted, “No one has a pair of feet in the strict sense of the term” just as no one is a size 42 jacket. We each have countless variations in our bodies and no two physiques are identical. Using myself as an example, I’m someone who’s be considered by most to have a “normal” shape, but once you get into the details my right collarbone is significantly shorter than my left (thanks to having broken it several times in bike crashes), a slight “sway back” (where my lower back dips in, more than usual), a broad upper back, dropped right shoulder, raised hip and a longer arm (but I can never remember which is the longer one). So, most of us can achieve a “good” fit in RTW, but nothing which can rival MTM or bespoke. Coming back to my earlier point, fit is everything, which is where RTW can never truly compete.
This should really be the entry point for men’s suiting. Some bespoke advocates will look down their noses at MTM clothing, seeing it as inferior to true bespoke. It’s an arrogant and unfair position to take.
What is made-to-measure? Made to measure suiting involves taking an already existing design and block pattern, before customising the fit. For example, a MTM tailor may offer a single breasted, notch lapel jacket with flap pockets. Depending on the brand, changes are then made in different areas, some may allow you to change the pockets from flaps to patches or welts, others may not. For trousers, options may include turn ups for the cuffs, or side adjuster tabs instead of belt loops etc. Where you do gain freedom is in choosing the cloth, allowing you to take an existing design and have it made in whichever cloth you like, as well as choosing the lining, buttons, buttonholes etc. The true value in made to measure, aside from the increased freedom of personalisation over RTW, is in fit. The standard block is customised to fit your measurements and altered at the final fitting, although some MTM tailors will offer multiple fittings, similar to bespoke. For someone like myself, this means that all of my unique but not uncommon physical characteristics can be factored in. The right shoulder can be cut a little more narrowly, the lower back cut to take into account my sway etc. What this does is give a healthy degree of freedom to personalise your clothing and, most importantly, achieve a great fit.
Modern businesses which have built themselves around this MTM offering, such as P. Johnson Tailors (Now open in New York and London) are a real help to men who care about their clothes and the way they fit. For the price of a half decent (read: not great) RTW suit, you can have a well made MTM suit which will fit perfectly and be very much your own. The prices then increase as you bring in elements of hand work, floating canvasses or country of manufacture.
It’s no surprise to anyone here that bespoke is where my heart is and it’s the only suiting purchase I make anymore. It’s tailoring at its finest (when done well) offering complete freedom of choice in design and fit. A bespoke suit (or “custom” suit, if you’re in America), if you have taken a lead in its design and detail is truly your own and any compliment paid to it is a compliment to yourself and your tailor.
An important point and often an area of confusion is that bespoke does not mean floating canvasses (as opposed to fused/glued canvasses), hand sewing or anything else. The true form of bespoke is all of these things and more, but by definition, handwork and canvassing is not essential to a suit actually being bespoke.
Many have heard it before, but the term “bespoke” came about when you would visit your tailor, work through a design, choose a cloth and the suit would be made over a series of fittings. The cloth was then “bespoken” for by that customer.
The easiest way to clarify bespoke, is to say that before you walked in to see your tailor, nothing but the cloth existed. No patterns, no pre-existing design which needed to be adhered to, nothing. The difference between bespoke and MTM becomes clear at this point, as MTM requires a pattern and pre-existing design, from which you can make some changes.
Bespoke can still mean a fused canvas (though it will feel stiff and won’t move with you), completely machine sewn (again, stiff) and without working button holes (as my first bespoke suits were, years ago), it is all in the creation of a garment from nothing but cloth.
Some MTM brands willingly bastardise the term “bespoke” to fool an uneducated audience, but there will always be these kinds of people in the world who will cheapen the hard work of others for their own gain and you can’t get around that.
Having an understanding of the terms above helps in making more informed choices in the future and in identifying the right option for your budget and personal preferences. The important thing with all of this is to enjoy the process, regardless of your chosen path, and work towards having your clothing reflect who you are. It’s the essence of true style.