One of the joys of custom clothing, they used to say, is that is supposed to last forever. Any English teacher would immediately ask, who are “they”? The reassuring voice of others that lured us down this path, the sybarite chorus of lazy fashion journalists and bored copywriters, repeating every few articles or press releases the same tropes about a kind of clothing that had become both incredibly rare and, generally, deterrently expensive a few decades ago. So rare, so expensive, that they suggested any order of custom clothing was an epiphany of the classic, style as arbitrated by middle-aged men behind shears who would make your clothes last so long that your descendants would be wearing them, suitably nipped and tucked to fit their dimensions, but otherwise an enduring physical manifestation of the platonic ideal of the suit.
Custom clothing must be made to last a lifetime, or many lifetimes, the articles, tailor websites and PR pieces asserted, because why else would someone seek it out? The default clothing choice was off-the-rack, seasonal fashion, and 16 years ago the suit was barely beginning its trip back to relevance.
I believed it. Consigning my very first bespoke suit last week made me think again about those beliefs, the expectations and assumptions I had when I began ordering bespoke clothing. I’d found my tailor through his association with another, more well-known tailor, quickly submitting myself to his garrulous East London-accented phone calls where he cockily asserted that he’d still be tailoring for me in 30 years. I wanted a suit – one suit, I thought – that could be custom, with all the perfection of cut, style, construction, material and fit that that term connoted to me at that time. One, I thought, and done: one suit for a workplace that was mostly business casual, that I could wear to important meetings or ceremonial occasions.
I was mostly wrong. Wrong to think that custom means perfection, transformation or revelation, wrong to think one single garment could actually satiate, let alone saturate, my taste for the thing despite those failures, wrong to think I could get exactly what I wanted, wrong to think I knew what I wanted…
… And yet… When I thought this would be the one suit that I had made for me, I had thought so hard about all the baroque details I wanted it to have. To his credit, the tailor had diplomatically explained why certain of my requests were impracticable, alpaca not being a common material in suit cloths, and tagua nuts (based on something in The Tailor of Panama, which I was reading around that time) a less suitable button material than honest horn from RJ Weldon. An array of books of cloth swatches from mostly English-sounding companies I had never heard of overwhelmed me. He steered me away from names I did know from their flashy ads, like Dormeuil or Loro Piana, to a cloth that really would be suitable for a garment that would last a lifetime: the mid-weight wools of the old, lamented H. Lesser, springy, sturdy, lustrous.
I had to have a silk lining put in, even if I had read that flashy lining colors were quite not the thing. It took me over a decade to let my freak flag fly in the face of that imposed discretion. I chose a dour burgundy colored silk for this suit’s lining in order not to seem gauche to those spectral judges whose articles I’d assimilated.
I likewise tried to apply all the other things I thought I’d learned about button stance, “nipped in waists,” and all the rest in placing my order. The tailor, thank goodness, suggested I let him figure out where the buttons would be placed on the suit, as well as how defined he could make the waist of my suit, and all the rest. He gladly agreed to the other details I’d always wanted, like side adjusters on the trousers, double vents, plain trouser bottoms (no cuffs), slant pockets – all the things that to me at the time suggested bespoke and British.
It arrived about eight months after my order – several fittings later. Whether a custom suit lasts a lifetime, its making can take ages in fashion terms, thanks to the time needed to make it, fit it and adjust it. It used to be that even good tailors could make and fit a suit over the course of a week if a customer was in town and specially requested it. There generally aren’t enough flexible free hands on staff to accommodate that now, at least not at a tailor I would trust. And as I suggested, putting it on for the first time forced me to realize that there was no transformation, no immediate elimination of all my physical shortcomings and no phoenix-like rebirth of my best self from the ashes of the money I’d burnt. No tailor can, really – particularly not at the first order. It reflects what the tailor thought you wanted, and sometimes what you wrongly thought you wanted too.
It’s a hard reconciliation. Maybe that’s why I kept trying, for a more perfect realization, getting the shoulders the way I wanted over a few more orders, the slant in the pockets pitched just right after a couple of extremes. All the ridiculous pedantry that I thought custom was supposed to indulge.
A lifetime. This suit had accompanied a significant part of mine, career moves that took me to business-formal environments that justified ordering more suits, and admissions to myself about what it was I really did want – in suits, in work, in life. Some of those clashed with each other, frankly. Loving suits, I now think sadly, is as much a manner of loving our chains as liking nice briefcases. But in a suit I love, I still feel greater, complemented by some extension of my best self.
No longer do I really feel that way in this suit, though. Not so much through its shortcomings, although most of us would find something we ordered 16 years ago a bit different from what we like now, to say nothing of a bit snugger. It ran its course with me, and while it still fit, I no longer felt I had a place for it in my wardrobe. I no longer wore it, because it no longer felt like me… beyond its warp and weft of nostalgia.
So to a new owner, hopefully someone who can project his own thoughts, expectations, hopes onto this canvas, new to him, a respeaking, as my friend dirnelli might say. After all, it has a lifetime in front of it.