For the average male shopper – that is to say, the man who can appreciate a good dress shirt but isn’t obsessed with style and doesn’t have a degree in fashion design – who’s ready to make a departure from the world of off-the-rack clothing, terms like bespoke and made-to-measure shirts (MTM) can seem alternatively attractive and confusing. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, astute shoppers and philologists may be wondering if there is any difference between them – and in fact there is.
Let’s look first at the word ‘bespoke’, which is one term that gets thrown around a lot by online clothiers even though its current usage is quite different from its original meaning. Originally coined in Britain to describe the high-end shirts and suits produced in such places as London’s famed Saville Row, bespoke items, in the strictest sense of the term are items designed for a customer on a one-off basis with no set pattern to start from. That is to say, with bespoke products no two items will be exactly identical, at least in theory. It is the customer, for all practical purposes, who ‘speaks’ for his clothing, and how he would like it to be made.
Today, the term ‘bespoke’ is something of a high-brow word, especially outside of the UK, where it’s meant to conjure up images of dapper aristocrats and gentlemen in wool suits (and usually carries a price-tag to match this upper-crust image). Yet, bespoke clothing is not necessarily any better than other kinds of customized clothing in terms of construction. Furthermore, much to the chagrin of old-school bespokers and sartorial purists everywhere, according to a 2008 ruling by the British Advertising Standards Authority, tailors can use the term bespoke in place of ‘made-to-measure’.
For a long time, made-to-measure clothing existed somewhere between the ready-to-wear and bespoke categories, but the major distinguishing characteristic of MTM items is the fact that they are designed from an existing pattern or style. A made to measure shirt, for example, would not be made ‘from scratch’ but rather by making changes to the size of a shirt which has already been designed. Although the term may lack the panache of ‘bespoke’, in many ways made-to-measure services can be much more suitable for guys who lack a thorough understanding of tailoring yet want the perfect fit and a more personalized feel to their clothing. But no matter if your shirts and suits are hand sewn, machine stitched, constructed using a pattern or a drawing you made yourself, the most important thing is getting clothing you’re satisfied with.