Bespoke or made to measure: buying a tailored suit or coat

Carlton Boyce / 04 September 2018

If you want tailored clothes to suit you down to the ground, now is the time. Weigh up the pros and cons with advice from the ultra-stylish Carlton Boyce.



Getting your clothes made to measure used to be the preserve of the rich and famous but the democratising effect of the Internet (and, it has to be said, the widespread adoption of more casual clothing with its predictably deleterious effects on the tailoring industry…) has opened up the world of bespoke tailoring to a whole new demographic.

Having someone tailor your suit or coat to fit you perfectly is always going to be more expensive than buying something off the shelf but an increasing number of us think it’s worth the extra cost. Not only does the suit or coat look better, but the quality of manufacture means that the clothes should last longer than something that’s been made down to a price in a sweatshop. 

And, while women tell me that a good suit on a man has much the same effect on them as expensive lingerie on a woman has on us, good tailoring isn’t just for us blokes; there’s no reason why the same rules and tips can’t be applied to women’s suits and coats too…

Bespoke suit, or made-to-measure?

A truly bespoke suit is created from scratch and will be entirely hand-sewn. It’s a lengthy process that will usually involve three or more fittings and the tailor will keep the paper pattern on their books to use the next time you order a new suit.

A made-to-measure suit will usually involve tailoring an existing pattern to fit, machine stitching much of the material while still hand-finishing some of the finer details. You will probably have a more limited choice of cloth too, but if the range includes something you like the look of then I wouldn’t be too obsessive about it; a made-to-measure suit will be considerably cheaper but almost indistinguishable from a bespoke suit.

If you enjoy Carlton's inimitable style of writing, you'll love his book How to Become a Motoring Journalist - available on the Saga Bookshop.


Where to get your tailored suit made

Of course, while Savile Row is the most famous street in the fashion business (as well as one of the most expensive), there’s no reason why your local tailor shouldn’t be able to produce something of comparable quality. 

Online reviews will let you know how satisfied previous customers are but there’s no substitute for actually visiting a shop and having a chat with them in person. An awful lot now rely on repairs and alterations to pay the bills, so the chance to exercise their skills in constructing a complete suit or coat will brighten their day no end!

How long will my suit take?

A made-to-measure suit might only take a few weeks but a fully bespoke suit could take 3-4 months or more. Yes, that’s a long time but trust me, it’ll be worth it.

How much will it cost?

A fully bespoke suit from a Savile Row tailor will cost at least £4,000. However, your local tailor should be able to create something very nearly as good for between a quarter and a half of that. Something that is made-to-measure should cost even less.

Coats are a slightly different proposition but you should still expect to pay four-figures for something that’ll last you the rest of your life.

Getting measured

The biggest shock you’ll have when getting clothing made is not the bill, it’s your waist size. You see, the fashion industry is more concerned with flattery than accuracy, so will often label clothing in a smaller size than is the reality. So, if you take 36-inch trousers it’s highly likely that your waist size is really 38, 39 or even 40 inches.

This came as a shock to me.

Other than that, the trick is to relax - and don’t breathe in! The whole point of the exercise is to get your clothes to fit you properly. Besides, the finished clothes won’t have size labels in them, so only you and your tailor will know, and tailors are even more discreet than barbers…

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The little details that make a big difference

We’ve looked at the basics; now it’s time now to examine the little details that distinguish your bespoke or made-to-measure suit from the sort of thing you can pick up in Debenhams or Next. 

Getting the details right is what turns a good suit into a great one. This means that you want your cuff buttons to work, the sleeves must be short enough to allow for a flash of shirt cuff, and the lining needs to be just this side of vulgar. (It’s the peacock in me…).

Most people will never notice these details, but those who do are the ones who matter. 

Single- or double-breasted?

While double-breasted suits move in and out of fashion, a single-breasted suit is utterly timeless. Given you’re spending so much, I’d suggest getting your first bespoke suit made in a single-breasted style as it will offer the greatest bang for your (not inconsiderable) buck. 

Women can go for much the same style, perhaps with a couple of skirts, one above the knee and one below. In either case, the result will be suitable for work, the theatre, funerals, or even a posh dinner date - and it’ll never go out of style. It will also look as good in twenty years’ time as it does now.

Overcoats offer more flexibility and I’m quite partial to a double-breasted, heavy wool number. Feel free to go down the single-breasted route though because I’m probably just channelling my inner dandy because I quite like a velvet collar, too…

The cloth

A dark grey or dark blue wool cloth can be worn just about anywhere. If you team it with black brogues, a white shirt and a sombre tie you can move seamlessly between your working day and a relaxed evening at the theatre. 

You can also wear a single-breasted suit with a t-shirt for a more informal look, perhaps wearing brown brogues with your blue suit to tone it down even further. In either case, you want something mid-weight and wool-rich; you’ll be cold in the winter if it’s too lightweight. On the other hand, if it’s too heavy you won’t be able to wear it in the summer. It’s something of a balancing act but your tailor will have dealt with the same problem many times before, so just relax and take their advice.

One word of caution, though: while a lot of us are partial to an eye-catching bright tweed or Wall Street-style chalkstripe, bright, eye-catching colours and patterns do limit how many times you’ll be able to wear the suit before someone asks you if that’s the only one you’ve got. An understated, sober colour and pattern, on the other hand, will pass almost unnoticed, exactly as a good suit should.


Lapel styles

Millennials appear to be more relaxed about what sort of lapels to have on their suits but a gentleman or gentlewoman would never wear anything other than notch lapels on a single-breasted suit and peaked lapels on a double-breasted suit. 

Unless it’s a dinner jacket, in which case you want peaked lapels with either a single- or double-breasted jacket. In either case, you don’t want to go too wide or too narrow; few things age a suit like the width of the lapels.

The rear vents

The British style is to have two rear vents on your suit jacket, while the Europeans prefer none. The Americans like their suits with one, but one vent allows the back of your jacket to gape when you put your hands in your trouser pockets. Yes, I know you shouldn’t but we all do and no-one wants to look at your buttocks, no matter how pert they are.

The pockets

You’ll want flaps on the outer pockets of your jacket, and a good tailor will make them fully functional and then lightly tack them closed. You should leave them like this as it’ll stop you putting stuff in your pockets, which will ruin the lines of your suit.

A step too far? Maybe, but if you’re ever tempted to stuff your pockets full of loose change, car and house keys, your scrunched-up handkerchief, and your glasses, just think how inelegant, rumpled and baggy Columbo looked in his suit. 

Europeans carry all this stuff in a small bag. I’m too British for that, so I just don’t carry anything other than a very slim wallet (not hard to carry off if you’re a writer…) and a mobile phone, which sits in its own discreet pocket low down where it doesn’t disrupt the svelte line of my jacket.

The overall shape

The overall shape should be gently tailored, but not excessively so; younger folk like their suit jackets straining at the button but that will just make folk our age look like we need to go on a diet. You want something that hugs the shoulders nicely and tapers in at the waist a little. 

The length is just right if you can cup your hands under the bottom hem. Oh, and most sleeves are too loose; slimming them a little is the fastest way to get a sharper, bespoke look to your jacket. A flash of cuff is obligatory, but then you knew that, didn’t you?

How many buttons?

The most important detail on a single-breasted suit is the number of buttons on the front. In my opinion, one is too few and three is too many, although very tall men might want the minimising affect that three buttons can give. (Of course, shorter men will want to avoid three buttons like the proverbial.)

Please feel free to disagree and if you buy me a pint we can have a civilised chat about why I’m right and you’re wrong. Either way, please undo the buttons when you sit down and don’t do up the bottom button. Ever.

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Cuff buttons

If possible, you want your cuff buttons to work. It’s not a deal-breaker if they don’t, but functionality is always better than having something that is merely decorative.

There is some flexibility in the number of buttons but four is traditional on a suit, while two is more common on a sports jacket. You can also choose whether to have them spaced out in a line, or slightly overlapping. For what it’s worth, I quite like the look of overlapping buttons.

Modern affectations like a single contrasting button, or having the edge of the buttonhole picked out in a bright thread are best avoided, as they’ll age the suit very quickly.

Oh, and you want your lapel buttonhole to be real too, because how else are you going to be able to wear a flower in there?

The trousers

Your trousers are a bit easier to specify as there are fewer things to consider. Traditionalists will probably want waist adjusters on their trousers rather than belt loops, but that is very much a matter of taste and no-one is going to be critical if you prefer a belt. 

If you prefer braces to a belt - and who doesn’t, especially with a dinner jacket? - then having your tailor sew on proper brace buttons will enable you to forever dodge the hell that is clip-on braces…

Everyone needs to make sure that the bottom of their trouser leg breaks gently on their shoes, which usually means having the legs cut slightly shorter than you’re normally used to. Turn-ups look good, in my opinion - and help the trousers hang a little better thanks to the extra weight - but they are by no means compulsory.

Slim men can get away with flat-fronted trousers but everyone else will need one or two pleats on either side. The finished look might not be as sharp as a pair of flat-fronted trousers but it will be more flattering if, like most of us, you’ve developed a bit of a paunch over the years. 

Button flies are old school but almost everyone wants zips now, which I think is a shame - especially as buttons are a bit safer after you’ve had a drink or two. 

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Your second suit

Your second suit could be tweed because even a young fogey like me recognises that the rules have changed and a tweed suit is now perfectly acceptable in town and country*. 

I like a waistcoat with a tweed suit too, but it’s your choice as to whether this matches or contrasts with the jacket and trousers. I like to jazz the look up with a contrasting one but, as a friend pointed out many years ago, my taste in clothes and cars does tend to run to that of only a moderately successful drug dealer.

* This reminds me of the famous (and almost certainly apocryphal) story about a young gentleman who asked his god-father whether it was acceptable to wear a tweed suit in the city if you were leaving at lunchtime to go to your place in the country. His god-father spluttered and replied: “Certainly not. A gentleman stops and changes at the Chiswick roundabout.”

The dinner jacket

Alternatively, if you’re a man you could have a black dinner jacket as your second choice. (No-one has worn a white dinner jacket since the decline of the British Empire. If you have one from your time as a commissioner in India, then please feel free to wear it for old times’ sake.)

Mine is single-breasted, made of barathea with silk peaked lapels (only Roger Moore can carry off a shawl collar…) and woven brocade down the outside of the trouser legs. It has a button fly, proper waist adjusters and looks amazing. It also cost me a little over twice what a cheap off-the-peg dinner jacket cost at the time, which made it something of a bargain.

Of course, you need to be able to tie your own bowtie to carry it off but if you can tie your own shoe laces then you’ll find it much easier than you think. A cummerbund is a nice touch, and quite flattering, so why not ask your tailor to run you one up while they’re at it? Just remember to wear it with the folds facing up as it was originally designed to provide a place to keep your theatre tickets.

Your shoes should be black - as should your shirt studs - and highly polished. Patent leather shoes look very smart but I’ll give you serious style points if you wear a pair of well-worn monogrammed evening slippers instead. 

And it’s called ‘black tie’ for a reason, so don’t wear any other colour unless you’re the sort of chap who wears novelty socks to a fancy occasion, in which case the colour of your bowtie is the least of your worries. 

My Barbour Skyfall coat

Cheating

Of course, you can always cheat and buy high-quality secondhand suits and coats and have them gently altered to fit you. The most important thing to remember is that if the shoulders fit properly, then almost everything else can be changed. 

If you need the clothes letting out then you’ll need to make sure there’s enough cloth there to accommodate it but a few small modifications can dramatically alter the look of a garment; I’ve got an old tweed jacket that looks a million dollars and set me back well under £100 all-in. My Gieves and Hawkes suit cost me only slightly more and would have set the original purchaser back a four-figure sum.

Looking after it

Always hang your suit or coat up to air after wearing it, preferably on a wooden coat hanger. Trousers should be hung upside down by the legs, and allowed to hang straight rather than folded in half. 

Dry-cleaning is hard on natural fabrics and will quickly age and dry them, so keep it to a minimum. Luke-warm clean water and a small sponge can be used to get rid of minor spills and stains, while vodka is said to be good for more stubborn stains.

A professional can steam press a tired looking suit to revive it without harming it. Alternatively, a handheld steamer costs around £30 and will come in handy much more often than you think.


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.