The word bespoke comes from the fact that any clothing that had been made to tailor was already ‘spoken for’ — that is, not available for sale. Bespoke tailoring has a fascinating history that dates back hundreds of years.
In Ancient Times
Back in the day — if the day were the Middle Ages — all clothing was made by hand without even a cotton gin to help out. However, it was not bespoke, strictly speaking. Clothing of that time period was shapeless and draping, consisting of tunics, scarves, and layers paired with belts or stays in order to ensure the drapes stayed in place. Wealth was conveyed primarily through the dyes used, some of which were quite expensive at the time: purple was considered to be a color only for royalty, and a commoner daring to wear a purple garment could be harshly punished! In fact, in the Middle Ages, you were a pretty important person if you had more than two outfits to your name.
However, the Renaissance, with its focus on culture and the arts, changed all that. Suddenly, tighter-fitting gowns and doublets were all the rage, and skilled tailors were very much in demand. Tailoring became not only a respected profession but one with closely guarded secrets: the mystery of the jerkin’s lines, the especial stitching of the petticoat to preserve the sweeping fall of a lady’s gown. It was all very hush-hush, and deservedly so: a tailor lived by the skill in his hands and the knowledge in his head.
The vast majority of Europe was still poverty-stricken: at that time, you would have to have been the daughter of the Earl of such-and-such, or the Lord of so-and-so to afford so much as a bespoke handkerchief. If you did manage to scrape together the funds to purchase a bespoke item considered beyond your means, Queen Elizabeth forbade you from wearing it in public. That’s right, Queen Elizabeth actually penned her fashion sense into law — something I’m sure we all would have been tempted to do at one time or another, were we the Queen of England.
Perhaps due to rigid restrictions in England, perhaps for reasons more related to cultural mores, France, and Spain emerged as the hubs of fashion. The wealthy from all over Europe obtained their bespoke items from clothiers there. However, after the French Revolution, the natural flamboyance of French clothing was toned down to what we might consider to be a more masculine style, today: coats were fitted rather than loose, vests accentuated the waist, and trousers fit the wearer snugly. The sober English rapidly adopted this sensible, streamlined look, and took to wearing what we think of as Victorian garb: tall, black hats brushed to a shine, umbrellas as an accessory, black coats that snipped in at the waist, and a variety of accoutrements such as decorative buttons, and pocket watches with dangling chains. The tighter fit required a corresponding increase in the skill of the tailor. The aesthetic was that of the ‘honest’ English gentleman of modest means — not wealthy enough to be in the running for decapitation.
Savile Row actually began hosting tailoring shops and millineries in the 1700s, but it emerged in the Victorian era as the place to obtain bespoke clothing in England. While bespoke was now available to English gentlemen of modest means, that still did not include the average man or woman, but someone who was of the landed class, the gentry. Hey, at least you didn’t have to have a title, and that was progress.
It was Savile row tailors who first began calling their made-to-order clothing ‘bespoke’, as in ‘madam, I am sorry, but those stunning lace-up boots are bespoke; kindly take your elegantly gloved paws elsewhere.’
For some time after the Industrial Revolution, the popularity of bespoke clothing dipped. Focus shifted from quality to quantity as number of outfits outstripped the desire that they all fit perfectly. Bespoke came to be seen as a luxury that few but the wealthiest customers could afford.
With the advent of new technologies, however, bespoke is back within the reach of the everyday man and woman, bringing the superlative fit, wide range of choices, and level of quality to thousands of savvy customers. Cheap, mass-produced clothing and footwear begin to look just that in light of the art and artistry of that which is hand-made, and ‘spoken for’ by the customer alone.