When I first heard the word, I thought it meant some kind of talking, as in, “He bespoke of the movie,” or, “I bespoke the truth.”
Needless to say, that’s not what it meant. At least not fully.
After some relentless online digging, I found the real meaning of the word, along with some interesting history.
Did you know?
The word “bespoke” actually means custom-made, in reference to things of any kind, specialized to the buyer’s preference. It is the opposite of ready-made. When applied to fashion, however, the term bespoke is only used for men’s suits and clothing, making it a parallel to the women’s haute couture label of individually cut and designed garments.
Why should I care?
Unlike haute couture, bespoke is not a protected label. This upset a lot of men in fashion, especially tailors, so the Savile Row Bespoke Association was set up in 2004 to protect the integrity of the art of tailoring in London’s West End. In 2006, the Savile Row Bespoke became a label, established for simple identification of suits and garments made specifically on Savile Row (and surrounding streets). So while bespoke is not a protected label, the Savile Row Bespoke Association has made itself a trademarked brand, and is working towards making bespoke clothing protected, so that it can be the male fashion equivalent to women’s haute couture. However, they haven’t been successful in achieving that goal yet, which is probably why not that many people today know what it means, or even that it exists.
Remember when I said that I thought that the word bespoke meant speaking the first time I heard it? Well, a little bit more digging through the interwebz told me that I was sort of right: bespoke is actually the past tense of the word bespeak. It used to be pretty popular back in Ye Olden Days, when it would mean to speak up or call out.
Towards the end of the 16th century, it started to mean arranging to get something done, getting someone to do a job, or ordering goods. Later, in the middle of the 18th century, the adjective “bespoke” appeared in English. Something that was “bespoke” was not ready-made, but made to order.
According to some sources, the word “bespoke” also came about from a tailor’s actions: once a customer selected a fabric or a length of material, then that material was said to “be spoken” for. This is supposed to be the symbol of a true or proper bespoke tailor: to make a set of patterns original and unique to the person who ordered them, to style them exclusively to that buyer’s needs and body, so that nobody else would feel quite at home in the same suit.
Ask a Tailor
In order to give you a slightly better look at bespoke and what it means, Jessica Wornette and I moseyed over to GreenShag Bespoke to speak with Neil McPhedran, tailor and co-founder of GreenShag. He told us that to him, bespoke meant just what we had discovered earlier: custom-made and custom-fit. Bespoke clothing, McPhedran says, is made specifically for the individual.
“I think true bespoke is bespoke, like haute couture, not made-to-measure,” he says.
He explained that made-to-measure is a sort of “middle ground between off-the-rack and custom” in which the clothing or garment is created from a set of already predetermined patterns and sizes from which a customer can choose the ones that they want or need.
“It is not like bespoke, where you start from nothing and design everything,” says McPhedran. Made-to-measure isn’t made individually and shouldn’t be considered custom bespoke wear. Saville Row is especially strict about that, he told us. Things that are just made from a pattern and not custom-fit shouldn’t be considered to be bespoke.
The average cost of a full bespoke suit from GreenShag is around $2,500. It depends on the fabrics and the materials used, but that is generally the price many bespoke tailors work with.
“I wouldn’t go anywhere else!” a customer exclaimed, as he allowed measurements of himself to be taken by the trained hands of the working tailor.
text by Sofie Mikhaylova
photography by Jessica da Silva