The Bespoke Shirt on Your Back
Building your shirt wardrobe needs time, thought and care – especially when investing in bespoke. What key points do you needs to consider?
Article by Oscar Udeshi, founder Udeshi London
One of my mentors, a certain master shirt maker in Jermyn Street, told me a gentleman of means in the past had a wardrobe of 20 work shirts. I quickly did the maths in my head: 20 bespoke shirts, or 20 good quality shirts could get you something between a nice watch or even a brand new Harley Davidson! I love clothing, especially bespoke, but 20 shirts versus a whole motorcycle… He did say, a man of means! I, of course asked, why; why not 40 shirts whilst we are at it? His explanation was quite logical: a man needed a shirt for work, for every day of the week. Five days a week, four weeks a month equals 20 shirts. Each shirt would only be worn once a month and thus 12 times a year. With that kind of minimal wear, the shirt should last ten years. Every year, two new shirts would be added to replace the shirts wearing out. If you only had five shirts in your rotation, that shirt would be worn once a week, for every working week of the year and would be easily laundered 48 to 52 times. One can see those shirts wouldn’t last terribly long.
This made perfect sense to me. Yes, one has to maintain one’s size, but given the cost of suits relative to income back then, most men couldn’t afford to have dozens of suits, nor in different sizes. Dinner suits and morning dress was passed down from generation to generation, even among families with means.
Shirts used to be considered underwear, and were sold alongside undergarments and socks. Shirt makers were looked down upon by tailors. In the past, a gentleman would never take off his jacket, so all one would see of a shirt would be the collar, cuffs, and a little bit of the shirt front that was not covered by the tie, waistcoat and jacket. One could get away with quite a few sins in terms of construction and fit – and some do still.
Most men are simple creatures and once they have found something they like and works for them, they just buy the same again. I have a few clients who order identical white shirts by the dozen every year. My clients with well over one hundred shirts, all have the same collar on all their shirts, because they ordered them that way.
The advantage of going bespoke is you get exactly what you want. Embroidered initials is the least of it. You get the collar that is comfortable and suits your face, with the exact stiffness or softness you desire. The sleeves are the right length and sit on both your hands at the same place. Your wristwatch fits comfortably under the cuff, when the collar button is undone, the collar doesn’t collapse nor does it get swallowed by the jacket collar. The shirt doesn’t untuck when you sit down, the shirt doesn’t billow, the shirt doesn’t pull or strain, and one has buttons sewn on with a neck that prevents puckering at the buttonholes and makes it easier to do up the buttons. You can have a pocket for a specific item – this was frowned upon in the past as a gentleman would wear a waistcoat and braces, which would make accessing a shirt breast pocket pretty nigh on impossible. We have in the past created pockets for credit cards, glasses, mobile phones, ammunition – yes, for one of our “cousins” on the other side of the pond, cigarette soft packs on the sleeve – that the client would flick and a cigarette would appear, cigars, smoking accoutrements, Leathermans, condoms – don’t ask. Well, if you are getting a bespoke shirt made, and that is what you want, then do ask.
Made to order and made to measure, a halfway house in terms of price and possibilities, allows one to choose the same fabrics, and to a certain extent collars and cuffs, but one is choosing from a preselected set of options, decided by Keith in marketing who gave them snazzy names. Those options may not necessarily suit a specific individual. Choosing the softness or stiffness of the collar or cuffs is many times not an option, nor the exact button spacing, which determines how far the shirt opens when the collar is not buttoned. Many times the shoulder drops or balance of the shirt are completely ignored, resulting in unsightly creases. This is particularly difficult in trying to communicate to mail order operations in the Far East. There is a reason why bespoke shirt makers still exist in London and Italy and they charge what they charge. Once one has found a bespoke maker one is happy with it, one can never go back to ready to wear.
Things to look for with bespoke shirts:
Fabrics: are they in an unlabelled book, or from an actual fabric mill. How well does the salesman know the fabrics and the mill, so that they can best advise the client based on the client’s preferences? Are the fabrics prewashed, so there are no nasty surprises. Having lots and lots of suppliers doesn’t mean all of the fabrics are good. Like going to a restaurant that does everything: pizza, burgers, sushi, Thai. Nothing will be remarkable.
Collars and cuffs: does one have to pick from a selection of existing designs, can they be modified or a design made from scratch? Picking from existing designs is made to measure, not bespoke. Can the interlining be chosen to give a softer or a stiffer feel.
Buttons and details: choosing from a wide selection of different coloured buttons and embroidery options should be at the bottom of the priority list. They can always be changed at the end. The fit of the shirt cannot. Ideally the buttons should be mother of pearl. They are the real thing and in my opinion look nicer. It is also a good test for a laundry. If the buttons come back damaged, image what they are doing to the rest of the shirt, change your laundry!
Measurements and fitting: taking lots and lots of measurements is no guarantee of a good fitting shirt, nor are multiple fittings. Taking accurate measurements and knowing what to do with those measurements is more important. Looking at the client, and listening to the client is even more important in terms of figuration and fit. What does the client actually want. One man’s slim fit shirt, is another man’s loose fit. Deciphering that, and understanding how the shirt will be worn are essential to creating the product the client will be happy with. Doing all of this remotely for the first time, is like drawing the Mona Lisa when one never has seen a picture of her, and does it purely based on description. Once the pattern for the client has been established, then future orders can be done remotely, as long as the client’s shape has not changed.
Handmade details: the hand stitching if executed skilfully can be beautiful, if done badly, can look like a blind person trying to stab a live chicken. Hand stitching is favoured by some Italian shirt makers, especially in the South of Italy, it is unheard of in London. There is no plentiful supply of cheap labour for hand sowing in London like there is in Naples, where a lot of hand stitching is done by out workers at home in their spare time. Some Neopolitan firms even boast about the drops of blood left by the hand sowers on their shirts. Personally, I dislike hand stitching on shirts as I feel it makes them too precious and I question their longevity. Ignoring that, an English gentleman would never take off his jacket in public, so the actual construction of the shirt would never be on public display, not so with the hot and humid climate of Southern Italy. Either way, no matter how well the shirt is made, by hand or machine, if it doesn’t fit, then the construction is irrelevant.