The history of tailoring

The art of tailoring has a long and rich history within Europe. The Oxford Dictionary states that to tailor is to “make or adapt clothing to fit a particular purpose or person.” This craft developed slowly in Europe between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries, with the first reference to the word “tailor” given as early as 1297.

During the Middle Ages, clothing was mainly seen as a way of concealing the body. Metres of fabric were sewn in a flowing manner that did little to accentuate the frame of the wearer. Wealth was distinguished more so with the richness of the fabric used, than with the construction of it. But with the age of the Renaissance, a notable shift in design came into the world of fashion. The billowing robes of the previous age was shortened and tightened, its pieces cut and sewn together to reveal the beauty of the wearers body. Before, it was possible for even those with a bear basic knowledge of sewing to make a fashionable garment; now, tailors rose up with their precision and flair to take their place in the hierarchy of honourable professions.

As towns grew into cities, cities into empires, fashionable attire became a necessity for those who wanted to convey wealth and status. The height of fashion, at first, was centred on the continent; France, Italy and Spain were well known for their style of dress. Italy flourished during the age of Michaelangelo, followed quickly by Spain in the early 17th century. France, on the other hand, ascended during the reign of the sun king, Louis XIV, 1643-1715. During this time, foppish young wanes from all over Europe made their pilgrimage to Paris to obtain a fashionable wardrobe. With their powdered wigs and silver buckle shoes, these young men were easy prey for any and all comedic playwrights of the times. As such, it did not take long for another shift in male fashion to begin.

By mid-17th century, men were tossing aside their doublets, hose and cloaks that had been the foundation of their dress since the 1500s. Instead, they were donning coats, vests and breeches; the three components we still see in the modern male wardrobe. The English wholly embraced this modern fashion and even took it one step further. After having survived a bitter civil war (1642-1649) which, among other things, questioned the rich brocades and velvets associated with aristocratic French courtly dress, England was ready to forsake the peacock-like Parisian fashion, for a more understated and practical attire. 

English tailors, especially those on Savile Row in London, began to dominate the fashion scene. These talented tailors developed a new style of men’s clothing which seemed to fully embody the look of the Industrial Revolution. This look seemed to portray a subtle blend of landed gentry, sporting chap on the town and bourgeois business man all in one. It was the look of the English Gentleman. To create this look, it was imperative for the tailor to have a perfect fit, which requires great skill in vision and execution. Using the traditional woollen cloth, the English tailor was taught to systematically “mould” the cloth to the customer’s body, without exactly duplicating it. This allowed these highly skilled craftsmen to fix areas of imperfection on their client’s frames and accentuate their best features.

The 21st century man has continued to wear this classic form of dress, though the means to attain such a valued piece of wardrobe can be significantly different. Local tailors still abound within London to make quality bespoke suits, usually at a premium price. Typically it will take 2-3 fittings, plus approximately four days for a suit to be completed. For many, the travel and time required do not allow for this experience, so to fill this gap in the market, e-commerce sites have cropped up offering “distance tailoring”. The customers must take their own measurements, pick their fabric selection from photos online and then enter the details into the website, usually at a marked discount to a bespoke suit. Any alterations will require that the suit be shipped. This is quickly becoming the most common form of tailoring within the United Kingdom.