About three years ago, I overheard a former editor I worked for asking incredulously why young people didn’t tailor their clothing. I don’t have the time or money for that, I thought, and not all of my clothes are expensive or precious enough to invest in a seamstress. Sure, that’s nice for those whose wardrobes are lined with designer pieces — but it’s a luxury.
Well, I take that all back.
The first time I had anything tailored was last year. I’d been to a vintage sale, where for £15 you could buy any amount of items weighing one kilogram total. I’d rooted out some of the prettiest dresses I’d seen in a while — romantic florals with billowing sleeves and ruffled necklines — but when I got home and tried them on, it was glaringly obvious that sizes have changed a bit since the '70s, and some were comedic in length. But the stitching and cut displayed the kind of craftsmanship you’re hard-pressed to find on the mass market these days. So I dropped them off at Alpine Dry Cleaners in South London to see what they could do.
After asking about the length, fit, and fall I wanted for each piece, a lovely woman with astoundingly quick hands pinned my dresses in all the right places, nipping in my waist, taking up the hem, and darting the side seams until her work was done. On my way home one evening, I collected my dresses (under-$100 for five items) and tried them on. They all fit like a glove. It was a marked change from the disappointing experience of fitting rooms, and I get compliments on the altered dresses every time I wear them — not because they’re everyone’s taste, but because they look how they’re supposed to look; they hang naturally and accentuate parts of my body I’ve struggled to dress my whole life.
Like many other women, I battle with fast-fashion's varying sizes. Our bodies aren't prescriptive, and most of us have proportions that these retailers simply don't cater to. For freelance stylist and art director Victoria Bain, it's no longer just about having existing pieces tailored — she now also replicates her favorite shapes in new textiles.
“I recently found a local seamstress who can copy existing pieces, so I had my favorite dress and skirt recreated in a few different fabrics," she says. As for the rest of her wardrobe: “I've always had trousers tailored to fit the right shoe for the style of trouser; wide-leg trousers to work with sneakers, cigarette pants to crop right at the ankle for heels, and kick-flare jeans to hit at the most flattering point for boots,” she adds. “Recently, I've taken it a little further and had pieces altered at the waist to fit better. Some trousers can fit perfectly across the thigh and bottom but not so much at the waist — particularly with the high-waisted styles currently trending.”
Getting your clothes tailored isn’t just about fit, though. I used to go through so many clothes that my wardrobe was bursting at the seams, and pieces that had lost my interest lay discarded on my bedroom floor. With every seasonal trend landing in shops straight from the catwalks, we can try any aesthetic for very little financial cost. While it’s getting easier to shop consciously, thanks to the likes of H&M pledging to produce clothes with organic materials in the near future and Mango offering sustainable capsule collections, it’s still vital that we shop mindfully. When fashion’s carbon footprint is predicted to rise to 2,791 tons by 2030 and its water consumption to grow by half, isn’t less shopping and more investing the answer?
When you view your clothes as things that go the distance, you develop a relationship with them that I had long forgotten about. As a teen, I had a pair of shoes that I wore everywhere, from first dates to gigs, until the soles fell off. They were my prized possession, and I have memories attached to them. I can’t say the same for the countless fast-fashion dresses I’ve run through. Somewhere along the way, I lost a connection to the clothes I wear, perhaps because of the distance these stores creates between the maker and the buyer. When the underpaid workers that make our clothes are hidden from us via global shipping, we don’t consider their rights or their craft. One of the things I appreciate most when wearing my tailored dresses is the labor and love that went into them. I know the woman who sews my clothes, who turns them from sometimes shapeless or ill-fitting pieces into, well, mine.
Sewing is as old as time (Inuits in the Paleolithic era used caribou sinew as thread and needles made of bone to make garments), and is traditionally a female practice. For the majority of history, it was considered the only work fit for women (with very little pay), until the dandies of the early 19th century made fitted suits and sumptuous fabrics prestigious, after which men began to see tailoring as a reputable occupation. Enter Mayfair’s Savile Row. By 1846, Henry Poole, creator of the tuxedo jacket, had set up shop and the legacy of the street lives on today. In 2016, for the first time in its 213-year history, a female master tailor took her place among the already established with the opening of Kathryn Sargent's shop. “I wish people knew that bespoke tailoring is a traditional craft, and that every suit is the result of around 50-60 hours hand work,” Sargent tells me. “Bespoke garments are not throwaway clothes, but rather investment pieces. The training is hard, and the job involves an enormous amount of work.”
Sargent’s career path is a remarkable one, beginning with a trip to Paris: “I was always interested in fashion, in particular men wearing sharp suits, and wondered how to make them. As a teenager I remember going on a family holiday to Paris and noticed how differently the women dressed – their style and attention to detail inspired me to want to make things for stylish people.” From art school to fashion college, Sargeant worked at smaller tailors before becoming Gieves & Hawkes’ first female head cutter, after which she set up her own business.
Sargeant lives and breathes bespoke pieces, but why exactly does she believe people should have their clothes altered and tailored? “Because a badly fitting garment is a waste of your money,” she sayss. A tailored piece “should feel comfortable and look effortless. The art is giving the client a garment that not only makes them look good but makes them feel good, too. A good fit should deliver style and elegance but also confidence and comfort.” Her advice for your trip to a seamstress? “It’s important to know your body type by experimenting and trying on different styles, but also getting some advice from a tailor can be helpful if you are unsure. Pick out colors that work well with your skin tone and don’t make you look washed out.”
And that’s the beauty of having your pieces, whether vintage, fast-fashion, or designer, tailored. Someone who knows their craft inside out can offer guidance, introduce you to new shapes you haven’t worn before and, most importantly, make you feel like those pieces are made for you. Savile Row may be the epicenter of bespoke tailoring, but seamstresses and tailors make a living around the globe; just pop into your nearest dry cleaners, and it's more than likely they'll have an alterations service inside too.
The next time you fall in love with a piece of clothing, consider how investing in tailoring will make you cherish it for longer. Cast aside mindless shopping: the environment and your wardrobe will thank you for it.