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What does "Bespoke" Mean?

By Robyn Clark
Updated May 21, 2024
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Bespoke is an adjective in British English that indicates that something has been custom made. It is derived from the verb bespeak, to speak for something. The use of this term in fashion originated among the tailors of London's Savile Row, where cloth for custom-made suits was said to be spoken for, or reserved for an exclusive client. In modern usage, it can refer to anything that has been customized or made to order.

Haute couture, for women's fashion, and bespoke menswear are the opposite of prêt-à-porter, or off-the-rack. There is also a distinction made between a custom creation and made-to-measure. A fully bespoke design means the entire pattern has been created from scratch for that one garment. Made-to-measure refers to tailoring an existing design to fit to the client's measurements.

A trade group of custom tailors, the Savile Row Bespoke Association, has drafted a code and an accompanying trademark to define the requirements that they consider necessary in order to call a tailored garment bespoke. Under their terms, the pattern for a the suit must be cut by hand, and the garment must be entirely hand stitched and hand finished on the tailor's premises. At least 50 hours of hand work is required to complete a two-piece suit. The code includes 21 specific details describing aspects of how the garment is to be made and finished, and has provisions for providing the client with services to care for the garment after purchase. Detailed record keeping and strict training standards are also required.

The British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has not adopted the Savile Row Code in defining what can be advertised as a bespoke garment. In 2008, the ASA issued a ruling that allowed made-to-measure garments to be labeled as bespoke. This ruling did not require the same strict labor standards. Clothing that has been personalized or mass customized is often loosely referred to as bespoke, a practice that has raised some objections in the fashion industry. Traditionalists have argued that the traditional standards should be protected by British law, in the same way that haute couture standards are protected under French law.

The exclusivity of completely custom menswear represents the high end of luxury fashion. Expensive fabrics, hours of labor, and the unique nature of the custom design are all reflected in the price tag. A true bespoke suit made according to traditional standards is, along with haute couture, among the most expensive garments that can be purchased. The devoted followers of handcrafted fashion consider a custom suit an investment, and bespoke tailoring has been described as wearable art.

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Discussion Comments
By stoneMason — On Aug 22, 2013

@ZipLine-- Yea, it's a very old and fairly high class word. I mean, how many of us can have custom made clothes from the Savile Row? Savile Row is a famous place in London. Celebrities like Jude Law dress from there. And I think this is one of the few places in the world that actually use this term.

Before industrialization, when all clothing was custom made, we would have heard this word more frequently. But we mostly dress off-the-rack nowadays. The only exceptions are special occasions like weddings and even then, many people wear ready made suits and dresses.

I kind of regret this. Ready-made clothes are cheaper but they don't fit well. I bought a bespoke men's suit for my brother's wedding and it was an excellent suit. I've never had anything fit me so well and look so good.

By ZipLine — On Aug 21, 2013

@ddljohn-- I learned this word for the first time recently too. I heard it in a interview of an Italian fashion designer on TV and had to look it up. I don't think many people use this term anymore.

By ddljohn — On Aug 20, 2013

I've seen this term used in old English poetry before, but I had no idea that it can refer to clothing, that's very interesting.

In literary works and poetry, it's usually used to say that someone addressed another or spoke on their behalf. But I guess it makes sense because custom-made clothes cannot be sold to someone else.

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