12 May

This afternoon I accompanied my gentleman companion to a men’s clothier to buy some shirts. Retail clothes shopping for men is an entirely different proposition than for women.  Observing the process was an eye-opener for me.

The salesmen, for starters, all carry measuring tapes about their necks. “Here, let me measure you first,” they offered each man, to make sure the selection he had made would fit him before he even approached the dressing room. In this world, it was clear, numbers matter. This clothing follows the numbers.

The first measurement they took was the neck circumference. “We can tailor the body of the shirt to fit,” one salesman said, “But if the neck doesn’t fit, there’s little you can do about it.”

Then they measure  the arm: from center spine at the base of the neck, to the point of the shoulder, to the elbow, and down to the break of the wrist, for the full arm measurement. And then, armed with these two  numbers, a man can then approach the selection of shirts with a focused search, knowing exactly what section is built for his body.

I also learned about the variations in the slight line of the shirt collars, to distinguish styles: a spread collar, to balance a long, lean face–a moderate spread, or a pointed line to balance a wider face. The shirts, to me, all look identical in shape to begin with, but once you tune in to these subtle differences, a whole new world of style opens up–subtle lines and angles to distinguish and complement the angles of the face and body.

And I watched the way men try on clothes, for fit. “Come sit down over here,” one salesman gestured to a bench, so that he could inspect the way his client’s pants lifted when the leg bent to sit.

They also offer an on-site tailoring service. If you’re  slim and the shirt you like doesn’t come in slim fit, any of the choices with the right neck size and arm length can be tailored, right there, for $15. (I asked. I also asked if they did women’s garments. “We do,” said the salesmen reluctantly, “But we don’t really like to.”)

And then, to another client, I heard a salesman say about some small tweak, “Let me take it in the back to our tailor, and we’ll have it out at the register in a few minutes, if you can wait.”

I admit, I was jealous. Imagine, for one moment, a similar setup for women’s clothing. Salespeople armed with tape measures, and a directed, two-point measurement scale that helps you find the size that’s best for your body. Hanging a garment from one’s neck and shoulders, and tailoring the rest to fit once the top is properly in place. A standardized sizing system, with everything sorted appropriately. And most of all, a dressing room etiquette that’s focused on finding the garment that fits properly, that skims your body in all the right places and hangs to all the right levels without wrinkling, and with that on-staff tailor who will take in the extra fabric and lift the hemline, in some cases before you even pay for your purchase.

Instead we are left to struggle with armloads of choices with few returns. Salespeople in women’s stores will bring you another size, from the other side of the door, but when you step out in front of the three-way mirror they would never helpfully point out the way it wrinkles wrong in the back, and bring out the tailor to adjust it. If the rise is too low or the shoulders too sloped, there’s no size just one inch up or down to reach for, no subtle variation on the same style–instead you’re left to wander the sales floor, alone, to find some other thing that might do as a replacement, some style that might draw the eye differently or where the fabric disguises the way the garment doesn’t quite fit.

If there’s one thing this project has shown me, it’s that years of buying clothing off-the-rack has left me without a scale for proper fit, and that even making my own clothing, I’m often shooting in the dark. Left without a clear set of standards–where and how  to measure length, circumference, rise and inseam, even though I try to tailor my own garments, I end up with lopsided results.

Today, I wish I had my own in-house tailor, at $15 an item.

5 Responses to “Tailoring”

  1. ataylorsews May 14, 2012 at 6:17 pm #

    You wrote, “Imagine, for one moment, a similar setup for women’s clothing. Salespeople armed with tape measures, and a directed, two-point measurement scale that helps you find the size that’s best for your body.” I am drooling at the thought. But our bodies are so different and more complex than men’s. If I know everything there was to know about tailoring and sewing, I’d give it a go to figure out how to do this. I’d love to build the business model and make every woman look as good as she wants to be in the clothes she likes. And watch men drool! Sigh.

    • handmadejulie May 15, 2012 at 10:03 pm #

      Do you think they are really more complex than men’s? I watched so many different men trying things on, I suspect it’s more the fashion than the bodies. Men come in all the same variations women do: chubby, short, long-waisted and stoop-shouldered, etc…but the clothing is simplified: pants, shirt, jacket, and sometimes a vest, with some pretty standard shapes.
      That’s my theory, anyway…it’s the clothes, not the bodies.

      • ataylorsews May 16, 2012 at 9:10 am #

        Julie, it’s funny but I thought about that during the day yesterday and have to agree with you. I kept thinking why would they tell you they CAN alter women’s clothes but don’t want to? What is it about women’s clothes that would make them say that? And I realized it’s the clothes. Our outfits are way more complex than shirts and pants. I want to have a sewing business and it’s been suggested to me — by a very well-to-do man — that I should make men’s clothes. Men are more used to custom made clothes and paying thousands for suits. Even though I should be thinking about the business end of it, that wouldn’t be any fun to me. I love to sew and want to make beautiful things. That’s another factor that favors “it’s the clothes.” 🙂 You’re right.

        • handmadejulie May 16, 2012 at 6:05 pm #

          I think I would pay more for clothes if it fit right/was tailored to my body, and if I knew it wasn’t going to be hopelessly out of style in a season or two. But since trends do swing so wildly for women (compared to men) it’s just not worth the investment. Hmmmm, now I have to think about ways to work *this* realization into my personal style, as well.

      • invisibleninjacat May 16, 2012 at 2:04 pm #

        Quite so – although I have to say I’m drooling over the idea of fitted women’s clothing myself. I worked in the costume shop for my high school theatre, and the suits have been essentially the same since the 1800s. The only thing that’s really different to the general observer for a suit jacket is the frock coat of the late 1800s and early 1900s, which is basically a regular suit jacket, but more fitted and longer in the back. Otherwise, the only adjustments have been the width of the lapel, where the button falls, and how many buttons there are. A man could theoretically wear a suit today from 1900 and look just a little off.

        Whereas women’s clothing… the hemline alone jumps violently up and down annually, let alone by the decade. Costuming for men is easier.

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