photo by Bill Phelps
Once upon a time, most everyone had a tailor or a seamstress.
Prior to the 1800s, men and women lived in a handmade world where clothes were crafted according to a person’s unique morphology.
Before the 1840s every stitch of sewing had to be done by hand; Elias Howe didn’t even invent the sewing machine until 1846, and Isaac Singer’s version didn’t come about until 1850. Only the wealthy could afford clothing from a store keeper in the 1800s. Most everyone else relied on tailors, seamstresses and shoemakers for his or her clothes and shoes.
Today, if you make a list of every person you know who buys handcrafted garments, it’s likely almost all of the names on the list will be…men (not women).
Throughout time, a strata of men have clung to the preference for traditional tailoring, and tailoring houses have been around to accommodate the demand.
But the ‘seamstress profession’ women once relied on for handmade clothing, has become all but extinct; and so most women today believe that buying off-the-peg clothing and shoes is their only option (with the notable exception of haute couture for women of high means).
However, women are beginning to take notice of men who have chosen the tailored life and who are enamored with the (very) specific culture of tailoring and shoemaking. With the burgeoning fascination with tailoring expanding among the male and female spectrum, women are now asking: “Are handmade garments and shoes a possibility for me?”
EIGHT THINGS TO EXPECT AS A WOMAN WHO WEARS WELL-CRAFTED SUITS
What can a woman expect when she makes the decision to enter the world of tailored garments?
1. Pleasantly surprised looks and comments from others
Sarah Ann Murray, International Creative Director, quickly earned the status of “the queen of women in suits” after her debut at Pitti Uomo with The Rake in 2012. Here, Sarah wears a casual and formal version of the very versatile grey chalk-stripe suit.
Even after you’ve forgotten you’re wearing a well-crafted suit and a great pair of shoes, others will remind you, sometimes with pleasant comments. Most often heard feedback consists of “I like your style” and “you look great”.
It can feel odd at first when you start wearing well-crafted suits, coats trousers or skirts, but after a few months of doing so, the practice becomes natural and feels almost too easy—as you find a system to care for your crafted clothes (see 12 Commandments for Organizing Your Closet) and get business done in a stylish way…or just simply enjoy your clothing.
2. Being taken more seriously
Beautiful inside and out, Erica Strom (everyone’s favorite redhead), marches to the beat of her own drum. Pictured here in a more formal and then more casual take on the shirt and tie.
When suiting up, it catches the attention of others who generally will respond to you out of respect for the effort you’ve put into dressing well. You feel good, and the effect is contagious.
3. Being told “It’s better for women to wear dresses”
I’ve heard it all! Yours truly in a more formal look above, and expressing the ‘geek’ part of myself, below.
Eventually you’ll encounter a small sub-strata of men/women who’ll tell you with a whisper “it’s much more attractive for a woman to wear a dress than to wear a suit with trousers”.
Don’t worry, a suited woman creates her own brand of allure. Your goal isn’t to be attractive to people who have particular dress code preferences for women, but instead to feel confident and satisfied with your own style. Results: being swift-on-your-feet in business and knowing the pleasure of wearing beautifully crafted items.
4. Fantastic service
Bringing new blood into women’s suiting, Ashley Owens, Creative Director of Suited Magazine keeps with traditional style while interjecting her own twist of fashion; her dressed-up look above, and a more casual look below.
If you are suited, airlines tend to give you preferred service (especially if there are flight problems), hotels sometimes upgrade your room, and restaurants often seat you at one of the better tables. I’ve witnessed improved service across the board when taking care to dress well.
5. An overall performance boost
Women dandies do exist! Case-in-point Pia Antignani of L’Eleganza del Gusto, who always has something brilliant up her sleeve.
As you refine your style, you will feel less inhibited with an easy posture, fewer wardrobe malfunctions, and the ability to sprint down the street when you’re running late or are caught in a rainstorm—business is less humdrum and productivity seems to be a by-product of dressing well.
6. Broken-down gender barriers
You may find it easier to be assertive and forthright when you wear a good suit. Not explainable. You must try it to understand !
Lucia Serran, apprentice at Sastreria Serna, Madrid, and private designer–who’s fantastical visual designs are used for motifs for pocket squares, scarves, and high-level liners for suits.
7. Viewing clothing as an “art form”
Your clothing will be viewed as art itself, as you understand the talent and sheer time it takes to cut and tailor your suit or to handcraft your shoes and accessories.
Feisty Mary-Cait Bristow, a pattern-cutter and up-and-coming designer from London, showing how tailored clothes can be expressed as an artform
8. Longevity of your clothing
For the first time, your clothing may outlive you.
The timelessly tailored, kind-hearted Eleonora Sebastiani–a 1930s/40s-inspired clothing designer and international sensation whose closet is the envy of many-a-woman.
DESPERATELY SEEKING “TAILORING FOR WOMEN” INFO
Cate Blanchett, known to sometimes have her garments tailored by Timothy Everest, London
Limited information is to be found on tailoring for women (compared to the vast amount of sources for men), and we’re regularly asked to write on crafted-garments for women.
Tackling the subtleties of tailoring, perceptions of women-in-suits, and elements of what differentiates a good suit from a bad suit takes time to learn and absorb.
Then, there’s a realm of discussion on tailoring that can startle newcomers: i.e., the ‘character of the person’ wearing a suit is discussed and taken into consideration in this culture. To try to transmit this esoteric point to women, I take a passage from the musings of Emily Post:
From Emily Post (1873–1960). Etiquette. 1922:
“FAR more important than any mere dictum of etiquette is the fundamental code of honor, without strict observance of which no man, no matter how “polished,” can be considered a gentleman.
The honor of a gentleman demands the inviolability of his word, and the incorruptibility of his principles; he is the descendant of the knight, the crusader; he is the defender of the defenseless, and the champion of justice—or he is not a gentleman.”
“The instincts of a lady are much the same as those of a gentleman. She is equally punctilious about her debts, equally averse to pressing her advantage; especially if her adversary is helpless or poor[…] All thoroughbred women, and men, are considerate of others less fortunately placed, especially of those in their employ. One of the tests by which to distinguish between the woman of breeding and the woman merely of wealth, is to notice the way she speaks to dependents.
Queen Victoria’s duchesses, those great ladies of grand manner, were the very ones who, on entering the house of a close friend, said “How do you do, Hawkins?” to a butler; and to a sister duchess’s maid, “Good morning, Jenkins.” A Maryland lady, still living on the estate granted to her family three generations before the Revolution, is quite as polite to her friends’ servants as to her friends themselves.
When you see a woman in silks and sables and diamonds speak to a little errand girl or a footman or a scullery maid as though they were the dirt under her feet, you may be sure of one thing; she hasn’t come a very long way from the ground herself.”
Character is important in this business. Even tailors are more valued when their quality of work matches their personal integrity and their ability to keep their word. Clergy and the military clothing are tied to a code of behavior–but (to a lesser degree) the type of person who wears bespoke clothes also tends to be interested in improving himself internally as well as externally.
THE ANDROGYNOUS QUESTION
Jenna Lyons, Creative Director and President of J Crew, 2008 and 2010
There is one impression that I would like to correct–the belief that “a women in a suit is dressing like a man”.
This is for the most part, a false belief. How many women do you see wearing trousers on a daily basis? And how many women do you see wearing a jacket with their clothing? A quick glimpse of women in stunning suits dispels the theory that wearing a suit is synonymous with being masculine.
In France, a “Tailleur” describes a business jacket for a women which is paired with trousers or a skirt. In America, the same connotation applies to a “pantsuit”. It is less usual for a woman to wear a necktie and oxford shoes, but I find it to be dogmatic thinking to assume that a woman in a necktie is dressing like a man–especially considering females in neckties and oxford shoes is a practice adopted by prep schools around the world.
WHERE TO FIND WELL CRAFTED GARMENTS AND SHOES ?
Esther Quek, Director of Luxury Publications, The Rake & Revolution
To learn about garments which put many mass-marketed “pantsuits” to shame takes a willingness to learn (see the male version of Seven things to look for in a suit).
Before mass industrialization, women of means bought their clothes from a store keeper, hired-out custom sewing, or even arranged for a live-in seamstress to craft their clothing. Then, the 1900s saw clothing brands arrive in department stores as well as mail-order catalogs making it possible to deliver clothes at doorsteps.
All this “sudden convenience” was a game-changer for craftsmen as clients left in droves for ready-made products and seamstresses practically disappeared altogether.
Tailoring shops and shoe makers hung on by the skin of their teeth between the 1970s and 1990s— with many closing their doors for good as “hand crafting” seemed to be a relic of the past.
Yet, the 2000s would bear witness to a phenomenon which seemed like a miracle. Likely due to the internet, news about the joys of fine craftsmanship spread across the world—and tailors and shoemakers saw a rebirth of the demand for crafted garments and shoes in a growing niche market!
While it’s a relatively recent occurrence for many women to seriously consider a return to handmade clothing, only time will tell if the interest will stick.
Even if some women are full of enthusiasm for handmade garments, just as many women are at a loss of where to start. It’s taken me years to know where to find good handmade garments and shoes for women and believe me, I’m still looking.
Where can women find the most incredible bespoke, hand tailored/hand finished or made-to-measure garments and shoes in the world? I’m sorry to say that my list isn’t that long, but here are a few places I’ve found:
[If you’re looking for a good off-the-rack suit, in lieu of my recommending brands, review the article Seven Things to Look for in a Suit and refer to the list when buying a suit].
1. Sartoria Dalcuore (Naples) — Located in Naples, Italy, Gigi Dalcuore will not blink when a woman requests a bespoke suit. He cuts a great silhouette, natural shoulders, and crafts for surprising comfort. He is a master at creating whatever you can conjure in your imagination.
2. Cifonelli (Paris) — The crème de la crème of suiting directly from Paris. Expect a defined “la cigarette” shoulder and to command a strong presence when you walk into a room. Master cutters Lorenzo and Massimo will stun you with their finesse in crafting.
3. Edward Sexton (London) — Flair abounds with a Tommy Nutter 60’s vibe in suits cut by Edward Sexton. If you appreciate the look of Sexton’s unique silhouette, do not hesitate to swing by London to begin your fittings–as Edward probably has more experience than almost any other tailor in crafting for women.
4. Gianni Celeghin (Legnano, near Milan) — Probably one of the most overlooked tailors in the world, Maestro Celeghin is working in his 100% artisanal atelier with his wife and daughter and is creating exquisite garments for both men and women. A true hidden gem that every bespoke enthusiast should visit one day.
1. Marol (Bologna) — Great traditional shirtmaker with a fantastic fit. Bespoke and ready-to-wear.
2. Maison Siniscalchi (Milan) — The Milanese institution of bespoke shirts for both men and women.
3. Salvatore Piccolo (Naples) — Salvatore and his mother are crafting in the family atelier beautiful Neapolitan shirts.
4. Charvet (Paris) — The French institution of bespoke shirts for both men and women.
Shoes (oxfords, brogues, boots)
1. J.M. Weston (Limoges-France) — A gem of french shoemaking with beautiful women’s lasts for oxfords and brogues.
2. Carmina (Spain) — Hailing from the Spanish island of Majorca, the Albaladejo family is crafting exquisite and great value shoes for women.
3. Lottusse 1877 (Spain)–Also from Spain, these ready to wear shoes can cover the basics for most any taste, whether emulating a classic men’s style shoe or a classic feminine form.
4. Saint Crispin’s (Romania) — A well-known name for luxury handmade shoes for gentlemen–and now for ladies who want a made-to-measure experience.
Sarah Ann Murray: 1. Needleandstack.com 2.source unknown, Cifonelli suit
Eleonora Sebastiani: 1. eleonora-sebastiani pinterest 2. unknown
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