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Measuring Up

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

If clothes maketh the man, then the tailored suit is its ultimate expression. But it's not just the perfect measurements that are so pleasurable, argues Rhoyce Nova, but the fitting itself.

For the privileged young British boy, the rites of passage to manhood are complicated and rigorous, for he is expected to become not merely a man but a true English gentleman. From his first suit of breeches and bow tie to the full regalia of grey flannels and dinner suit, there are many milestones.

If it is the nanny who lays the groundwork for the making of the English gentleman, it is the tailor who finishes him off. In the reassuring surroundings of his wood-panelled rooms, young boys are fitted out for manhood and men are outfitted for life. It is the tailor who sends the young boy off to boarding school in his first tie and jacket and tends to the fit of his natty, striped rugby blazer and immaculate cricket whites.

For the Englishman, the tailor's rooms. are the couture equivalent of the gentlemen's club, and Savile Row its finest expression. Savile Row is the time-honoured seat of fine men's tailoring; the home of the bespoke suit. Such a suit is fundamentally different from its close cousin, the made-to-measure suit (which is simply altered to fit from an existing pattern), and a world apart from pret-a-porter designer wear. A bespoke suit is the stuff of legends. It is the province of sultans and kings; aristocrats and ambassadors; officers and gentle­men. The bespoke suit is the one cutting a dash on the back of 007, while the made-to· measure suit is more at home on the set of Are You Being Served?

Until very recently, the bespoke suit was considered a stuffy and cost-prohibitive anachronism. Now it lies at the heart of the most unlikely revolution in men's fashion, led by the most unlikely of sartorial heroes. Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, the former enfant terribles of women's couture, have made the bespoke suit a contemporary cause celebre and returned Savile Row to its previous status as a sartorial shrine. This is perhaps their greatest act of insurrection, for their revolution starts not with the creations they once sent sashaying down the catwalk but with the men themselves. For McQueen, it is not what he makes but how he makes it; for Galliano, it is not how he dresses others but what he wears himself.

McQueen was inducted into the fashion hall of fame via the dim and dusty back rooms of Savile Row where he worked as a tailor. Folklore has it that while tending to Prince Charles he so tired of royal pretensions and pedantries that he returned the Prince's jacket with the message "Charles is a cunt" lovingly sewn into the lining. John Galliano, when asked what labels he would be wearing next season, replied that he would be wearing the same Savile Row tailor-made suits he wore last season.

While McQueen's manga-like couture creations and Galliano's decadently sumptuous pieces are deemed the very antithesis of conservatism, their approach to fashion speaks of a return to the old-fashioned ideals of fine fabric and sublime cut. Their championing of old-world craftsmanship offers the ultimate alternative to the designer deluge of now. In these individualistic times, men are rediscovering, or discovering for the first time, the joys of the tailor-made garment.

It is said that once bitten by the bespoke bug, pret-a-porter becomes a thing of the past. A bespoke suit can take as long as eight weeks to make, require as many as six fittings, and employ the services of no fewer than nine craftsmen. It is a suit made especially to a man's specifications and vital statistics. A tailor's business is to accentuate a man's attributes and hide his flaws; he can make a man feel better than any lover or gym routine.

Savile Row tailors fancy they know more about a man than does his paramour. He knows which way he dresses - and we are not referring to his designer duds - and the exact dimensions of his 'male person', as they so delicately term it. For the tailor, the guarding of a man's vital statistics assumes the importance of doctor-patient confidentiality. The relationship between a man and his tailor, therefore, is one of intense intimacy. It is a world away from the attachment a man feels for his designer of choice, mediated as it is by international advertising campaigns and minimalist stainless steel shop fittings.

The pleasure of a bespoke suit lies as much in the process as the finished garment.

Acquiring a bespoke suit is an ego-stroking act. All that time; all that money; all those swift, skilled touches of the hand. Yet in these off-the-rack days, the modern man is barely accustomed to a hem hike let alone an inside leg measurement. A tailor's fitting room Is an intimate space where men touch other men in intimate places. Even your sophisticated designer-clad man about town is liable to react to the tailor's inquiring hands with something of a public toilet back-to-the-wall mentality. It is this close-quarters intimacy that explains the resolute masculinity with which most tailors' rooms are furnished. Muted wallpaper and handsome mahogany staircases provide the reassuring backdrop to displays of sturdy tweeds and well-hewn leather accoutrements.

Savile Row fancy themselves the holders and protectors of sartorial good taste. The fastidiousness of their craft and the quality of their fabric is designed to convey an elegance of understated style and fit that is the very mark of the gentleman. Their raiments can be found in the mankiest of locker rooms to the most genteel of gentlemen's clubs. They have dressed the dandy and fitted the fop. Their garments have graced such handsomely proportioned backs as JFK and Cary Grant and delineated elegant silhouettes from Fred Astaire to David Bowie.

It is this obsessive attention to the male form, this pedantic preoccupation with manly elegance, that has marked the tailor's rooms. Along with schoolboys' dorms and sporting locker rooms, they are among the last remaining male bastions. The figure of the tailor has had a hand in the creation of every male ideal in recent history: the carefully kitted-out schoolboy; the immaculately attired businessman; the dashing army officer; the virile rugger player; the peacock-plumed dandy.

Not lost on the likes of Oscar Wilde and Cecil Beaton, it has taken two more homosexual infidels, Galliano and McQueen, to bring to light the gloriously homoerotic intimacy and licence for vanity that the tailoring process allows. Ironically, in his jealous guarding of the portals of heterosexual masculinity, the tailor has become the missing link between the mark of the man and the ultimate gay male erotic object.

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