Tailoring is a word we see frequently enough here in the Philippines. Some might have memories of it from when their parents took them to the local shop to get their first school uniforms made. Others might remember the thrill of having their wedding outfits designed and made up months before the ceremony. Still others may be using the services of such craftsmen on a consistent basis, because of their particular personal and professional clothing needs. Within any of these circumstances, and in countless others through multiple generations, our local concept of what tailoring is has been largely consistent: a system of craft-based services that can produce custom clothing to fit a client’s unique measurements.

That is a strikingly broad definition, however, which deserves an equally broad name to replace the word tailoring. Custom clothiers or custom outfitters can be used as appropriate labels for that definition. But not the word tailoring, which has a deeper history and tradition than we first assume.

That tradition is British in nature. Tailors played an often unseen – but assuredly present and important – role in the history of that nation. They were the outfitters to royalty and the military, both clients who required precise and neat work done on their clothing. Nobles, of course, wanted such attention to detail on their work because they aimed to look their best while engaging in the myriad political games of the court. Meanwhile, military men needed functional and presentable uniforms that conveyed a sense of discipline and capability. Aspiring tailors had to spend many years perfecting their craft in order to be worthy of servicing these two most demanding of client bases. Naturally, the standards of tailoring became one body of knowledge and formed the foundations of what is known today as bespoke tailoring, or bespoke for short.

Bespoke is another word we may have seen frequently, while combing through the many custom outfitters to choose from here in our country. To their credit, Filipino craftsmen have always been resourceful when it comes to naming their brands. They are aware of their competition in the market, and seek ways to stand out from the rest beginning with their name. This is why custom outfitters here in the Philippines attach words such as couture or bespoke to their brand names. It makes them sound like a big deal.

Bespoke, however, is in the same situation as tailoring. Both of those words, though misused often, refer to a specific standard of clothing craftsmanship that goes beyond simple measurements. From its origins in royal and military outfitting, bespoke tailoring came to be known for a select list of defining characteristics:

  • three-dimensional body measurement translated into a unique pattern for each customer
  • garment construction that follows every minuscule detail of the customer’s pattern
  • a greater emphasis on constructing garments by hand as opposed to through machines
  • proper construction of internal structural support for garments (e.g. canvas inside a blazer’s chest and lapel)
  • a long-term business relationship between tailor and customer, sometimes even transcending generations

It’s easy to see where so-called tailoring in the Philippines fits in that list. It doesn’t, at least not in any complete sense. Filipino clothing craftsmen create patterns based on each client’s measurements, but they only take the basic ones like waist circumference or shoulder-to-shoulder width. Bespoke goes beyond that and measures the vertical curve of the waist where the back meets the seat, or how lower one shoulder sits than the other. That is what enables genuine bespoke tailoring to create garments that truly belong to only one person, because no two people, not even twins, have the exact same body quirks.

Filipino clothing craftsmanship practically ignores the rest of the above list. The use of sewing machines dominates nearly every stage of garment construction. Jacket and blazer lapels and chests contain less expensive adhesive fusing instead of naturally-attached canvas, which prevents the jacket from taking proper shape. And most people who get clothes custom-made here in the country consider it a one-and-done deal, and often the feeling is mutual for the craftsman who just wants to be able to fulfill orders and get paid for the work. What we consider tailoring here in the Philippines is obsessed with economy of time and resources, has little consideration for the quirks of different people’s bodies, and is very impersonal and difficult to savor as an enjoyable experience. It is all of those things, but it is NOT genuine bespoke.

Note that I am not saying that the services of Filipino custom outfitters are inadequate. I, too, make use of their services from time to time, and I respect that they have taken the basics of the craft and leveraged them into honest jobs. I will not, however, claim that they have demonstrated excellence in their craft to be considered bespoke tailors in the original and genuine sense of the word. There is much room for them to grow, even though economic factors are holding them back. That, too is a discussion for another time. My point remains: Filipino custom outfitters are adequately skilled in making ordinary garments that are a notch above RTW, but not to the point that they can be considered true bespoke tailors.

So if our country’s craftsmen are not bespoke tailors, what are they? I will attempt to answer that question in the second part of this post, next week.