For men who want to upgrade their style and get the best benefits of a menswear item, going bespoke is probably the top choice. So, in this third and final part of our men’s dress shirt series, we discuss what a bespoke (or “custom”) shirt is, and summarize what makes the best shirt for each type of customer.
Men’s Dress Shirts Series
Part 3: Bespoke Shirts vs MTM & OTR
Bespoke & What It Means in Men’s Shirts
The term bespoke essentially means that an item has been bespoken for, and it is created for you from scratch with an individual pattern, and there are no limitations as to what the individual parts look like.
When it comes to men’s dress shirts, going bespoke could be customizing the collar or the stitching or the cuffs or anything else for that matter. In comparison to made-to-measure, with bespoke shirts, you do not have to choose from pre-existing color styles or cuff styles, but you can just come up with your own.
Pros of Bespoke Shirts – #1: The Shirt Will Likely Fit to Your Exact, Unique Measurements
The big pro of a truly bespoke shirt, sometimes also referred to as a custom shirt, is that you get a superb fit. Typically, it all starts with your measurements being taken by the tailor or shirt maker who will actually make your shirt.
With their years of experience, they’ll observe you, they’ll look at certain imperfections in your body. Is one shoulder lower? They measure not just one arm but both to make sure that they get the length exactly right. They look at your armhole; is one lower than the other? They look at your hips, and they just understand what your body type is, and they talk to you while they take the measurements and understand what type of person you are when you wear the dress shirt, and what you need from your shirts.
As a consequence, you’ll end up with a shirt that will much likely fit you better than anything you can find off the rack or from made-to-measure.
Don’t expect that your first shirt will fit a hundred percent because, even though you do fittings, there are always some imperfections that you see in the final shirt that you can then change in the pattern for the second, third, and subsequent shirts.
You may wonder: how much better can a fit of a bespoke dress shirt be if I already take the measurements of my made-to-measure shirt? Well, your body has certain curvatures and angles. For example, my right shoulder is more sloped than my left one. It also means my right armpit sits lower than my left one. So, even with a made-to-measure shirt, with my measurements, I’m more likely to get wrinkles right underneath my armpit and also in the back for my shoulder blade on my right side, but not so much on my left.
Because, typically, a ready-to-wear pattern or a made-to-measure one that’s modified is still symmetrical, and it’s harder for most companies to adjust a pattern on one side but not on the other. A bespoke shirtmaker, on the other hand, can certainly accommodate all those little nuances that computerized made-to-measure programs can’t.
Also, a shirtmaker typically just makes shirts and has perfected that craft. Whereas the made-to-measure company that comes more from the supply general logistics background tries to offer a wide range of things, and, likely, they don’t have quite the same expertise.
Typically, a bespoke shirtmaker also makes a trial shirt for you out of a less expensive fabric in order to make sure they get the fit just right without wasting the expensive fabric. For you as a customer, it provides you the opportunity to see what the shirt looks like, to feel where it’s maybe a little too tight, and to provide input on stylistic details, or changes that you would like, or ideas that you have.
That is not something you get during the made-to-measure process because it’s only, “Here’s my shirt fabric. Here’s my collar. Here are my measurements. And here’s my finished shirt.” There’s nothing in between.
Also, a bespoke shirt will allow you to fine-tune the fit of your shirt in combination with your jacket. Because, for example, if you have a shirt with a larger armhole than your jacket, it will pull up your sleeve. But, even if you have shirts with a very small armhole, and it won’t be a problem with your jackets, the jacket sleeve can have slightly different lengths.
So, let’s say you create a double cuff that is longer, and you have six or maybe even eight buttonholes added, you can adjust the length of that shirt to every jacket so it’s just right.
Pro #2: Nearly Limitless Design Options
The other big pro of the bespoke process is that the sky is the limit and pretty much any design element or fabric should be able to be made into a bespoke dress shirt. Most bespoke shirtmakers will have a few fabrics that you can choose from in their studio, but they also have tons of samples and they can get pretty much any cut length from any weaver and just make a shirt for you from that.
Also, once they’ve created the pattern, and maybe you choose a very thick fabric, or even maybe very thin fabric, they can slightly adjust that pattern when they cut the fabric to make sure that it feels the same in terms of fit when you wear it.
You can also communicate your expectations of what you want. And don’t worry if the shirtmaker feels like they’re unable to accommodate that. They will likely let you know.
Also, understand that there are different shirt makers with different strengths, and they may have their own house style. So, a German or English bespoke shirtmaker probably uses a machine more often, and the lines are cleaner.
A Neapolitan shirtmaker will have maybe a kind of waterfall shoulder with slight handwork in it, and it’s just a different interpretation. So, asking the German shirtmaker to make you a Neapolitan shirt and vice versa will just not result in a perfect final product.
On that note, if you want a fully hand-sewn shirt, check out the brand 100Hands, which is Dutch, but the shirts are actually made in India.
Hand-sewn vs. Machine-sewn
At this point, the big question is: Is hand sewing a shirt better than machine sewing? In my opinion, not necessarily. But, it is certainly more expensive because it takes more labor to create a shirt that way.
Generally, a hand stitch is always more flexible. It’s also a little more irregular and not as fine as a machine stitch. In my experience, a hand stitch on a dress shirt does not outlast a machine stitch that is of high quality.
Moreover, you also have to take into consideration the different occasions. For example, an evening dress shirt or a dress shirt for a business suit, I think, looks better with a neatly machine-stitched thread versus a more casual shirt that I would wear with a sport coat in a Neapolitan style. That can just look better with more of a hand stitch.
At the end of the day, a man’s dress shirt a bit like an expensive timepiece. A Casio wristwatch will likely show you a time more accurately than a Patek Philippe Calatrava, which costs tons more money. But, people appreciate the level of craftsmanship and workmanship that goes into that timepiece, and it’s the same with a shirt that is fully made-by-hand. It’s just craftsmanship that’s really admirable.
Even though you should keep their house style in mind, ultimately, you can decide what the shirt should look like, and you can ascertain how comfortable they are or are they even capable of doing what you want.
We suggest you do your research and talk to a few bespoke shirtmakers before you settle on one to work with. Why? Well, there’s often an upfront conversation as a consultation. The process of communicating with the craftsman or the craftsperson is really important and, in my opinion, a very enjoyable part of the bespoke process.
Pro #3: You Can Develop a Working Relationship with the Shirtmaker
Another benefit of the bespoke shirt process is you develop a relationship with the shirtmaker, with a person. They get to know you, they know exactly what you’re looking for and what they can do, and it’s just a fun experience.
Choosing to work with a craftsman is really about more than just a shirt. You deal with a personality and, maybe, your personality may clash with a craftsman. In that case, I advise you not to work with them because even if they’re the best at what they do, if you can’t get along with them, it will probably be a disaster project.
Also, some customers want to be more involved in a project versus others who hire the shirtmaker to get their expertise and let them make most of the decisions. If you work with a craftsman who likes to work that way but you really want to talk about every single detail, maybe that’s frustrating for them, and it will lead to a bespoke shirt that is not as good as it could be.
I also think it’s a great advantage to have a craftsman there that has nothing but that one item and he can advise you on certain things that he learned over the years, or maybe impractical or something to consider.
Of course, keep in mind that a craftsman is not always the best stylist, and, sometimes, they don’t know a whole lot about clothes history, and maybe influenced by fashion – more like a made-to-measure company.
That being said because a shirtmaker who does bespoke dress shirts focuses on their craft, they’re typically rather proud of what they do and they try to learn more and more about what they’re doing and how it fits into the classic realm of things.
However, I wouldn’t blindly trust my tailor or shirtmaker to always give me stylistic advice because it may backfire. After all, the shirtmaker just knows about shirts there are no experts on shoes and how it relates to a dress code for the event you want to go to.
Cons of Bespoke Shirts – #1: Higher Upfront Cost than Other Options
Typically, bespoke shirts don’t start below $250 to $300, especially not in the first world. And sometimes, it can go all the way up to a thousand dollars or more depending on the fabric you choose and the renommée of the shirtmaker you work with.
Of course, there are always outliers, and you may find a bespoke shirtmaker in Hong Kong who drafts their own pattern, and they offer it at a lower price. Or you can find a made-to-measure shirt maker from a very expensive brand that charges you more for a made-to-measure shirt than a bespoke shirt would cost.
That being said, a bespoke shirtmaker in a first-world country will generally work with the highest quality materials because the largest chunk of the shirt will likely be his labor cost and what they put into it. So, it would just be silly to work with inferior or not top-grade materials.
Also, the whole pattern-making, getting the fit right takes time. And, because of that, shirt makers will often ask you to buy at least three or five shirts. So, it’s worth their while to build a relationship with a client, draft a pattern, do the measurements, do the fittings, and just get the final product out the door.
I mean, just think about it. Whether you make just one shirt or five shirts, the only time difference is the actual sewing of the shirt. Everything else is about the same time, especially since, as you progress, the third shirt will likely use fewer fittings or no fittings at all anymore.
While someone could argue that choosing bespoke shirts is a great way to start a classic gentleman’s wardrobe, it’s also a very expensive one, and it will take time.
Once you’ve undergone the entire process and your body hasn’t changed in weight or posture, you could likely just call up your shirtmaker and say, “Hey! I want this shirt with all the same details in that fabric,” and the reorder process is rather easy. Probably because of that, many people stick with a bespoke shirtmaker or even shoemaker because they already have that established relationship, and they kind of know what they’re gonna get.
In my experience, unless you have tons of money and you don’t care about it and you want the absolute best, starting out from the get-go with a bespoke shirt is probably not the wisest idea. If you go with maybe made-to-measure or off-the-rack first, figure out what you like and dislike. Then, when you’re ready, move on to bespoke, I think you’ll be happier and waste less money.
Con #2: The Trap of Over-Customization
When you’re really into clothes, like me, a bespoke project can be very tempting in the sense of customizing every single little detail that you can. And it’s very easy to get into that scope creep mode where you want to customize more and more things just because it’s unique and individual.
That can lead to extravagant details or choices that actually limit you in the way you can wear them. For example, you go with a particularly tall collar or a certain curvature. But, it may be too extreme and, because you don’t have the experience and you don’t know exactly what it will look like, it may just be off at the end of the project and you may just not end up wearing that shirt very often.
Also, think about it. If you get a pale green shirt with a Winchester white club collar, there are only so many occasions and other garments you can wear that with. If you picked it as your first shirt, it’s kind of a waste of money if you don’t have the basics in your wardrobe already. On the flip side, since green shirts are hard to come by off-the-rack or made-to-measure, maybe it’s a good option to choose that bespoke and get the other ones non-bespoke.
Sometimes, I also find people who actually have a hard time deciding if the sky is a limit, and they actually benefit from having a limited choice or range of things. Typically, a bespoke shirtmaker can help you and they can give you certain options. And then, you can deviate from them if you feel particularly strong in certain situations.
When you’re new to the bespoke process in general or to the bespoke shirt process in particular, you may have certain ideas and when you’re at the shirtmaker you may forget something.
So, it may help to just create a list of things that you want on your shirt. You can also maybe go to Instagram or Pinterest and just pin certain pictures or details that you like in shirts, that you can then reference and show to the craftsmen because that way they can understand and get a feeling of what you’re after and whether that’s something they can deliver or if someone else may be a better fit for you as you.
Con #3: The Process Can Be Time-Consuming
As you can see, another con of the bespoke process is that it’s time-consuming. Not only do you need to think exactly about what you want, but you also have to go and find this shirtmaker. You have to develop a relationship. You probably have a consultation. Then, you have measurements. Then, you have fittings and trial shirts, so it all adds up.
In my experience, most people who order bespoke dress shirts value their time very highly, and if they would say, maybe, that one hour it costs them $300, their time that they invest into that garment is actually more expensive than what they pay to the craftsman.
So, it’s just something to keep in mind when you order that good because maybe you find this really inexpensive shirtmaker in Italy that just charges $150 for the shirt. But now, you have to travel there. So, you have airfare and all your time. Now, it may quickly be a $3,000 shirt. Just something to think about.
Also, because you’re not the only client and there are so many steps involved and depending on if they’re local in your city or if they’re abroad, a bespoke shirt can take anywhere from three weeks maybe even two weeks if they’re not very busy to months or even a year. Why? While your shirt maker gets sick, the shirt just won’t get done. It’s as simple as that.
Likewise, the fittings depend on your availability and their ability. So, if you can’t make it, it just pushes the whole process further down the line.
Our Final Recap of Men’s Dress Shirt Types
Go with an off-the-rack shirt if you’re short on time and you want your biggest bang for the buck. Go with off-the-rack if you find something that suits your taste levels or a brand that creates something that accommodates your sleeve length and your collar size and your body size at a minimum. Go with off-the-rack if you quickly want to build your foundational wardrobe of dress shirts and you’re not quite sure yet what the future will hold for you.
Go with made-to-measure shirts if you want to take a step up, if you want to choose your fabrics and combine them with the specific color choices and cuff choices that you want, and if you have maybe slightly longer arms or something that makes it hard to get the fit you desire from off-the-rack shirts.
It’s also the option for people who are willing to spend a little more to get a better result and don’t mind waiting for the garment or maybe even risking having to redo it over and over again if it’s not right the first or the second time around.
Go bespoke if you really appreciate the craftsmanship and you want the complete personalized experience of the traditional way of making a dress shirt from start to finish in exactly the way you want it. Go with a bespoke shirt if you look for an outstanding fit and range of movement and elegance.
Also, go bespoke if you have any major body asymmetries, if you value high-quality stuff and craftsmanship, or if you want something special like a detachable collar or detachable cuffs for example. Of course, only do so if you have the budget and you’re okay with a time frame and a time investment it requires to produce such a high-end product.