BBC News


Page last updated at 14:50 GMT, Thursday, 19 June 2008 15:50 UK

What does 'bespoke' mean?

The Magazine answers...

Geoff Souster and Eric Morecambe
Mr Souster (left) believes bespoke means "made on the premises"

Savile Row tailors have lost their exclusive claim to the term "bespoke". So what does the word mean?

When menswear company Sartoriani described its suits as "bespoke", eyebrows raised among the tailoring community of Savile Row, who spend hours crafting garments by hand.

The Advertising Standards Agency has rejected a complaint that Sartoriani should not have used the word in a newspaper advert to describe their computerised made-to-measure suits costing 495.

The Collins dictionary's definition is:

bespoke adj, chiefly Brit (esp of clothing or a website, computer program, etc) made to the customer's specifications

Initially, bespoke had a slightly different meaning.

"It's a past participle of the verb 'to bespeak' which meant 'to exclaim or call out', then it changed to describe 'to discuss, decide upon' and lastly became 'discussed in advance', hence its use to describe tailor-made garments," says Cormac McKeown, of Collins dictionary.

Dictionary definition means made for the customer
Now commonly applied to IT software
Interestingly, its first mention by this definition was about a play. In A Narrative of the Life of Mrs Charlotte Charke (1755), there's a line "At length the bespoke play was to be enacted, which was The Beaux Stratagem; but such an audience I dare believe was never heard of before or since."

Since then it's been almost uniquely used to define the art of tailor-making, particularly of men's suits. Increasingly, there's been a creeping trend towards it being used for other items, such as cars and furniture.

These days it has become more commonly used to describe websites and other computer-based articles. "It is statistically more likely to be used with words like application, solution, software, and database. In terms of real examples of English usage, these words have a stronger relationship with bespoke than suit, shirt and shoe," says Mr McKeown.

The best way to describe bespoke is the cutting and fitting of a suit which is done on the premises
Tailor Geoff Souster
But the centuries-old relationship between bespoke and tailor-made suits is the most well-known and the one causing the current controversy.

Bespoke suits, which can cost up to 5,000, may be synonymous with Savile Row, but the legendary street in London's Mayfair is not the only place these are made.

'Halfway house'

Geoff Souster has had his own bespoke tailor business Souster & Hicks since 1978. He does some work from Savile Row but is primarily based in Woburn, Bedfordshire.

"The best way to describe bespoke is the cutting and fitting of a suit which is done on the premises. It's not just shopping, it's a whole experience."

A regular part of the BBC News Magazine, Who, What, Why? aims to answer some of the questions behind the headlines
It's a lengthy and intricate procedure. Following the first fitting, it is chalked out on brown paper and then on cloth, followed by basting cotton (which all comes undone) to be adjusted along the way.

"You build the suit through the fittings," says Mr Souster, whose own sons are following in his footsteps and learning the trade.

The 1970s saw the introduction of the ready-to-wear suit, before which everyone had theirs made.

This has been followed by the made-to-measure (or semi-bespoke) suits, which are machine-cut as by Sartoriani.

"Computerised cutting has given people a stepping stone into our world. These semi-bespoke suits are a halfway house," says Mr Souster.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific