Culture Fashion

Just For You: the history and likely return of made-to-wear fashion

Here’s a fun flash of nostalgia for you:  you and your friends embark on an outfit hunting trip to the mall for your classic cycle of H&M-Zara-Mango-Primark, then again from the top. The one dress you like isn’t in your size, you hate the material of the jumpsuit your friends chose and the perfect top was ruined by the weird design you saw on its collar. Yes, the world has coronavirus now and we won’t be embarking on a trip like this any time soon, at least not this casually.

I’m not saying that the aimless shopping trip, where you don’t have a real delineated purpose, is no more – but rather, asking whether it’s worth it to go all the way to the store when you doubt the possibility of finding the very specific outfit or aesthetic that you want. Combine the sheer effort of wearing a mask for a doomed mall expedition with our newfound love for homebound DIY, and factor in the fact that many will not have the time to comb through online stores or sew their own skirts once we return to our hectic daily lives. The result, drum roll please, might be a rise in made-to-order fashion. 

Historically speaking, making outfits to measure has always been a staple in the fashion world. In the 1850s, the “father of haute couture”, Charles Frederick Worth, made small dressmakers into a “haute” or high-level industry when he started creating bespoke pieces for Parisian socialites.  Most 19th-century women of the upper-classes in Europe and across the world bought fabrics and materials of their choice before paying tailors or seamstresses to make clothes for them at home. These artisans were paid for their labour rather than their ideas or creative energy, and so dresses within a social class often looked alike. Worth started his dressmaking as a small sub-department in a Parisian store from which women purchased fabrics, but soon his work was noticed at court and orders came flooding in, first to him and then to other couturiers, whose designs started to become more distinctive. The commercialisation of fashion design had begun.

This set a precedent, even with the origination of ready-to-wear (mass production of clothing at mills and factories started in the mid-1800s with Howe’s invention of the sewing machine and would eventually overtake made-to-order fashion in the 20th century). In Europe it is often agreed that ready-to-wear only became truly fashionable in the 1960s after the death of Christian Dior, and the rise of the stylistes – a group of young ready-to-wear designers such as Brigitte Bardot, Michele Rosier and Chloe’s Gaby Aghion.

Consequently, in some sense, bespoke clothing was overtaken by the need for up-and-coming creative minds in the fashion industry to challenge the status quo. Pret-a-porter was widely made available  just as much as American companies like Sears who advertised beautiful clothes at cheap prices. This gave an access point to customers across geographical and socioeconomic boundaries by the short-lived boutique set up by Coco Chanel at Deauville during the First World War, or Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche store in 1966. These catalogue designs were often Hollywood-inspired, with new fashion magazines such as Women’s Wear Daily highlighting the US industry’s move away from taking fashion cues from Paris to individualised, seasonal, all-American styles. 

The so-called democratisation of fashion had begun with the manufacture of army uniforms for the First World War. Alongside the disruption this caused, wider economic evolution such as industrial capacity to manufacture clothing in bulk as well as improved transportation and delivery systems made mail-order fashion the practical choice. Cheaper materials and production processes via mechanisation furthered the ready-to-wear industry becoming affordable for people beyond the urban, higher-paying consumers of haute couture. Pret-a-porter was for the higher classes a style revolution and for others a newfound access to changing styles themselves, because, pre-mass manufacture, tailor made clothing had been too inaccessible for many to constantly update their wardrobes. Now, with the exception of the wealthy, there was  little reason for anyone to buy the kind of clothes showcased at runway shows run by the few houses who followed the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture’s guidelines for handmade, bespoke outfits.

Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that parallel structures of fashion creation and access that continue in South and Southeast Asia could be recreated in the West, where in the neighbourhood tailor is as much of a fixture as shopping malls full of international brands and homegrown couture houses.  With the pandemic, the issues that rendered the made-to-order method obsolete have either been resolved or essentially dwarfed by larger flaws in the industry. For instance, the comparative expense of the made-to-order garment. After an initial flurry of sales as the high-street gets rid of inventory, the cheap manufacturing relied on by these brands might be relocated away from the developing world. Materials will become less cost effective and as a result the price of ready-to-wear will also go up.

Bespoke clothing is the clear solution to reducing inventory space that proved so problematic during this crisis, and it will also allow smaller designers to move away from centralised brick-and-mortar units. They no longer need to build their own workshops, but could cooperate with specialist workers and heritage manufacturers to create capsule collections of limited pieces rather than committing to the consistent physical burdens, environmental impact and poorer quality of mass production. As to the problem of time, there is no doubt that lockdown has taught us patience and the value of quality over quantity. The change might be worth the wait, as it will minimise human contact, since methods that allow users to virtually view and customise clothes according to their body measurements – think of Cher’s closet in Clueless – are a future which could not work accurately with ready-to-wear sizing.  Online portals and systems by individual brands will coordinate all the stages of production, leaving consumers to modify a standardised base silhouette or constructing an existing design to measurement. 

Made-to-order would really just be made-to-measure, a concept not entirely applicable to the months-long investment of a haute couture ball gown. Instead this streamlined compromise between completely-from-scratch and existing-mass-fashion would allow for affordable pricing, the minimum effort of ready-to-wear and the added benefits of personalisation. Custom clothing no longer needs to be the strict purview of  high fashion houses. We’ve all sifted through online catalogues and thought about how we would be able to improve their designs. Now, your wine-drunk hobby could have a tangible manifestation as the fashion industry realises giving customers a say in the designing of their own outfits may be the best bet to survive a world-wide crisis.