Anyone who has ever attempted to make a garment quickly understands that the most important element of the final product is how well a garment fits. Tailoring is the art of designing, fitting, fabricating, and finishing garments. The word “tailor”, which first appears in the Oxford Dictionary in 1297, comes from a French word—tailler—meaning “to cut”. The Latin word for tailor was sartor, meaning someone who patches or mends garments; the English word “sartorial”, for something related to tailored garments, is derived from this word.
The art of tailoring dates to the early Middle Ages. Some of the earliest tailors were linen armorers by trade, meaning they created custom, padded linen garments that were worn under chain mail to protect the wearer from the chafing associated with heavy armor. From this occupation, the earliest tailors guilds were born in Europe. Tailoring began to diversify in Western Europe, between the 12th and 14th centuries. Before this time, garments were generally made from a single piece of cloth and were created for the sole purpose of covering or concealing the body; individual style was of no particular interest to a garment’s maker or wearer.
During the Renaissance, the traditional loose robes worn by both sexes began to be shortened, gathered, tightened, and sewn together in shapes that somewhat resembled the actual human frame. Prior to this, clothing was not purchased; everything was made in the home, which meant that those who had more skill with needle and thread were well ahead of the game by the time that personal style began to emerge. Once people began to desire clothing in certain styles, for different body types, or in unique patterns, the demand for skilled tailors developed. The mere fact that tailors existed at all reveals that attitudes about clothing were changing. Clothes were now more than necessities; they were a way for people to express themselves, project their status, and show off what they considered to be their best features. In other words, the emergence of tailors is proof that fashion was developing as a concept.
By the 1100s, a tailor was considered a legitimate occupation. King Henry I gave royal privileges to Taylors of Oxford in 1100. The London Guild of Taylors and Linen Armorers were granted royal arms in 1299. In France, the Tailleurs de Robes received a royal charter in 1293 and in 1588 all French tailors (from linen armorers, to robe makers, to hose makers) were united under the single banner of Maitres Tailleurs d’Habits.
From its earliest days, the trade of tailoring was taught by apprenticeship, where a master tailor instructed an aspiring tailor via practical experience. Apprentices were trained in molding woolen cloth to the shape of an individual’s body. Once this process was mastered, the apprentice tailors could show their style and skill by adding aesthetic elements—creating styles and silhouettes that emphasized the wearer’s best qualities.
Most shops were owned and run by a master tailor, who was the face of the business and who cut out most garments. The way each master tailor cut out those garments created his signature style. As tailor shops grew, more fabric cutters were hired and trained in the style of the master tailor; these cutters fell below the master tailor in the staffing hierarchy. Beneath the cutters were journeyman tailors who were responsible for some of the less exacting parts of garment making—like adding padding, sewing linings, and pockets and (eventually, after a bit of training) adding sleeves and collars to garments. At the bottom of the hierarchy were the apprentices, who were responsible for keeping the shop clean and running errands; once those tasks were complete, they could take time from their day to learn the basics of sewing. Before the adoption of the sewing machine in tailor shops, some garments might require more than one tailor to a garment, at the same time. Many would sit side-by-side or facing one another with legs crossed. In French, the cross-legged way of sitting is still called “assis en tailleur”, or “sitting in tailor’s pose”.
Because of this apprentice-style of teaching, no written manuals for tailoring existed for hundreds of years after the occupation appeared. The first English-language manual is The Taylor’s Complete Guide, which was published in 1796. After that, several influential guidebooks followed, including Compaing and Devere’s Tailor’s Guide in 1855 and E.B. Giles’ influential History of the Art of Cutting in 1889. This manual was reprinted for decades and is a kind of time capsule into the evolution of 19th century techniques.
Today, the word “tailor” generally refers to someone who creates custom men’s clothing. Bespoke tailors are among the most respected people in the garment industry. Bespoke, meaning custom, are garments made-to-measure for one specific client. The word “bespoke” indicates that the garment is “spoken for” and not for sale to the public. England emerged as a hub for bespoke tailors and, since the turn of the 18th century, Bond Street, Saville Row, and St. James Street in London’s West End have been known as places to find elite, traditional tailors. Though even traditional tailors continually update their looks to fit modern styles, the oldest labels famously keep their signature elements, developed by the original master tailor. (For example, Huntsman—founded in 1849—still favors a one-button suit; Bernard Weatherill—founded in 1910—has a house style with a fuller chest, a tribute to its history as riding clothes outfitter to King George V.)
And although tailoring is now more closely associated with menswear than with women’s wear, top women’s designers were once trained in tailoring techniques, as well. Iconic fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who was known for his impeccable garment construction, began his career as a tailor’s apprentice on Saville Row. Modern garment construction, for both men and women, often cuts corners when it comes to more precise tailoring details, both for practical and financial reasons. That is the beauty of creating your own “bespoke” garment, tailored to your own body. We encourage you to become a modern-day tailor’s apprentice, using all materials available to you—including online tutorials on Craftsy, YouTube, Creativebug, or the books in our Studio Book Series—particularly Alabama Studio Sewing Patterns. Share your tailored details on social media using #TheSchoolOfMaking.