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Tailored Thoughts On: Women’s Suiting

In the first part of a new column, Huntsman cutter Matthew Gonzalez considers the place of women’s tailoring in a progressive society

A few years ago, a debate about whether pockets were a symbol of sexism entered mainstream discourse. Why is it that most men’s clothing has them and women’s doesn’t? As a Savile Row tailor, I was recently asked another question which was not as perplexing but equally relevant. Why aren’t there many bespoke tailors for women? This question forces us to look at how perceptions of men’s and women’s attire can in some ways be a barrier to gender equality.

I’ll admit, in the march for equality, especially in the age of the #metoo movement and campaigns for equal pay for equal work, it may sound trivial to argue that clothing is one of the stepping stones towards a brighter future. However, what we wear plays a huge role in how we are perceived; and women’s clothes tend to be judged much more harshly than men’s, especially in the office. A friend once shared with me that she was told in her workplace that she dressed too casually, too formally, too flirtatiously and too conservatively.

This is a problem that men rarely face. The fact is, all men working in a white collar office job have benefitted from the existence of bespoke tailors. It was in large part the tailors of Savile Row who helped shape what business men wore during the industrial revolution, and their influence has not waned. Men dressing for work each day are guided by a centuries old rule book that doesn’t exist to the same extent for women.

In the absence of a rule book or women’s bespoke tailors, their relatively recent addition to the office workforce has resulted in women being expected to improvise their own rules of dress, even while facing harsh criticism if they “get it wrong” in the eyes of their peers. Perceptions and expectations of women’s clothing have changed dramatically over the past 50 years making their improvisation all the more difficult. Mad Men’s Joan Halloway is a perfect example of the objectification of the 1960s woman in the workplace.

Whilst the film Working Girl (1988) illustrates how the women of the 1980s were beginning to be taken seriously in the office, designers still felt compelled to mimic the strong shoulder line and ‘masculine’ silhouettes of their male colleagues. Hindsight tells us that by dressing to look like the men, the women of the 1980s were inadvertently reinforcing the outlandish stereotype that femininity was somehow inferior to masculinity.

This is where bespoke tailors can be pivotal to the cultural divide. Tailors are trained artisans who create clothing that evokes power and authority for our clients. It really has nothing to do with masculinity or femininity. It’s about wearing clothing that makes you stand out sartorially without anyone being able to know why. It imbues you with a confidence that, regardless of whatever room you might walk into or person you might meet, leaves you perfectly dressed for the occasion.

Bespoke suits represent more than the social rules of dress forged over the years. Beyond this is the experience and social meaning of having a bespoke suit commissioned. Once I was fitting a client for his first bespoke suit and his mobile phone rang. Before I could excuse myself, the gentleman answered it quickly and said “Can I call you back, I am just at my tailors.” The client hung up, turned to me with a beaming smile and said “I’ve always wanted to say that.”

In businesses across the world, more and more women are being promoted to leadership positions, yet these women at the top tend to wear the same clothing as their employees. Yes, that may sound a bit classist, but the fact is men have been going to tailors for centuries and at every tailor shop I’ve worked at, there has been this social interaction that women are not a part of.

The act of buying a bespoke suit opens the door to a social club that high achieving men of means have always had the opportunity to walk through. I am lucky to be a pattern cutter at one of the few bespoke tailors in London that has a long history of dressing women but it is high time that more women are given the same opportunity. MG

Words by Matthew Gonzalez
Image Credits by Dick Carrol