A Historical Look at Custom Fit
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CLOTHING THAT IS CUSTOM-MADE for a single individual is rare today due to the cost and the time it takes to manually measure, create patterns, and construct garments. The menswear tailor and couture fashion house are exclusive venues that offer high-quality, custom clothing to a select few. Even sewing at home has become a leisure activity and creative outlet instead of a way to provide clothing for the family. In fact, it has become more economical to buy ready-to-wear (mass-produced) clothing than to make your own.

Until the early 20th century, the majority of clothing was made one garment at a time for individuals. Women provided clothing for their families either by making it themselves or with the assistance of seamstresses. Men of the upper classes went to a tailor for individually fitted garments. Class distinctions were well defined by clothing as the garments made by professional seamstresses and tailors were fitted and styled differently from those made in the home. At the time, the process of going to a shop to buy pre-made garments was limited to sailors, who purchased roughly constructed garments called slops.

Technological developments, patternmaking insights, and mass production changed how clothing was constructed by the early 1900s. Tailors recognized similarities between the garments they made for individual clients, and began to think in terms of proportionally scaled patterns for people of different sizes, known as "graded" sets of clothing sizes. The invention of power looms lowered the cost of fabrics, while sewing machines and industrialization decreased the overall costs of making clothing.

The identification of various body types occurred as tailors developed an understanding of the variation of body proportions in the population. The torch-bearing figure in the center is labeled "The Perfect Man." (Image: 1890 lithograph, Library of Congress)

By the 1920s most clothing was available as ready-to-wear products sold through catalogs such as Montgomery Ward or in the nascent urban department stores. The modern age of apparel production had begun. Historian Claudia Kidwell describes this evolution from custom-made to ready-to-wear clothing as the "democratization of clothing." Class distinctions based on clothing abated somewhat as relatively inexpensive ready-to-wear clothing, which often fit better than home-made, became readily available for purchase.

Before the invention of tape measures, body dimensions were marked on strips of parchment. A tailor would have a parchment record of body dimensions for each client. (Images: parchment -- Description des Arts et Metiers, 1769; tailor -- Encyclopedie Methodique, 1789)

Modern ready-to-wear sizing systems have their origins in the various drafting systems developed in the 19th century. (Image: advertisement, early 20th century)