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While They Don't Come Cheap, Custom-Fit Shirts Can Be a Bargain
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Pierce Brosnan, Nov/Dec 97

Where now is the counterpart of Berry Wall, who once changed his attire at Saratoga Springs 40 times in a day to become known as the 'King of the Dudes,' or of Boston's Mrs. Jack Gardner, who paid Paderewski $3,000 to play at tea time for an elderly friend and herself on condition that the pianist remain concealed behind a screen?" asks Lucius Beebe in his witty chronicle of American wealth between the end of the Civil War and the First World War, The Big Spenders. * I can't tell you where the likes of Mrs. Gardner are, but today's counterparts of the sartorially resplendent Evander Berry Wall can be found at several venues in New York City.

The other day, to give you an instance, I asked Atam Sahmanian of Paris Custom Shirtmakers Inc., about his more prominent customers. "Well, we do have a number of prestigious customers--names I wouldn't want to mention, of course," he diplomatically mused, "but I can tell you that we have a customer who buys 400 shirts every year. I believe he changes his shirt three or four times a day."

Not up to Wall's standards perhaps--he regularly changed his outfit completely six times a day--but not bad. Since Paris charges from $165 to $300 for a shirt, I'll leave you to figure out the sum totals.

The majority of custom-clothing customers are, however, simply men who want a decent wardrobe of well-fitting clothes. They are also men who understand that quality is the best bargain. Quality clothing looks good even when old, while cheap clothes look cheap even when new. A good shirt, properly cared for, can have a life 10 times longer than an ordinary one. Superior shirtmakers still offer hand-laundry service and craftsmanship repairs, and change frayed collars and cuffs for new ones. And a well-fitted shirt is simply more comfortable.

There are several points to consider when buying a good shirt. Start with fabric. Superior cotton, regardless of the type of weave, should always be "two-ply" (2X2), meaning that two yarns have been woven together with two yarns, rather than single yarn. This obviously gives better strength and durability. Now look at thread count (per square inch) of the fabric, called in the trade "denier." The denier of good shirting is 100 or better; the higher the count, the finer the fabric. If the poplin you're looking at is a 140s 2X2, for example, you've got some very nice shirting there. The finer the cotton, the silkier the feel and luster.

Next, consider the pattern. Custom craftsmanship means that an individual paper pattern is created for the exclusive use of the individual customer. This pattern is kept on file against future orders, which means that customers can order new shirts without revisiting the shop, and many do in fact simply phone or fax orders.

The next concern is general construction. Shirt seams have always been done on a sewing machine, and handwork is reserved for setting collars and buttonholes. (Today, in fact, there are machines that arguably sew a buttonhole as well as by hand, so it's not a question of machinery being used--but of how it's used.) Careful seam sewing is single-needle sewing--meaning up one side of the seam and down the other with the same needle--to prevent puckering. Stitches should be small and uniform; better shirtmakers use 20 stitches to the inch or better.

Buttons should be pearl; mother-of-pearl, shell pearl or whatever else they're called, pearl is what is wanted. Not only for the rich look of pearl, but for its toughness. The world here is divided between those who like single (regular) thickness in their buttons and those who prefer double thickness. It is more a matter of taste than anything, although some argue that it is harder for laundries to break the thicker button. The solution is not to change buttons, but laundries.

When it comes to measurements, every shirtmaker will have his own method, but there are a number of crucial numbers. Collars have fronts and backs--since the nape and throat of the neck present different problems--and each must be considered in terms of height, for the sake of comfort and appearance, as well as simple preference. Then the circumference: it's not that this is a difficult measurement per se, but rather again of what looks and feels best.

Then the body of the shirt, working from the top down: width from shoulder point to shoulder point, chest circumference under the arms, chest over the arms at widest point (around the triceps), waist, hips and finally the length preferred (measured from the collar seam to bottom hem).

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