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Off Your Back

Made-to-Measure Shirts Cater to Men Who Want a Streak of Perfection in their Wardrobes
Ralph DiGennaro
From the Print Edition:
Rush Limbaugh, Spring 94

Beware those who would surrender the shirt off their backs for friends...chances are the shirt isn't worth all that much to begin with. The sad truth is that there are good dress shirts and less-than-good dress shirts, at least as far as ready-made, or off-rack, department-store garments are concerned.

But for those with little tolerance for anything less than perfection on sartorial matters, there is the luxury of custom shirtmaking--an art, oddly enough, far from lost or dying in the modern world. Custom shirtmaking is alive and well in cities across the country, as style-conscious men insist upon having their fashion needs satisfied right down to the last detail.

If there isn't an individual shirtmaker in your city, one who adheres to the highest standards of workmanship and style, today you can get satisfaction in most major men's department stores such as Neiman Marcus, Barneys, Saks and others. And, most major names in the shirtmaking business, such as London's Turnbull and Asser or Charvet from Paris, set up shop several days a year for their clients in top stores or hotels. The road-show shirtmaker is especially popular with some Hong Kong operations like C. Takly from the Hong Kong Hilton, who visits more than 20 cities around the country every year. Shirts take anywhere from six weeks to three months to make, depending on where your appointment falls in a shirtmaker's itinerary.

The reality is that shirtmakers seek out the discriminating man with a sense of fashion and give him the opportunity to have a piece of fabric draped around his torso that takes into account the one-inch elevation in his right shoulder, a 31-inch arm (try finding that size in a men's shirt department) or the bane of every middle-aged male, the expanding midriff.

Given its history, it is not all that surprising that more men are having their dress shirts custom-made, rather than suffering through the discomfort, approximate fit and generally poor quality of ready-made. What is surprising is that while shirts have been around for more than 1,500 years, manufacturers still haven't ironed out all the kinks.

The shirt as we know it actually began as underwear--a tunic really--as long ago as 400 A.D., when it was worn as a protective layer between a man's skin and his outer clothing. Extending above the neck and past the wrists, it was a safeguard against irritation from coarse woolens. It was not until the Middle Ages that the exposed, upper portion of the shirt began to be viewed as both decorative and fashionable.

Ultimately, the shirt came to be regarded as a garment that sartorially established one's wealth and social class, eventually leading to such flawed modern-day distinctions as white-collar versus blue-collar worker. Actually, the shirt has changed very little since medieval times. But while the shape and construction are basically the same, collars aside, the modern shirt is light-years beyond its ancestors in fit, style and price. As any man who has shopped lately for a high-quality, ready-made dress shirt will attest, dress-shirt prices have risen to considerable heights. And putting out as much as $150 for an item without exact sizing or nary a chance for a try-on seems to be a less-than-equitable proposition.

Today, there's a smaller price differential between ready-made and custom, or made-to-measure, dress shirts. This new development is also fueling the custom market. By the way, the essential difference between custom-made and ready-made shirts is that the former are made from an individually cut pattern while the latter are cut from commercial patterns in various chest sizes.

Certainly there are distinct advantages to the made-to-measure option: complete assurance of proper and comfortable fit before buying; wider choice of collar and cuff styles; broader selection of fabrics, patterns and colors; elegant, hand-sewn monograms (optional). Beyond the obvious other features such as hand-tailoring and quality detailing that the majority of ready-made-shirt manufacturers overlook--split-yoke back, button-through sleeve plackets, to name just a few--there is an intense pleasure that comes from fulfilling one's personal standards of style.

Most custom shirtmakers require a four-shirt minimum before taking an order, a prerequisite of little concern to such chief executives as Henry Kravitz, who, according to Thomas Yu, general manager of Ascot Chang in New York, orders his custom-made shirts 150 at a time.

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