Bespoke vs. Made To Measure vs. Off The Rack – What’s The Difference?

Surgeon Cuff Hand Stitched Buttonholes Detail

If you’ve been learning about menswear you’ve most likely heard these words.

- Bespoke 

- Made To Measure 

- Off The Rack

But what do they mean?

What’s the difference?

And most importantly why should you even care?

In this article and video I help you understand the main differences between these types of menswear and why knowing these details is important to your pocketbook.

First – understand this.  One type of build is not necessarily better than any other – each has its place.

Depending on your individual need you may be better served by any one of the three.  

The amount of money you spend does not guarantee better fitting or higher quality clothing.

Instead, the difference in terminology is about control.

It’s about an art form vs. factory efficiency.  It’s about something being hand-made and 100% unique vs  another piece of clothing being uniform, mass produced, and economically affordable for even the poorest student.

So Why Is This Important?

It’s all about the money really.

It’s about what we are conditioned to pay for, and what we value and define to be quality clothing.

It signifies prestige and enables the art of bespoke to charge a premium which makes it sustainable and forces the ready to wear industry to keep its costs down and efficiency up as in that realm price is the driver of purchase decision.

In the video I use the example of USDA Beef Quality Grades – as a Texan I felt this was an easy to understand example because we purchase food more often that we purchase clothing (at least I do).

Brown-tweed-mens-sport-jacketThe Gray Area Between Clothing Definitions 

Technological change has made the distinction between Made to Measure and Bespoke more subtle.  Within this confusion has emerged a battle for profitable relationships.

Initially all clothing was handmade – wealthy men had their clothing made by tailors and the rest of us made it within the family unit.

The industrial revolution changed this and made mass manufactured clothing affordable, but the distinction between the two was clear cut as professional handmade clothing was superior in cut, fabric quality, and fit.

Made to measure however has evolved over the last few decades from a simple offshoot of ready-to-wear to being almost indistinguishable from the custom hand-made process – at least in the eyes of the consumer.

Fittings are increasingly required for both bespoke and made-to-measure; a bespoke service may require an individually-cut pattern, which is then kept should further suits be required, and now made-to-measure measurements are often stored on a computer.

Even hand-work is now increasingly found in made-to-measure garments – this used to only be found in custom bespoke. And cash or skill strapped bespoke makers are now starting to utilize machines in the process.

Basically – the two worlds are getting closer. Bespoke still commands a premium, while made to measure is closer to off the rack prices. Yet if the difference is hazy, you can bet that the merchants will look to find a way to make a higher profit.  And that’s where the fighting has started.

Word Protection – Bespoke clearly defined by law?

The precedent was set by the French – the word “haute couture” is protected by law in France and any one using this term must abide by a set of rules.

Vested parties in the UK have pushed to have similar protections for the word “bespoke”, however the British Advertising Standards Authority has ruled it is a fair practice to use the term bespoke for products which do not fully incorporate traditional construction methods.

But the fight won’t end here – as long as there is money involved and one well heeled manufacturer is threatened there will be a push for protection.


Quick Menswear Definitions – The 3 Classifications

1. Off The Rack or Ready To Wear

The vast majority of clothing made and worn in the world fits within this category. Ready to wear clothing is factory made in finished condition and standardized sizes, and has a wide range in quality standards depending on manufacturer. Of the three types ready to wear has the least control.

2. Made To Measure

Menswear produced to order from an adjusted block pattern.  Usually a paper pattern is not built, rather pieces that match those needed are collected and assembled. It is differentiated from bespoke in that Men who choose to buy made to measure have some, but not all control over the process.

The degree of control varies considerably – expect more control to cost more. However it is very possible to get a perfect fit – the same as in bespoke, from a made to measure garment.

3. Bespoke

The word bespoke itself is derived from the verb to bespeak or to “speak for something”. Specifically it means “to give an order for it to be made”. It is a term analogous to women’s haute couture, and enjoys widespread use in UK and Eurpoe while being rare in the United States.

Bespoke clothing offers a man full control.  Bespoke standards particularly stress:
1) hand work used almost entirely on all garments
2) the individual cut of a paper pattern
3) personal service such as qualified advice
4) a large selection of fabrics
5)keeping of all records for future orders
6) involvement in approved training that ensure standards are adhered to.

Alright – what are your thoughts?  Let’s hear them in the comments!

  • gary88

    Bespoke should be a protected word.

    In Australia words like bread, butter and sausage etc are also protected words so the
    consumer knows exactly what they are getting. The is a minimum set of standards and
    ingredients. Like real champagne, it comes from the right area, is made from the right grapes
    and made by a particular method.

    So in the interests of consumer protection bespoke should be defined and protected.

    From your own marketing perspective you should define your own one word description and
    own it in the minds of the consumer e.g. Coke, who says cola or pepsi??

    Your new word should encapsulate your product, it should be more than bespoke.

    Perhaps a competition is in order?

  • rmrstyle

    @gary88 Good points, and I love the analogy of sausage. Just what goes into those tasty links:)Seriously though – a big objection I have is the politicizing of the definition and influence of interest groups to their own means. What if part of the protection requires training that only a select few can afford – in a sense an artificial barrier to entry to purposely keep out start-ups and industry disruptors.


  • ColleenME

    In dress making we have a similar word problem.

    Dressmakers are often called “a seamstress”.

    A seamstress is one who sews seams in a factory. A dress maker may even design the dress, but always makes the complete garment.

    I was trained at the Fashion Institute of Technology in NYC to do custom hand tailoring for men. I do everything from the pattern to the finished suit. It is rare now to find anyone that is, as you say, a Bespoke tailor.

  • gary88

    @rmrstyle I understand where you’re coming from but it’s hard to rewrite history, artificial barriers to entry are also about defining the exactness of the product in the mind of the consumer. Staking a claim to your own niche, in effect being the product, will stand you in good stead ten years from now. In addition it deserves it’s own more accurate, dare I say bespoke, terminology as your product is an evolution in the industry.

  • TailorDan

    Really enjoyed your post. I have written some similar items in my blog. We have very similar themes and hope you are enjoying great success as been through a lot of what you advise and personally can’t fault it.

    i am very new blogging so if you do want to visait it and give me your opinion please keep that in mind.

    Tailor Dan

  • rmrstyle

    @TailorDan Thanks Dan! Your blog looks good, keep up the hard work.

  • rmrstyle

    @ColleenME It is Colleen – and it’s hard to find a dressmaker as well. Even my friends who are dressmakers rarely use the term as that when people look for them on Google/in the phone book they look for seamstress – they have to go with the more common terminology or not be found!

  • cmattbacon

     @gary88  @rmrstyle History is actually the best witness in this case. Wherever there is too much quality control, quality actually declines over the long term. That is because even if it starts off with the consumer’s best interests at heart, the unholy triangle of lobbyists, regulation board members and corporate CEO’s always end up scratching each others backs by trying to crowd out competition at the expense of the consumer.  This is how the current state of modern farming in America came to be.  Regulations were initially enacted to protect the consumer, but now they are used by farming corporations to force small time farmers out of business by enacting legislation that destroys their profit.  All in the name of “protecting the consumer”. The best way to ensure both good quality to the consumer and a fair market for producers is to simply allow companies to have trademarked brands. Apple is a perfect example of this, there is no minimum standard a computer has to be made to, but everyone who wants a top of the line computer knows exactly where one can be purchased.