16 December 2011

Reader Questions

Just because you got it cheap don't mean you ain't got to have it fitted. A good alterations tailor is your best friend.
Reader Toby asks:

My personal style is frumpier than it should be, and that fact that I am a natural born cheapskate seems to play a role in this situation. Your emphasis on "affordable" appeals to me, and I've always loved thrift stores. So I am right there with you when you report on the $7.53 you spent on a handmade vintage jacket!

My question is: when you spend less than $10 on an article of vintage clothing, do you then end up spending $50 getting it fixed up and tailored to fit properly? How does this factor into purchasing decisions?

An excellent question, to be sure.

Not so long ago, it was understood that "off the rack" clothing was something meant to be altered. It was good stuff, made to a standard. But no reputable shop would allow the customer to leave with his purchase on the spot. Men knew that when they bought a jacket or a suit, they would expect to pick it up properly fitted at least a week to ten days later.

These days we live in a culture of instant gratification. This has innumerable unfortunate side effects, none the least of which is men running around in badly fitted clothing. 

A man should always have his clothes properly fitted. This applies as much if not more in the case of cheap old stuff, as we discuss it here.

When I find an old gem and try it on, I always have one eye on the alterations. I know what can't be altered: the shoulders. Any jacket that doesn't fit your shoulders is not worth buying at any price, as it will never be comfortable. I also know what can be altered.

Sleeves can always be altered, within reason. Shortening sleeves an inch or so is a fairly commonplace alteration at the local dry cleaners costing between $12-$15 many places. Lengthening sleeves is no more difficult an operation, but it is trickier. Old clothes can leave a line where an old hem was, so watch out for this. The same principle applies to trousers: shortening is easy, lengthening is tricky.

Side seams can always be taken in, but may show a mark is you let them out. As always, look for clothing of quality that has clearly been well cared for by it's previous owner.

As for money: If I find a beautiful garment for a buck or two, I will gladly spend up to $60 on alterations. The way I figure, $2 purchase + $40 alteration= really nice jacket that fits like a glove for $42. You could buy a crappy Chinese sweatshop jacket from the Gap for twice as much in size  S M L in the mall. Need I say more?

Regardless of where and how you buy your clothes and what you spend on them, I do wholeheartedly recommend that any man find a good alterations tailor he can trust. Make a friend of him, because even though you may be the one with an eye for quality and a bargain, in the end he will be the one to make you look really good.

p.s. the Shop is bursting at the seams! See it.


Dustin said...

Over the last couple of months I found a pair of Zanella flannel trousers and a pair of Incotex flannel trousers (one charcoal grey, one charcoal with a white over check). I paid $6 a piece and after having the waist, seat, and leg tapered to my exact taste, I paid about $60 a piece. They retail for over $350. Money well spent.

Scale Worm said...

Well said sir, Well said.
As I age I have found that to be happy one needs, quite simply:
A good truthful tailor, a good local boutique restaurant/bakery/butcher/farm stand/import foods shop, a well traveled and versed liquor adviser, a great Vinyl/CD/Film, AND book shop (brick and mortar both), great schools, museums and art house cinemas, enlightened and educated (not college, necessarily, but world) earnest friends for dinner parties, and if need be, importantly, to be called upon at 3:00a.m.
A friend that is a great M.D., and a friend that is a great Lawyer, a friend that is an electronics guru god, a friend that is a versed builder, a friend that is an honest mechanic, and, (of course), an unconditionally loving beautiful mate (and if really lucky, children).
Life can be really, really, Really good, if, as one ages one learns to live with the finer, attainable, realistic treasures that life can offer, if one is patient, and aware.

Curmudgeon said...

The numbers on the tape-measure are going in the wrong sirection.

Anonymous said...

G - I feel like you are parent to me, the number of items I seem to acquire from your 'shop' along with the ideas I borrow from your blog. As I strut (really?) around town, I feel like you have given me my dress sense; my real father being a greige dresser. Thanks much.

bostonhud said...

Follow up question- I didnt know it was possible to lengthen sleeves. Where do they get the extra material from?

Roger v.d. Velde said...

Altering purchases like these was what got me started tailoring my own clothes. I know some people won't ever want to do it, and will prefer to leave it to the tailors (which also keeps these chaps in business), but it's worth getting to know your basic alterations.

I had two problems, my grandfather was a hatter and amateur tailor - which I'm ashamed to say I foolishly disregarded at the time, though I did pick up enough to know how things ought to be. The second was finding a good tailor to work with later on. It's not easy and some money and clothing can be lost finding this out.

So I bought the books, asked a lot of questions and had a go. Properly hemming trousers takes a little effort, but it's not impossible to learn, and you can get them just right for you, properly tipped with kick-tapes. I never pay for this alteration, nor for the waist/seat, and also jacket sleeves.

In a sense I think it's just part of the same realisation that I can't afford a bespoke suit. I'm buying cheaper and having to do some of the work myself. I don't see why this is any different than learning to cook for yourself reasonably well, without becoming a cordon bleu chef.

Axel said...

Hi Mr. G.
I really like the illustration of this post, it looks like a Robert Crumb's drawing, where does it come from ?

Old Trad said...


Those are numerals, not numbers.

bucephalus said...

Giuseppe said : "I know what can't be altered: the shoulders. Any jacket that doesn't fit your shoulders is not worth buying at any price, as it will never be comfortable."

But this observation condemns a small, but substantial, portion of the population to unaffordable clothing, ranging from made-to-measure to full blown bespoke. I say this because a lot of people are square-shouldered, or slopey-shouldered, or have small shoulders relative to chest, or big chest relative to shoulders. In all such cases, off-the-rack jackets, whether new or used, will never fit without alterations to shoulders and possibly collar. Jackets are designed with average shoulder slope and breadth in mind.

Of course shoulders can be altered, but it is very expensive to do so, and it requires a highly skilled tailor.

Roger v.d. Velde said...


That's not how it works. You would clearly choose the shoulders to fit and then have simpler/less expensive alterations made elsewhere on the garment. Such as taking in of the side and back seams.
Just like it makes sense to get trousers that fit comfortably through the leg/crotch/hip and have them tweaked, than trying to have some tighter trousers let out at several different places.

Quality RTW clothing patterns are not hopelessly one-dimensional; they have been carefully made to try and fit as many body types as possible and it's always possible to find something that needs only regular alterations. Altering the shoulders can ruin arm-hole shape. It's the sort of alteration where just having an MTM jacket made makes more sense.

Metcarfre said...

There's such a dearth of good - heck, semi-decent - tailors or alterationists out here on the west coast (Vancouver, Canada). Perusing Styleforum it appears as though there's only one, perhaps two decent tailors in the whole city (of millions). The humble shop by my house quoted me $35 to have my jacket sleeves taken up - $35! Is there no hope? Sigh.

oxford cloth button down said...

I having my clothes altered makes the experience of wearing them so much more comfortable and enjoyable.

Toby said...

Thanks for a very thorough response! Clearly underscores the importance of finding not just a jacket for $7.53, but a high quality jacket for $7.53.

Young Fogey said...

As Longwing said many moons ago, "Thrifters have too much sh*t. You get used to not getting exactly what you want so you tend to buy everything that even comes close."

So you have a closet full of almost-fitting clothes, some with very impressive labels. Maybe you even spend a bit—or even a bundle—altering them, yet because they were never really the right size for you in the first place, they never fit quite right even with alterations.

Our friend Jesse over at Put This On has several strategies for thrifting. I think the two most important ones are these:

Don't buy it if you don't love it.
Know your fit.

There are several other excellent points there as well (including links to the series on thrifting).

When it comes to clothes, you should really be happy with what you wear (to the extent possible; some guys must wear things they don't like for work). If you buy something for the label, or because "everyone has one," or some other external reason, then you probably aren't going to be happy with it.

As for the second point, knowing your fit is what G and others are talking about here: finding clothes that fit, or fit close enough to be alterable. Sure, you can get a jacket shortened by an inch, or take in the waist a lot, but you risk destroying the integrity of the silhouette. It might fit, but it doesn't make you look good.

Better to wait for something you love that fits. Yes, it can be a long, lonely wait, but part of thrifting is discipline—an important skill in any endeavor.

bucephalus said...

@Roger, an RTW jacket will not fit correctly without risky alterations for a small but significant part of the population.

If the man has a big chest for his shoulders, then an RTW jacket that fits his chest will likely have shoulders too wide for him. You’d normally cut the shoulders. Yes, a bad tailor could disturb the armhole, as well as make the chest and back too tight.

The big-chested but narrow-shouldered man will likely also need the collar shortened. This is an operation as sensitive as cutting the shoulders, because both the shoulder seam and the center back seam must be opened up. But a clever tailor, while shortening the collar, can narrow the shoulders a little bit without cutting them. So that’s some consolation.

The square-shouldered man will have rolls along the upper back. To fix this the collar must be "lowered" (in reality, the back must be raised). This requires opening up the seams in the shoulder line. If the collar roll is really bad, the correct way to get rid of it is to open up the shoulder seam along the entire breadth, i.e., the front & the back panels of the jacket will be detached from each other at the shoulder seam, and the sleeves taken off as well. If you don't open up the shoulder seam, the end result of a "lower-collar" operation is a shoulder line that's full of divots and unevenness.

The square-shouldered man will also have the quarters of the jacket excessively separated, and this must be corrected by intervening at the neck points of the shoulder line.

For the slopey-shouldered man, the shoulders of an RTW jacket will sag and there will be breaking above and near the armhole. The only way to correct this is to detach the sleeves, open up the shoulder line and then cut along it at a bias to increase the slope of the shoulders. The armholes will get smaller as a result of this operation ; so the tailor must either deepen them, or narrow the sleeves, in order to fit the arms back to the body.

Men with erect posture are the most unfortunate. The erect man will have the jacket longer in the back than in the front, with a lot of fabric breaking and crashing around his waist and seat. In front the quarters of the jacket would be coming together and crossing, and not parted as they should be. If the fabric has a pattern, it will look like it's dragged upward in the front. This can only be solved by a combination of raising the back AND what amounts the lengthening the collar -- and the shoulder seam would have to be taken apart and the sleeves detached. And this procedure can only be done if the RTW jacket has seam allowances in the collar (a little bit of fabric folded above the felt at each end of the melton) AND seam allowances in the neck points of the shoulder line. There are expensive RTW suits lacking such allowances.

The slim and fit man may also require a serious alteration (though not as much as the body types mentioned above). Most people assume that when the jacket's waist is a little big it's just a matter of taking in the sides. But not so. RTW jackets -- even if they are of the "slim fit" model -- never assume that the wearer has a flat belly. Manufacturers try to fit men with a sway back as well as those skinny-but-not-fit types who have a little gut. They do this by giving the jacket horizontal room, as well as extra vertical length in the front. For a man with a flat stomach, this results in the front of the jacket hanging incorrectly. The jacket may have twice the waist of the man itself, but there would be pulling at the buttons because the extra fabric length is causing button stance misalignment. A hack tailor would shorten the front by cutting the hem and letting out the sides ! The correct procedure is to shorten the front by cutting at the neck points of the shoulder line.

I do agree : if your body type requires sensitive alterations, then it's much better to get an MTM or a bespoke suit. But weren't we talking about "affordable" clothing ?

bucepahlus said...

@roger said : " That's not how it works. You would clearly choose the shoulders to fit … Quality RTW clothing patterns are not hopelessly one-dimensional; they have been carefully made to try and fit as many body types as possible and it's always possible to find something that needs only regular alterations."

Absolutely not for the man with a military posture or for the man with high shoulders. For those two body types, there is ZERO possibility of finding an RTW jacket that fits without sensitive alterations.

It's more possible, but still unlikely, to find an RTW jacket that fits well in the shoulders for a man (as an example) whose chest is 40 inches but whose shoulders are 17" wide. What he will find, however, is an expensive runway fashion type jacket that's narrowly proportioned in the shoulders, which he might reckon too short or too tight in ways which can't be altered.

The man with slopier-than-average shoulders will also have a better time of it finding a jacket that fits in the shoulders -- but still unlikely without fiddling in some way in the shoulders. The simplest, cheapest, and least risky solution is to add more shoulder padding. But not everybody wants that.

bucephalus said...

There's one major hard-to-fit body type with a fairly large population (at least in the USA) that I completely forgot about -- the very fat. Such men -- those so fat that their waist is considerably bigger than their already large chest -- usually stand pretty erect, to balance their abdominal weight. The combination of posture and gut protuberance causes the front of the suit jacket to hang shorter than the back of the jacket. Letting out the sides helps only a little bit. The front will still be shorter than the back, which will also be breaking like crazy. In the fat-friendly USA such men could probably find very large suit sizes to eliminate this problem. But chances are, they would be trading in that problem for a different one : very large RTW suit sizes have comically huge shoulders. Making a bigger suit is easier for a factory manufacturer if the shoulders just get proportionately bigger with the chest and waist, even if a fat man's shoulders aren't really much bigger than thinner men's.