Everything is Bespoke!
You may have noticed a word popping up along the high street stalking you as you shop. It beckons you from the posh snack aisle of Waitrose or on the chalkboard menu at the newest hipster dive bar. The word is bespoke. It slips off the tongue, except for the fact that you’re seeing and hearing it everywhere. Step right up to purchase your bespoke crackers or bespoke sandwich. Is this time-honoured word soon to be relegated to the fringes with other popular words, like artisanal or handcrafted? Originally meant to describe custom-made tailoring, bespoke is now being applied to dating apps, vacations, bacon… the list goes on. Is “bespoke” the next word to be liquidated of its value and meaning by advertising executives? Or are we truly living in a golden age of custom-made products?
The word bespoke is the past tense of the verb bespeak: meaning “to ask for in advance.” For centuries the word has been used inside the boutiques of gentlemen tailors, particularly on London’s Savile Row. Within these luxury tailor shops, noble and rich gentlemen could discuss with a tailor how they’d like their suit: from adjustments that take your posture into account or how high you wish the button stance. More than simply made-to-measure tailoring, bespoke tailoring involves multiple fittings. Such suits can cost upwards of £5,000. When you see someone wearing a suit that looks perfect from every angle—be it Winston Churchill, Jude Law, Laurence Olivier, Duke Ellington, or Prince Charles—then, more than likely, it’s bespoke.
The devaluing of the term bespoke came long before Yotam Ottolenghi’s bespoke hampers. It started with the production of ready-to-wear suits in the late 19th century. From then on, there began a strange middle ground of tailoring ready-to-wear clothing for a particular person. This process was called made-to-measure or—gasp!—semi-bespoke.
An even bigger blow to tailoring terminology occurred in 2008 when the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) deemed there was no difference between made-to-measure tailoring and bespoke tailoring. Savile Row came apart at the seams! Speaking to the Financial Times after ASA’s major decision, managing director of Gieves & Hawkes and chairman of Savile Row Bespoke Organization, Mark Henderson said: “If ‘bespoke’ simply means ‘I’ll have blue buttons on it,’ then you’ll end up with ‘bespoke coffee’ because the customer wants sugar in it.” And, well, Henderson proved himself right. A world of bespoke coffee is exactly where we’ve ended up.
So yes the word has been stolen from the exclusive elitist clutches of gentlemen tailors (cry me a river), yet why has it proven to be so popular a term? Part of it might be wish fulfillment: bespoke is synonymous with high class and sophistication. But it also might be that in our current cultural climate, it’s an extension of our craze for handcrafted and custom-made products. After a century of mass-produced goods, people are now prizing custom-made and artisanal goods over soulless products couriered off the conveyor belts of factories. It could be a reaction to our increasingly globalised world; it’s comforting to know where your product comes from and support who’s making it.
Such a desire for customised goods is so prevalent that you can pretty much find anything with the term bespoke attached to it. One company in the States makes bespoke hammers: requested designs are burned into the wooden handles while the actual metal is chiseled and filed to create specialised images, like wolves or bonfires. You can even decorate your washroom with a bespoke plunger: with leopard print and dog themes available if you can’t think of your own. Even stranger are bespoke babies; referring to porcelain dolls of newborns, made with customisable clothing and positions. At this point it’s become testament to how demanding and spoiled we’ve become: we want everything exactly the way we want it (even if what we want only exists in our imaginations). Such overuse of the word bespoke also speaks to the desire that each and everyone of us wants to be seen as wholly unique individuals. But just as our overuse of the term bespoke erodes its meaning, so too does a popular desire to be unique render such individualism hollow and superficial. A crowd made up entirely of individualists becomes just an ordinary crowd.
So perhaps, then, this is a plea: let’s stop calling everything bespoke. Even if we don’t, surely another word will come to replace it. We can think about it while we take our bespoke vacation and eat our bespoke sandwich. But really- let’s give bespoke back to the tailors where the word belongs. It’s time to admit that bespoke is bespoken for.