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The Art of Tailoring

 The Art of Tailoring 


The Art of Tailoring – synopsis by Karen Elwis.

Yes, you just read the words “art” and “tailoring” in the same headline, and if you’re surprised by the concept that tailoring is a form of art, the article – The Art of Tailoring  – based on a fascinating lecture published in The London Art Fashion Journal on 1st November 1890 – will explain all.

But before you read it, a bit of background… The master tailor who gave the lecture to students of the ‘Tailor and Cutter’ School of Art and Cutting Academy in Drury Lane, London, talks about ‘Art in Relation to Tailoring’ and refers to tailoring as “one of the grandest professions on earth” – a definition which, as you might expect, Marion supports wholeheartedly!

But what is art, and can tailoring really claim to be an art form? Well, the lecture analysed in this article leaves us in no doubt that it can.

While most of us probably think of art in terms of paintings, sculptures and (more recently) installations, if we return to the purest meaning of art (as defined by the Oxford English dictionary), we find that art is “the expression or application of creative skill and imagination, especially through a visual medium such as painting or sculpture.”

So while painting and sculpture are cited as examples, the OED definition in no way excludes other means of expressing creativity through a visual medium, which means tailoring’s claim to be an art form is a strong one.

Works of art are described by the lecturer as “beauties which please the eye, arouse the intellect, and thrill the heart.” Moreover, he emphasises that it is essential to distinguish between manufacture and art, claiming, “No machine yet contrived or hereafter contrivable, will ever equal the fine machinery of the human fingers.”

Machinery must work consistently without emotion, he adds, whereas art must always be driven by emotion. The result is that manufactured garments are “a landscape viewed through a mist, with the clouds banging gloomily overhead, making all dull, heavy and lifeless” whereas a tailored garment is “guided by the intellect, and inspired by the heart, … like the same landscape when the sun shines and lightens up every branch, every leaf, and every blossom with glory…”

Powerful and eloquent words indeed – and if you’ve ever had the pleasure and privilege of wearing a bespoke garment, tailored especially to fit you, you will understand precisely what he means. Wearing a garment that really fits you and that is designed perfectly to match your personal physique is an indescribably exhilarating sensation.

Famous painter and art critic, Ruskin, also adds his ha’pence worth, pondering “Is there a greater art in covering canvas or plaster with pigment to hide its defects, than to clothe men and women in such a way as to not only hide, but even supply nature’s deficiencies…? Are not the needle, the shears and the goose [the heavy iron used by tailors], the instruments which produce the finest art, and are we not artists in the truest and widest sense of the term?”

In other words, surely portraying in a man, woman or child in a flattering way is accomplished just as effectively by dressing them in perfectly fitting garments as it is through the use of paint or clay.

The lecturer counsels the trainee tailors whom he is addressing: “Form in your own mind a perfect ideal of the figure you have to clothe. Acquire the knowledge of what is a normal figure, but remember it is by no means necessary for you to reduce all your customers to one ideal. We must have several ideals. …Select the one most suited to the form of each customer who comes along, in order to bring out his points of beauty.”

Stressing the importance of the positioning of seams, he proceeds to offer advice that would certainly sound alien to the ears of anyone involved in the 21st-century ‘make it cheap and make it quick’ clothing manufacturing industry.

“Whatever you do, see that your work is easily and happily done or it will never make anyone else happy, see that those impulses are headed and centred by one noble impulse and let that be LOVE.”

Even more astonishingly, he tells the aspiring tailors that they must always put the love for their art before money. Perhaps not a realistic aspiration if you want to make a living from tailoring, but a noble one nonetheless:

“The price you are to be paid for an article must not be the main controlling influence, or it will cramp your views and bias your judgement and take away that pride of your calling – that love for your art which inspires you to excel your previous best efforts and produce that joy for ever – the garment of beauty…… I am not talking about business now. I am dealing with art…. But if your chief aim is to make money, then don’t claim to be an artist…… a time will come when will you have to sacrifice one or the other, and your art will go, and you will become a mere manufacturer of clothing… though money may be, and undoubtedly is, very desirable, still is it not better to have a good name, a reputation for the thoroughness of your work, even than earning a trifle extra every week.”

Clearly the message conveyed to young tailors by their lecturer all those years ago was to love your profession and to view each garment that you create as a work of art.

While these sentiments have, of necessity, been side-lined by the increasingly industrialised garment manufacturing sector over the decades, fortunately they still hold true for today’s bespoke tailors such as professional kilt maker Marion Foster.

As Marion herself says: “When I’m working on a kilt, it is an artistic labour of love and care – I am absolutely passionate about creating a garment that flatters and complements the wearer and which makes them feel special. Every stitch and seam in my kilts – and my waistcoats – is done with the love for my art and the creation which remains in the fabric of each kilt as it heads off on its unique journey.”


Copyright © Askival of Strathearn 2014
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