Karen Elwis

When we think about art, it’s safe to say that the first ideas that generally spring to mind are oil paintings, watercolours, sketches and sculptures. What is perhaps less likely to enter our mind is the thought of tailoring as a form of art. Yet as long ago as 1890, trainee tailors were being urged – in a lecture delivered by a master tailor to the Students of the ‘Tailor and Cutter’ School of Art and Cutting Academy, Drury Lane, London – to consider the subject of ‘Art in Relation to Tailoring’. Indeed, the speaker refers to the art of tailoring as “a subject at once grand, wide-spreading, beautiful”. In the same lecture, he calls tailoring “one of the grandest professions on earth”. No mean claim, so how does our master tailor justify it?

The nature of the link between art and tailoring

The lecture, published in The London Art Fashion Journal on 1st November 1890, offers a fascinating insight into the ways in which tailoring can rightly call itself an art. The lecturer draws an analogy: he compares an apprentice who asks a master tailor to train them in the art of tailoring to being like someone asking to be shown how to ‘make’ wheat. As the lecturer points out, the growth and development of wheat is not simply ‘made’ by anyone; it is influenced by a variety of outside factors – such as the weather. And so it is with tailoring, he explains: many factors come into play when trainee tailors are learning how to create garments that truly fit the wearer.

Early in his discourse, the lecturer ponders whether the National Gallery, the Royal Academy and the Thames Embankment Gardens should be the sort of places the artist tailor must study his craft and “become acquainted with the harmony of outline, the graceful curve and the unity of proportion?” However, he quickly adds: “Not here, not here, for those are the handiwork of erring humanity.”

The next option he considers is to take the trainee tailors to view the “works of Carlyle, Ruskin, Le Blanc” and other great artists of the late 19th century. However, he swiftly discounts that idea, too. Eventually, he elects to send the trainee artist tailor to view “the fields, the mountains, the heavens, and these beauties of nature, the garments of God’s creation and trace the symmetry, the harmony, the unity of art”, concluding that these are the places most likely to inspire tailoring. Nature, he is convinced, is the best source of inspiration for his fellow professionals: “We will follow from the lowliest blade of grass to the grandest landscape, to find out those principles which govern art.”

Defining art

Next, the lecturer asks the students to consider ‘What is art?’ and he describes his personal definition of art: “The converse of science; the power which enables us to use the right law in the right place, which enables us to combine circumstance, time and position into one harmony….enables us to utilise the discoveries of science, and by keen intelligence and perception, enables us to produce those beauties which please the eye, arouse the intellect, and thrill the heart.”

Here he quotes the artist and art critic John Ruskin, who once wrote: “If you glance over the map of Europe, you will find that where the manufactures are strongest, there art also is strongest.”

Students attending the lecture are warned to be aware that art can ever be judged by the same principles as manufacture. “Each must be followed separately,” counsels the lecturer, before adding, “The one must influence the other, but each must be kept distinctly separate from the other.” It is also important to distinguish, he advises, between “Manufacture, Art, and Fine Art”.

He describes manufacture as “the making of anything by hands, directly or indirectly, with or without the help of instruments or machines.” In his opinion, “Anything that proceeds from the hand of man is manufacture, but it must have proceeded from his hand only.” Fine art, he feels, is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together, “for fine arts must be produced by the hand of man in a much greater and clearer sense than in manufacture”. Highlighting the importance of the tailor’s digital dexterity, he asserts, “No machine yet contrived or hereafter contrivable, will ever equal the fine machinery of the human fingers.”

When describing ‘perfect art’, the lecturer defines it as being “that which proceeds from the heart, which involves all the noble emotions, associates with these the head, yet as inferior to the hand and head; and thus brings out the whole man.” In this context, he points out that since manufacture is simply the operation of the hand of man in producing that which is useful to him, it essentially separates itself from the emotions.” Machinery must work evenly without emotion, he opines, but the fine arts do not always work evenly, as they must always have emotion ruling their mechanics. For this reason, the lecturer is convinced that until the trainee tailor begins to feel emotion, and until everything he undertakes professionally is associated with the current of his feelings, he will not be a true artist.

Manufacturing vs tailoring

It should be remembered that at the time when this lecture was published, machinery was rapidly replacing human hands in many trades, and the writer of this emotive lecture was clearly concerned about the potential implications for his profession. He describes how “the universal application of machinery…. is threatening to demoralise the trade, and make us [tailors] manufacturers instead of artists.”

During this same period, as the writer of this lecture is at pains to point out, tailors in Great Britain were viewed as “the leaders of fashion throughout the world”, their taste being considered more refined than their international counterparts and their handiwork more artistic.

While clearly stating that he does not condemn all machine work, the master tailor giving the lecture does stress that when it comes to “padding a lapel, or sewing a side, waist or shoulder seam, it [machine work] debases our handiwork… making the garment flat and lifeless, and devoid of those touches of beauty which enhance the whole garment.”

He compares manufactured garments to “a landscape viewed through a mist, with the clouds banging gloomily overhead, making all dull, heavy and lifeless, whilst the garment judiciously manipulated by hand, guided by the intellect, and inspired by the heart, is like the same landscape when the sun shines and lightens up every branch, every leaf, and every blossom with glory, the dew drops sparkling like the most brilliant gems, and reflecting the rays of light on all around.”

His evocative and lyrical comparison between the uninspiring nature of manufactured garments run up on machines, without emotion, and the stunning qualities of bespoke garments created through the emotional and intuitive artistry of the tailor, makes a cogent case for tailoring to be considered an art.

To justify this claim even more convincingly, he adds: “There are many people who can see no more in clothes than a covering to hide our nakedness, a screen to cover our shame. They cannot see how the man is elevated or his mind ennobled by the clothes he wears.”

And, with genuine passion behind his words, he continues: “They are willing enough to award the title of artist to the man who takes their photograph or makes a copy of them with pencil or brush. Oh yes, he has posed them artistically, has hidden their faults and shown up their beauties. And, pray, what has the tailor done? Has he not covered up their defects and heightened their grace… blending the curves and angles in such a way as to bring out these points of beauty and hide the defects? And which, pray, has the greater claim to be called an artist, the designer, the originator, or the copyist? The answer must be… the tailor is the artist.”

Echoing these sentiments, renowned art critic of the time John Ruskin states: “No good historical painting ever existed, or can ever exist, where the dresses of the people of the time are not beautiful, and had it not been for the lovely and fantastic dressing of the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, neither French, nor Florentine, nor Venetian art could have risen to anything like the rank it reached.”

In the opinion of the lecturer, this proves conclusively that the tailor is an artist. Looking at this question from another viewpoint, considering what the aim of clothes is, Carlyle suggests that it is “not decency or warmth, but decoration. The first spiritual want of a barbaric man is decoration…”

Around the same time, Ruskin, writing about decorative art, points out: “There is no existing highest-order art but is decorative.” For in his belief, “the purpose of clothes – and thus tailoring – is to beautify God’s masterpiece,” the term “God’s masterpiece” being a reference to mankind.

“Is there,” Ruskin wonders, “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, blending outline with form, colour with complexion, and material with sentiment? 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?”

The three aims of art

It is evident, from all the above, that the master tailor puts forward a compelling case for tailoring to be viewed as an art form. To support his argument further, he explores the three aims of art – to beautify, to elevate, and to ennoble – and then elaborates on how tailoring also fulfils these aims:

To beautify –
Fashion, states the master tailor, is by no means art. In his opinion, the two have no necessary connection because whereas fashion is fleeting (think flair trousers!), art lasts forever. A bespoke signature garment that fits and flatters the wearer outlasts and overrides fashion; an outfit that truly enhances the wearer is vastly more beautiful than any ephemeral ‘fashion item’.

To elevate –
In his lecture, the master tailor points out that if you take two coats (one manufactured and one tailor-made), both with a 36” chest, you will notice a marked difference between the unremarkable manufactured one – which “lies… flat on the counter” and “looks lifeless” and the eye-catching hand-crafted, tailor-made coat. While the manufactured coat is “not a bad coat by any means”, it does not “glide to its place” as the tailor-made one does. For the bespoke coat is, in our master tailor’s words, “intended to fit a human body with its prominences and depressions, and not to lay flat on a counter”.

“See,” he exclaims, “how beautifully the collar and lapel curl inwards… and how naturally it fits over the breast.” There is a reason why this is the case, he explains: namely that the man who created the tailor-made coat – the artist tailor – knew that “the lining must be longer and wider where the body was hollow as at the shoulder and waist… and shorter and narrower at the round parts.”

The lecturer is convinced that the tailor in question has “infused a spirit in the garment which seems to say: ‘I am made to fit a man’”; he continues enthusiastically, “You notice the details, the binding, the facings, and its other features and throughout the whole garment you find harmony… and symmetry reigns supreme.”

As a direct consequence of the artistry involved in the garment’s creation, according to our highly persuasive master tailor: “The man who wears that coat must feel how superior it is to the ready-made one.”

To enable –
As the lecturer says, “When we look upon our fellow men around us and see how shapely they look, how noble is their appearance, how upright is their carriage, we little dream the part the tailor has played in producing that effect, even though we are behind the scenes”. To embellish his point, he gives examples of the ways in which the tailor enables the wearer of his garments to look their best: “The stooping figure is made upright…. the sloping shouldered man proportionate, the hump on the man’s back almost hidden… all with the aim of hiding nature’s defects to give emphasis to beauty where we find it… Then is there not something ennobling in our art, when it teaches us to hide each other’s physical deformities?” He makes a fair point and one that is still valid today, for just as an ill-fitting, manufactured garment from a retail outlet can inhibit and restrict its wearer, so a bespoke garment can mask the wearer’s physical imperfections and, quite literally, transform their appearance.

What does it take to be an artist tailor?

So what qualifications did the lecturer at Drury Lane think that his students at the ‘Tailor and Cutter’ School of Art and Cutting Academy required in order to be artist tailors?

Well, in his opinion, form and colour were two essentials to be mastered by any aspiring professional cutter or tailor. Indeed he described them, rather poetically, as being “the vowels and consonants of the silent language of creation, with which nature discloses all that is beautiful, all that is lovely, all that is sublime,” adding, “Sometimes she employs them separately, sometimes together.”

He continues: “In the rainbow we have both colour and form, but form is of secondary importance; the beautiful range of colour is the one thing that strikes us as being the prominent element. So it is throughout nature; whenever form and colour combine, they never vie with each other in importance.” Here, once again, an interesting parallel is drawn between art and nature.

Still on the subject of form, the master tailor emphasises that a sound knowledge of external anatomy is just as important to the tailor as a knowledge of sewing. He explains that it is essential for a tailor to appreciate “the relative proportions of the various parts, the positions of the bones and muscles, and the action of the limbs” and he recommends that each of the students study their own body to improve their understanding.

“Form in your own mind,” he suggests, “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. ….You must have your ideal peasant as well as your ideal prince; your young man and your old man; your thin man and fat man, and as each one comes along you must select your ideal and see where you can improve them. …But when you have formed this high ideal of what your various customers’ forms should be, you will need to go a step further, and form also an ideal of a perfect garment.” Sound advice, it would appear, for anyone whose profession is to create garments, as it is vital to remember that the wearer should be able to move around, sit, work, and – possibly even – dance in the finished bespoke outfit, depending on whether it be, respectively, a suit, a ball gown or a kilt…

An art that is ‘fit’ for purpose

But back to our lecturer, the master tailor, and the advice proffered to his eager students: “The best school to learn the points of beauty in a coat, vest or trousers, is the shop board. …Your eye is directed to the neatly drawn collar seam, the finish of the collar ends, the working up of the breast… all the features which go to make up a well-made coat.

“You should form an ideal of what your garment should be and what your customer should be, ere you start to cut, if you wish to be an artist tailor, as it is for the painter to know what object or scene his is going to follow in his picture. …. Your ideal should be a high one, aye, let it be so high as to be well-nigh beyond attainment, for you know if you aim high, you are more likely to strike high.”

Inspirational and emotive words, and further proof of the infectious passion that this 19th century lecturer most clearly had for his chosen profession.

Fortunately for those one day destined to wear the end results of the trainee tailors’ labours, the lecturer tells his students: “I am by no means of opinion that we should do our utmost to display the outline of the nude, and make our customers look like puddings boiled in a cloth, with no surplus room and no allowance for the movement of the limbs”

It must certainly have been a relief for the artist tailors’ customers to read that the finished garment should not leave them looking like a pudding. Yet another good reason to entrust the making of one’s garments to a professional artist tailor!

The lecturer continues, “My ideal of a perfect fitting garment is one that drapes the figure, that has due allowance made for easy movement of the body, that is easy and graceful, giving tone to prominent features and intensifying the point of beauty, that rests on the body naturally, and conveys to the onlookers mind not ‘What a beautiful coat that man has on’ but rather ‘What a noble, powerful, graceful man is before them’… The man is the first importance and not the coat…. The clothes of a well-dressed person always have the harmony about them that nothing strikes you prominently; you only admire the general effect. You see there are certain prominence and certain hollows. … wherever there is a round it should be worked back, and wherever there is a hollow it should be strained out.”

Noble, powerful and graceful… The more we hear about this noble profession of tailoring, the more the artist tailor sounds like a girl (or a chap’s) best friend…

According to the lecturer, there are four points to consider when making men’s garments, and these are: 1) habits of life 2) age 3) position 4) form. For ladies’ garments, he considers that although the same features hold good to a certain extent, they [women] are not confined to either style or colour. He says, “Art is all on their side; they may vary the outline according to their figure or their fancy, the colour according to their complexion, age and disposition.”

Still on the matter of ladies’ outfits, he refers to three principal characteristics: severity, grace and magnificence. “Take, for instance,” he says, “the study of secondary or accessory details, such as gloves, hat, parasol, shoes, etc. and see how the harmony of a costume is brought about and intensified by their aid.” From his words, it becomes evident that the concept of accessorising is by no means a modern Monsoon phenomenon.

All may not be as it seams…

Another key element pertaining to the artistry of tailoring is, as the lecturer explains at some length, the positioning of seams (a factor especially relevant to the bespoke kilt maker):

“Seams must always command a large amount of respect of attention from the cutter who desires to be an artist. … Any cutter who has mastered the principle of cutting should study how to locate his seams gracefully… to add length where this would improve the figure. … Now one of the first things we should understand is that the beautiful in lines is the curve. … No sharp angles and fewest number of straight lines… one of the rules generally acknowledged is that lines, whether vertical or horizontal, produce sensations of length or width in whichever direction they are running… it has been my aim to infuse in the first draught as much grace and form and beauty of outline as possible…… You will notice the harmony of the parts…. This is no chance arrangement but part of the design.”

From this heartfelt description of the expertise and emotion invested in the design and creation of a garment, it is easy to appreciate that the wearers of such garments, “infused” with such positive attributes as “grace and beauty”, will be touched – through some sort of emotional osmosis – by the passion and artistry that has gone into the making of their outfit.

And the lecturer has not yet finished with this aspect of tailoring as an art, urging his students: “Whatever you do, see that your work is easily and happily done or it will never make anyone else happy, and while you throw your whole heart into your work, and give rein to all your impulse, see that those impulses are headed and centred by one noble impulse and let that be LOVE, Triple love, for the art which you practise, the creation in which you move and the creatures to whom you minister.”

A labour of love

He assures the trainees “if ever any other motive becomes your leading idea, you have a small chance of success as an artist. You may be desirous of making money, acquiring fame or achieving position – all good and desirable – but these must never be the chief aim of your extra exertion, that must always be your love for your art… so that if it ever comes to a question, whether you will make five shillings or even a pound more by a garment, and spoil it, or do it as you know it ought to be done, and you choose to spoil it, then I repeat, you stand no chance of success as an artist.”

So, as with many other aspects of life, the success of the artist tailor, revolves around love… Moreover, anyone misguidedly entering the profession with the aim of making a quick buck will be disappointed in what the lecturer says next…

“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. And when you have got your money, do you think you will have experienced the same pleasure in making it as you would have done in your efforts to successfully infuse form, style and beautify in the various parts of your garments? I think not; and 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. There is never any difficulty in procuring quantity; the need of the present time is not for men who can get through an immense amount of work, but for men and women who can produce quality and infuse in their garments the highest degree of skilled manipulation.”

Impressive sentiments, without a doubt. However, on reading this master cutter’s call to action to ignore the financial aspects of one’s work and to create garments driven by love, one does feel just a slight concern about how the 19th century tailors are going to put a meal on the table for their families at the end of their – no doubt long and hard – working day!

The lecturer’s emotive and stirring words doubtless inspired a generation of artist tailors, whose legacy lives on in the dedicated professional tailors who today practise this often under-appreciated art form.

His closing paragraph refers to tailoring as a “profession which is second to none; being no less than providing an artistic covering for our fellows, hiding their deformities, covering up their imperfections and bringing out all that is majestic and beautiful in their form, sublime in their character, and so adding completeness to the sweeter symmetries of our being.”

To a modern-day ear, the language of this 19th century lecture may sound slightly quaint and old-fashioned. Yet the latent passion behind this lecturer’s words cannot be mistaken, and his message is clear: cherish the work of the master tailor, for it is truly a work of art.