Suits you

Dou­glas Lloyd Jenk­ins pon­ders the ver­nac­u­lar of mea­sure­ments and qual­ity

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Open a week­end news­pa­per or a magazine and it won’t be long be­fore you come across an ar­ti­cle in which you are be­ing cor­ralled into one of those so­cial groups based on be­hav­iour. There is, it seems, a new la­bel for each new gen­er­a­tion or part thereof. It all started once the Baby Boomers had done their thing. Sud­denly there was a term for each new batch – X-Gen­er­a­tion, Y-Gen­er­a­tion, Mil­len­ni­als, Digital Na­tives, Snowflakes… An­noy­ing as it can be to be par­celled up in this way, we can take so­lace that even from in­side one of these groups, there is still room to claim some in­di­vid­u­al­ity. There are, it seems, al­ways mo­ments in which you can process a shared ex­pe­ri­ence dif­fer­ently from most of your peer group.

One such oc­cur­rence that stands out for me was when New Zealand de­cided to con­vert from im­pe­rial to met­ric mea­sure­ments. There has been no re­cent na­tion­wide con­ver­sion that is com­pa­ra­ble – ex­cept per­haps aban­don­ing a rather strange left turn road rule, which was al­ways coun­ter­in­tu­itive. It’s hard to think what might hap­pen to­day that would have the same im­pact; a com­pul­sory and im­me­di­ate con­ver­sion to Te Reo, per­haps (it hap­pens – in the 1920s, Mustafa Ke­mal Atatürk gave Turk­ish peo­ple three months to learn an en­tirely new al­pha­bet). How­ever, to me at least, na­tion­wide change to­day never seems quite as sweep­ing or as im­me­di­ate as the con­ver­sion to the met­ric sys­tem in the mid-1970s.

Back at my in­ter­me­di­ate school, teach­ers, who were per­haps still strug­gling with the change from pounds, shillings and pence five years ear­lier, were com­pletely con­fused by the new sys­tem. The way I re­mem­ber it is that they sim­ply de­cided not to teach mea­sure­ments at all.

Rather than learn­ing a sort of mea­sure­ment bilin­gual­ism, the end re­sult for me has been a sort of con­fused in­ter­change­abil­ity that ex­presses it­self in mea­sure­ments such as one yard, six mil­lime­tres. Still un­cer­tain about the frac­tions of an inch, I’ll use mil­lime­tres for any small mea­sure­ment. I like both feet and yards for their im­me­di­ately un­der­stand­able hu­man­ist val­ues. I think of a mile and a kilo­me­tre as be­ing much the same (both are dis­tances I don’t want to be made to walk in the rain). I know a pint is 600ml be­cause they kept the same milk bot­tles even when plas­tic came along. Clearly oth­ers of my gen­er­a­tion were not so af­fected – I hear peo­ple of my age talk­ing con­fi­dently in pure met­rics – but I’ve ended up with my own in­ter­nal sys­tem of mea­sure­ment, which works for me.

When nav­i­gat­ing the world of de­sign, and in par­tic­u­lar in­te­ri­ors and ar­chi­tec­ture, a few per­sonal sys­tems of mea­sure­ment can be help­ful. The most dif­fi­cult one to per­fect is a sys­tem, or even sim­ply a lan­guage, to mea­sure qual­ity. The words we use for qual­ity are al­ways un­der threat from ad­ver­tis­ers, who like to claim su­pe­ri­or­ity for very run-of-the-mill prod­ucts in or­der to bet­ter sell them.

If you go back 50 years or so, New Zealan­ders had two mea­sures of qual­ity that were largely unas­sail­able. ‘English’ could be used to de­note the qual­ity of china, glass and tex­tiles. For the rest, the fall­back term was ‘old’ – old, or an­tique, meant of a qual­ity that had stood the test of time. In a con­tem­po­rary world, how­ever, an­nounc­ing prod­uct as ei­ther ‘English’ or ‘an­tique’ is no longer a uni­ver­sally win­ning for­mula. We live in a time in which many of the ma­te­ri­als en­coun­tered in a de­sign project will be new; of­ten prod­ucts of tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tions that have taken place a very long way from our friends in Brex­it­land. It is ironic, then, that some of the terms now in fre­quent use for qual­ity come from the very heart of Eng­land – Lon­don’s Sav­ile Row.

Made-to-mea­sure is a term that orig­i­nated in the process of mak­ing men’s suits. Smart and all as it sounds, it is the mid­dle of three op­tions. Most suits are off-the-peg – you buy them in the shop and hope they fit (they sel­dom do), per­haps hav­ing the trousers or sleeves al­tered to suit. Madeto-mea­sure suits are those that come from an ex­ist­ing stan­dard pat­tern, which is tweaked prior to as­sem­bly to re­flect the cus­tomer’s mea­sure­ments. And at the top end are be­spoke suits. These are tai­lored to your body from the ground up – su­per stylish and su­per ex­pen­sive, they take seem­ingly for­ever to make, but are worth the wait. Most well­dressed men (and no doubt a num­ber of women) yearn to own at least one be­spoke suit in a life­time.

The thing about suits – and the ex­pla­na­tion of their longevity as the sta­ple of the male wardrobe – is that a good one hides a mul­ti­tude of sins, and may ap­pear to be of higher qual­ity than it re­ally is. Off-the-peg can look made-to-mea­sure, and if the plan­ets align, ei­ther can pass for be­spoke. Here the flex­i­bil­ity of lan­guage and the flex­i­bil­ity of ap­pear­ance aligns with our cur­rent age. The range of suit-mak­ing terms gives us a way of mea­sur­ing qual­ity that we can adapt for our­selves; to fit our own per­sonal needs, for our own per­sonal sat­is­fac­tion. And af­ter all, this is ex­actly what a per­sonal mea­sure­ment sys­tem – even one as con­fus­ing as one yard, six mil­lime­tres – should do.

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