What does ‘bespoke’ mean, anyway?
While we’re not going to resort to the hackneyed dictionary method here, it is important to try to define what ‘bespoke’ truly is, given it’s the common thread uniting the vast majority of this issue’s content. A decade ago, British etymologist Michael Quinion researched the word’s origins and wrote, “Bespeak can be traced right back to Old English, before the Norman Conquest. It meant not merely to speak, but to speak up or speak out, exclaim or call out. Later it had a sense of discussing or deciding on some matter; by the end of the 16th century it had come to mean arranging for something to be done, engaging a person to do a job, or ordering goods. The adjective bespoke came out of that sense in the middle of the 18th century.”
Quinion asserts that a common belief about bespoke’s provenance is incorrect. “It is often said that the word originally referred to cloth in a tailor’s shop that had been spoken for, that is, it had been reserved for a particular customer and so was unavailable to anybody else,” he wrote. “The historical evidence shows this is not the case; it is a well meaning but incorrect attempt to come to grips with this old sense of the verb bespeak.”
Nevertheless, one of the first steps in commissioning a bespoke suit is indeed the selection of a cloth and ‘bespeaking’ (in the sense of “engaging a person to do a job, or ordering goods”) your specific desires, which the tailor will then use as his guide in crafting the garment. To qualify as authentic bespoke, a suit cannot simply be a variation on a pre-existing block (that’s what is known as made-to-measure): it has to be created from scratch
One of the laziest devices used to kick-start an editor’s
letter is to take the issue’s theme and define it. Perhaps
the saying, “It’s called fashion, look it up,” arose from exhausted editors, in the process of wrapping
their hefty September ‘Style’ issues, doing exactly that. (“What is ‘fashion’?
According to MerriamWebster’s, fashion is blah blah blah…” You know the
drill, no doubt.)