This is Part I of a series on Classic Tailoring. For Part II, click here.
Anybody who knows me or at least follows me on social media is aware I’ve a passion for classic tailoring which borders on obsession. I’m also non-binary, and while this part of my identity should not matter, it did have a large impact in my sewing journey. Before we begin, thought, I’d like you to read these slides (below) I’ve made so you can catch up with the discourse regarding sex and gender, since I mention both in the post, and I really want to avoid confusion.
Before we delve into everything tailoring, I’d like to explain the rationale behind some of the terms I choose to use in this discussion. Often times, when I speak of un-gendering fashion people react with shock, even anger, having in mind a unisex blob out of some insipid all beige fashion ad. But actually, that couldn’t be further from what I’m doing here. There is a profound difference, in my opinion, between unisex and gender-neutral.
Unisex garments are supposed to fit, magically, all bodies with one pattern to rule them all. This is very problematic for several reasons, from the obvious sexual dimorphism (and btw pattern making is taught on the basis of sex, not gender) which can only be solved by…roomy designs, to very legitimate style concerns, not to mention the not so veiled fat phobia perpetuated by the stereotype of wafer-thin and diaphanous white models being sold to us as the epitome of chic. I also can’t help but think that unisex clothing is just altered men’s clothing, and therefore it reinforces the stereotype of women and femininity being inferior. On the other hand, gender-neutral implies that the labels attached to garments linked to a gender are removed, and instead descriptors are used, such as “darted shirts”, or “fitted bodice dresses”, “straight cut trousers”. Crucially, the differences between bodies are still taken into consideration in the drafting. I firmly believe people should have the right to choose what they want to wear and the number and location of darts as they see fit, I just don’t think slapping a label to indicate which gender they are supposed to be in order to be “allowed” to wear said clothes is necessary to the entire endeavor.
I’m aware there is a lot of confusion due to the media using unisex/gender-neutral/androgyny interchangeably, when they are in fact three distinct things. In my communications, I mean what I wrote above, and consider androgyny as the mixing of feminine and masculine elements into an ambiguous form, as that is its semantic meaning. In that vein, I believe people like me, or Shannon, all incorporate androgyny in the way we dress. I want to reiterate once more that androgyny deals with expression and has nothing to do with one’s gender.
This is all to say that this entire debate has become one of the subjects of my activism. It may seem frivolous, but this is symptomatic of a much larger problem in the world when it comes to not only LGBTQI+ rights, but also old and simple respect of others, not to mention the ability to not center oneself in every conversation, instead trying to listen to issues alien to us, but very real for other people. No non-binary person has any issue with people living on the binary (I see you and love you), what we are saying is that we do exist, and acknowledging us and our struggle costs you zero yen. As I said many times before, you don’t need to understand an issue to realize it exists.
Now that I’ve set the scene, lets move on to my selection of resources. The caveat is that this is all, it goes without saying, my opinion and preference, and it’s been filtered by my being infinitely contrarian. I wanted to make proper tailored garments, to fit my body, fulfill my vision fully, have tons of pockets, without looking like I chose I garment 3 sizes too big. However, I also happen to believe most of these texts can provide some useful knowledge to a wide array of sewists.
Content Warning: in compiling this list, I have to admit that unfortunately I’m forced to recommend books which are rigidly divided into a binary. I thought about whether to include such texts long and hard, having many feelings from dysphoria, to anger, to self-doubt. In the end, I reasoned I can use this as an opportunity to show how deeply seated the binary view of the world is, and how simple changing would be.
If you are interested in this discussion, I recommend this episode of Dressed: The History of Fashion and its part 2.
Moving on to the actual post, I want to recommend a few books I think are useful to learn the basics. First, Dressing the Man by Alan Flusser does provide a wealth of knowledge and historical references, packed with pictures.
Don’t get me wrong, this book does have flaws, the chief ones being its white cishet-centric perspective, minimal diversity, and antiquated nomenclature (“Dressing the Human”, anyone? Seems like in order to be dapper you need to be a middle aged British nobleman with a hunting estate). However, it does provide a good introduction to the world of classic tailoring, including reasons for specific color and pattern matching, or why peak lapels are the standard for double breasted jackets, so for these reasons I recommend it.
Next, here are a few books which I have found useful in my quest to draft my own suit. Starting from the inside, a basic and versatile shirt is the first step to tailoring. I’ve had trouble with shirt patterns, but these two books have helped me a lot. The first two are Japanese sewing books: “男のシャツの本” (otono no shiatsu no hon, literally the “book of man’s shirts”) and “Shirts and Blouses“, which targets womenswear. These two books provide several patterns and tips for alterations which I’ve found useful.
In addition to these two, I love “Shirtmaking: developing skills for fine sewing” by David Page Coffin, particularly for the instructions on how to achieve very professional looking collars and cuffs. It also comes with a Workbook, though I don’t own it and therefore can’t really speak of it. The aim of this publication is to enable you to create your own basic shirt, from which you can iterate and create more styles. This book also includes some parts which you can use to build your own shirt block,
Moving on to pants, another books by Coffin I like is “Making Trousers“. This is actually the very first sewing book I got when I started out back in 2017, specifically because of the impossibility to find the unicorn pants which would 1. fit 2. be in the style I like with massive pockets too and 3. at a price point I was able to pay.
This book is chock full with amazing tips and tricks (or, as I call them, trips!), and once again encourages you to develop your own pants block to use forever. Genius.
Now, you have made your shirt, you have made your pants, but what about the jacket? Sadly, there are very few books on the matter. Personally, I love this one simply called “Tailoring: The Classic Guide to Sewing the Perfect Jacket“. This text seems to focus on jacket making for the person with breasts, but the techniques are obviously the same regardless of the need for strategically placed bust darts, and its detailed photography makes for an easy manual to follow. In my opinion, it’s a great book to use in association with my next recommendation.
I’ve kept the best for last: “Classic Tailoring Techniques: A Construction Guide for Men’s Wear” by Roberto Cabrera and Patricia Flaherty Meyers. There are several versions of this book, and a womenswear version too, but as far as I’ve read on tailoring forums you should stay away from the revised 2015 edition and instead search for the vintage one (mine is from 1991). The link above also provides other titles which are deemed “necessary”.
It took me two years to find a copy which would ship to Japan, but there are still many in circulation so if you get the chance, I really recommend it. It’s clear in its writing, the diagrams are easy to understand, and it’s very complete, taking you from coats to vests to pants, and including pattern pieces to help you in the drafting. Ideally you should own both the men’s and women’s version, mold them in a single text titled “A Construction Guide”, and stick a middle finger to the binary. Just sayin’!
Another point to keep in mind regarding these last two books is that neither provides any insight on pattern making, being focused on techniques more than anything, and only occasionally guiding you through alterations. If drafting is your intention, be it a suit or in general, above all I recommend either the Aldrich for metric pattern cutting (both men’s and women’s are useful), or the Armstrong for…whatever that thing which is not metric is. I think the former is a bit more beginner friendly than the latter. I do have all three and I really wish they didn’t come gendered. I’m very curious now: these are all old texts, so maybe there is a revision in the works. How about merging men’s and women’s version into one, with a gender-neutral title? Or keep them separate but instead of gender-focused, make it anatomy-focused? Anybody working in publishing here?
As far as online resources are concerned, the Cutter and Tailor forum was an amazing resource, but is sadly now offline. Ad interim, an alternative forum is being maintained, called The Bespoke Cutter, which has a plethora of discussion boards and thankfully still contains the link to the archived version of the original forum. I also like to use Reddit (r/tailoring and r/sewing are good places to start), though for the beginner I’d suggest the Bespoke Cutter, since it is heavily moderated by professionals so you are at least in principle less likely to be given bad advice (one is hoping). In addition to these resources, Sewcialists also has a list of tutorials here, though I have to admit I have not checked them individually, so your mileage may vary.
This concludes Part I of the #TailorinForThem series. See you next time!