Where did the word Bespoke come from and what does it mean?

Published: 11th April 2011
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We hear the word bespoke everywhere these days. Businesses of all types use it to advertise their products or services, from bespoke kitchens to bespoke websites. It is taken to mean custom built, and anything built to a customer’s specific requirements has been described as bespoke.

But where did the word ‘bespoke’ first come from?

Bespoke’s origin comes from the world of tailoring. It was first used to mean an item of clothing that had been "spoken for", or to "be spoke(n)" for. It was used for items made to a customer’s requirements, but it was used specifically for tailoring and not in other industries. It was used to separate custom made clothing and mass produced clothing, or "off the rack" clothing, as it was also called.

Bespoke was only used to mean completely original items and would usually fit the following criteria:

• Size was specific to a customer’s measurements. This was rather than a choice of sizes as with mass produced clothing, where customers choose the best fit. It wasn’t a best fit, but an exact fit.

• Clothing patterns would be designed from scratch. This wouldn’t mean a customer choosing from a variety of patterns, but rather discussing the specific pattern required with the tailor.

• Even the stitching may have been unique to the customer and certainly wouldn’t be factory made.

• And possible most importantly, everything would be handmade and hand stitched.

Where should Bespoke be used and where shouldn’t it?

There have been many debates in certain circles about when the word bespoke should be used. Some have argued that it should strictly remain a tailoring term, as "this is its true meaning". But then others would argue that language develops over time, and the meaning of bespoke has widened. Therefore the lines have become blurred over what bespoke really means. A group of traditional tailors based in London’s Savile Row, the Savile Row Bespoke Association, has campaigned for the term to only be allowed to be used for what they see as the bespoke traditions of tailoring. Their wishes, though, have been denied.

If bespoke means custom, what exactly is custom?

Is custom built anything where a customer chooses certain aspects of a product? Or do they need choice over every single aspect and can essentially have anything they want? This has been another area of debate.

Some businesses have been accused of using the words "bespoke" and "custom built" as a marketing tool without actually producing a product worthy of these descriptions. For example, car manufacturers usually give their customers a series of choices (sometimes many choices) of how they would like their car built. But customers can’t literally have anything they want, unless they are willing to pay a lot of money. So does this make it bespoke?

The real meaning of bespoke is not easy to define. Some claim everything must be unique while others are not so specific about what they think bespoke should mean. It began in the world of tailoring but the term has now been used by businesses of all types.

Andrew Marshall (c)

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