I'll Follow Suit: Bespoke Tailoring for Women

Dylan Thomas

For Sophy Roberts, entering the all-male, completely bespoke world of Savile Row is about more than understanding men—it’s a chance to understand her family.

On July 27, 1973, my father was measured for a coat on London’s Savile Row, at Anderson & Sheppard. He chose a lightweight “tropical” single-breasted jacket in fawn Shetland tweed, and a dark-blue cavalry-twill trouser. The coat—which he still wears—cost $120, and the trousers $65, both charged to his brother Philip Nesfield Roberts.

When my father visited Anderson & Sheppard, I was four weeks old. (The exact dates, along with the measurements and suit orders and every customer’s details, are written into leather-bound ledgers filed in the store.) I was the middle daughter of three girls, which I have always assumed disappointing to a man brought up in a family with four boys.

Savile Row is an iconic street, first established in the 18th century as a locus of gentleman’s bespoke apparel, with the 1771 opening of Hawkes tailors, later known as Gieves & Hawkes and still located at 1 Savile Row. H. Huntsman & Sons opened in 1849. Modern additions have included Richard James (opened 1992, at number 29) and Richard Anderson (2001, at number 13). Anderson & Sheppard opened in 1906 in a five-floor building at number 30. In 2005, however, Anderson & Sheppard moved to smaller premises, on Old Burlington Street, parallel to Savile Row. In recent times, the power of a Savile Row address has been commandeered by multinational clothing stores that want to benefit from the rich heritage associated with the street name and the English tailoring tradition.

Anderson & Sheppard’s typeface—embroidered into every single piece they make, along with the garment reference number, date of order, and customer’s full name—was stuck in my psyche like a burr. The flourish of the ampersand was beautiful to me, stitched into the lining of my father’s coat. The lettering’s loops and curls bewitched me. It denoted hidden territory, like the holes in a map where men have always traveled freely.

In July I stepped across Anderson & Sheppard’s threshold for the first time, into a room with warm terracotta walls lined with darkly stained wood shelves holding swatches and ledgers. It smelled of leather—and men.

However, if I’d hoped I might have been the first woman to make a suit order with Anderson & Sheppard, I would be wrong. Mr. Heywood, managing director, said Ms. Marlene Dietrich, of 20 Grosvenor Square, W1K, came here on January 22, 1937, on the recommendation of her friend Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Mr. Heywood showed me her signature in the same leather measure books where he later found my father’s records. On November 24, 2008, Kate Moss commissioned three boy’s coats. And the writer Fran Lebowitz has had several jackets made there. But those were one-offs, insisted Mr. Heywood, reiterating that they don’t make women’s suits. “Anderson & Sheppard has been a gentleman’s Savile Row tailor since 1906.”

I was escorted into a fitting room behind a walnut-colored velvet drape. Mr. Heywood called for Mr. Powell, a coat cutter for about 14 years, who measured as I stood fully dressed. Mr. Powell called out a sequence of 20 numbers for Mr. Heywood to transcribe into the measure book. Another eight were called when we moved on to the trousers. It was like listening to a litany in church. He suggested a bit of suppression at the waist, to give the jacket shape. The lapel: neither too wide nor too narrow but classic, in proportion with the chest. A melton under the collar. The length of the jacket just covers the seat, and on the sleeve, real buttonholes, which, historically, was something to do with doctors’ needing to roll up their shirts. There are three real buttons, one dummy. The dummy sits at the top so it can be moved down if the sleeve needs lengthening at any point. Inside, pockets “for chopsticks, passports, pens.” We discussed the purpose of the suit, the slight shape the tailors would give to my waist and bust, the entire process taking no more than ten minutes.

It took me five minutes to select the cloth: a lightweight mid-blue Yorkshire-made pick-and-pick made from a wool-and-cashmere mix with a blue ermazine lining. What I found curious was how the quiet authority of English tradition was carrying me through all the decision making—and I was happy to be led. I looked at only 3 swatch books among a possible 300. I touched 5 of some 9,000 fabrics held in-store. What a peculiar thing this was, the way I handed over my own volition to men I barely knew. This is bespoke, yes, but there's not much choice.

My suit is due to arrive another month from now—all 2,165 grams of it, created in eight weeks, a second skin that’s loose and free but cut to my height and shape. At our first fitting Mr. Powell and Mr. Spencer made adjustments with tailor’s chalk and pins. Mr. Powell lifted the shoulder a little; Mr. Spencer wanted to get the leg slimmer at the top, the waist a little higher. It was delicious to me—to be in this forbidden space, the poetry of code, witnessing the art of men who mark up cloth with dashes and slashes in Morse only the initiated could understand. Yet in this no-nonsense world of men, I learned that a men’s bespoke suit is everything in its confident simplicity fashion will never be to women—all the fuss and fluff of possibilities.

Before I left, I wrote my mailing address in the ledger. Mr. Heywood showed me my father’s entry. If only I could understand the code. All I could do was compare the two sets of measurements. I couldn’t tell what the orders meant, but I could see how they tallied up. He and his brothers were very close indeed—with Philip a half inch off in 8 measures of the 28. The computation made me sad. This same brother died young, in 1984. Not wanting to think anymore about the hole his absence left in our family, I compared my 28 measurements to Marlene’s instead. I will only tell you this: My legs were a good inch longer than hers, but she was the one with the narrower waist.

Bespoke suits start at $6,820; Anderson & Sheppard, 32 Old Burlington St.; 44-20/7734-1420; anderson-sheppard.co.uk.

Photo Credit: Dylan Thomas