The ways of old-fashioned tailoring

Tailoring may be a traditional craft, but even Savile Row tailors have moved with the times and the trends. But according to traditional tailor, Tom van het Hof, there is still much to be salvaged from the craft’s by-gone golden eras. Join us as we ask Tom about the principles and techniques that keep him coming back to the tailoring of yesterday.
THE STORY

An inspiring interview

Ernest Wright: How have the challenges of being a tailor changed in the last century? People’s size and shape have changed significantly over the years.
 
Tom van het Hof: The biggest change is not proportions, but what fashion dictates.
 
Most of the garments I make are from between the world wars – especially the 1930s. The difference between the fashion of that time and modern fashion is like the difference between night and day. In the 1930s, the shape of clothing was more to do with the person wearing it. There was a balance between what does the garment look like, and what does the wearer look like. It was all to do with the drape, the structure.
 
Nowadays, you see Italian suits where the wearer is strapped in like a sausage. It’s all about narrow shoulders and a very slim, tight-fitting appearance. People believe the less structure a garment has, the more comfortable it is, when actually, it all depends on how something fits and how it is made.
 
So, the challenge for a classic tailor today is as much about fashion and the modern way of looking at it, as it is about the proportional differences between people now and 100 years ago.
 
We’re now seeing a revival of drape-fitting clothes. It’s not done in the way it was in the 1930s or even the 80s; it’s more of a modern adaptation, taking advantage of the cloth and modern fashion to make a timeless appearance – the best of both worlds.

EW: 1930s tailoring is your main era of expertise – but are there any other periods in tailoring history you hold in similar esteem?
 
Tom: The 1920s. This was the time when things were often very slim-fitted, narrow-shouldered, with slim trouser legs and a very short rise of the ankles. Back then, the tailor would look at what the client looked like, how their proportions were, and then adjusted the fashion in order to make it look good. Nowadays, it’s just one-size, slim-fit, and whether you’re a size 44 or a 36, you still get the same fit of jacket.
 
More broadly, I look back on the 1870s-1950s with admiration. I appreciate the way things from that whole era look, the way things were made, and also how the basis of modern menswear was formed in that period; whereas before the 1870s, you can still see some things that were quite different and wouldn’t translate as well into something we’d consider timeless and classic today. Looking outdated isn’t something I personally care about, but there’s a difference between looking dated in a three-piece suit and looking dated in a frock coat or breeches.
 
Soft tailoring was introduced in England around the 1930s or late 20s. It was allegedly brought to Savile Row by a Dutch tailor, Frederick Scholte. He was one of the pioneers of the drape cut, which includes a lot of shape and room in the chest and a nicely tailored waist, and provides a very nice balance between a firm structure and comfort.
 
This method of soft tailoring is the solution to make something both classic and timeless. It always looks right. When you look for vintage suits, you will see the drape cut in suits made in the 1930s, the 1950s, 1980s and 2000s. It really has transcended fashion.

EW: As a traditional tailor, you get to influence which aspects of historic styles will live on in the modern world. How do you choose what to salvage from the past?
 
Tom: I basically have a very simple principle: if I like it, I salvage it.
 
That involves a lot of different things. It could be an 1870s three-piece suit – that’s all fine and dandy to me, I love it. Or it could be a 30s hunting suit. And everything in between.
 
My aim is always to preserve a style which I like and think looks best on everyone, and that approach usually brings me back to the 1920s and 30s, and also the early 40s.
 
It was a style that didn’t discriminate on how you looked or what build you were. That’s one of the main things I’d like to preserve of the old principles of the craft: to not necessarily bring back old design features, but to salvage the underlying principles. The clothes should be built according to the strong points of the client, so they feel good and stylish.
 
EW: How important is the tailor-client relationship?
 
Tom: My fittings are all done personally, and over the course of two or three fittings, it’s very easy for the client to see for themselves what they like or don’t like.
 
Before fitting, you talk about all sorts of things with the client. It’s just a casual conversation which builds towards the business side of things. You need to learn what kind of lifestyle the client has, and what the garment is to be made for. Is it for daily wear, sporting events or just fancy dress? And concerning the vintage and historical aspects, is the client going for something more contemporary, or do they want something that’s a replica of something worn a hundred years ago?
 
You have to help the client to feel comfortable in your presence, because it’s quite an intimate process with measuring, fitting and so on. The personal relationship you have with them also makes it easier to make decisions for the client. If I know them a bit, I can already make small decisions, choose fabrics and certain features, advise against certain features, think of extra things they might find useful, or things that might be excessive. It’s about getting to know someone, what they are comfortable with, and what they like and don’t like.
 
Sometimes, you also pick up the client’s subconscious preferences. You just feel it. For example, you might have a conversation, and they’ll talk about the sort of lifestyle they have, the events they go to, and you can make a mental note of certain details such as fabrics they may or may not like. If someone talks about a business environment, you can already make a decision to make them not so much of a period tailored suit, but more of a contemporary style, with not too much shoulder padding, and trousers that are not too wide or narrow.
 
Most of these intuitions relate to stylistic and proportional choices, and sometimes also more practical things, like whether you go for a heavily structured garment or something with a softer interlining.

EW: Do your styles suit everyone?
 
Tom: I personally think that every person looks best with the basic principles upheld in the 1930s: the proportional look that suits every body type. It is more the fashionable aspects that decide whether something translates to the modern day or not.
 
I can make a completely historically correct 1930s suit with heavily padded shoulders and very wide, pleated trousers, but for some people, despite the fact that it may look very nice and flattering, it’s just too much for them. So, you could perhaps opt for the basis – a moderate drape cut with a bit of structure, and shoulder padding to accentuate the shoulder and therefore waist – but just to leave aside the very wide trousers, lapels and such. The aspect that always translates well is proportionality. That’s what looks best on each shape, body type and gender.
 
EW: How do you feel when you see a contemporary fashion designer borrowing elements of classic style?
 
Tom: I have mixed feelings. If a contemporary designer adapts classic style in a respectful way, in tune with the heritage of the looks from those days, they can make a very nice transcendence to the modern age. You can see they’ve done their homework on it: they kept in mind where it came from and what it represents.
 
But then, you can also get fashion designers who just take classic style and make it something that was never really meant to be. For example, it looks very weird to have a modern suit which combines 1930s lapels with narrow, short-legged trousers, because the whole balance is weird. If they just go with it and don’t really think about how it looks as a whole, that really annoys me, because it doesn’t work, and it makes the wearer look ridiculous.
 
EW: What is your technical approach as a classic tailor?
 
Tom: I have one principle in the way I make: that is to just make things according to the techniques they used 100 years ago. All I do is completely the ancient way, so to speak.
 
That entails chest reinforcement, the use of stiff horsehair, a lot of stretching and shrinking to shape the fabric according to where the movements are required; drape, firm shoulders and comfortable, full sleeves that provide a big range of movement. And I use no fusible interfacings whatsoever – I hate those.
 
My approach involves a lot of work and a lot of techniques, but you really see the difference. I do a lot of things by hand, which makes it a lot more time-consuming and more expensive – but, to me, it really does provide the work with many more years of longevity. The minimal amount of pressing and stretching, and the fusable interlining used to make modern garments, are going to come loose after a few years and that looks very cheap. With the old ways, you have a lot of very firm handiwork that will remain fixed for decades.
 
Craftsmanship also just makes it live more. Whether I make an historically accurate 1920s suit, or a modern overcoat, it still just provides you with the quality and the nod to heritage that you’re aiming for.
 
This doesn’t mean you can’t take advantage of modern techniques. For example,  some Savile Row tailors I’ve seen use both a completely floating canvas, but on the points of stress they add a bit of fusible reinforcement, just to ensure it will last. That’s something I can get behind, because then you’re not replacing something; you’re just adding modern advantage to it. So, I do think that using modern techniques on top of the old techniques is very advantageous – but I don’t believe in replacing the old ways.
 
How I work is all done from the old point of view. I don’t use the modern drafting systems; I only use the vintage ones. My standard one is from 1944. When you use that, it already fits very nicely to the client, and it looks a lot better than when you use a modern pattern that is just more of a principle of making something very big, and then pinning it in accordance to the body shape. While, when you use a very old drafting system, it takes many more things into account, like whether you have a very erect posture or a very downwards posture; backwards shoulders or forwards shoulders; and even at the first fitting, when a lot of things are still meant to be altered, it already looks a whole lot better.

I do tailoring almost the exact same way as they did 100 years ago, but regarding the differences of taste, I adapt that to a timeless or modern view, or a historically accurate one. Whatever anyone suggests, it’s always made in the same way – it’s just that the approach to it will be in accordance with what the client would like.
 
EW: How would you sum up the differences between modern and classic fashion?
 
Tom: The modern approach to fashion, be it men’s or women’s, is based on very selfish and widely exclusive principles. It’s all very athletic, very slim – for people who are very aesthetically pleasing to the modern eye. Even plus size fashion is often more suited to how an average person looks, or for people who aren’t really a fair option to be considered plus size.
 
When you go back to the 1910s-40s, you see a lot of advertisements featuring slim, athletic looking men, but there are always a few which are dedicated to the so-called “stout men” or “portly cut men”. And it was the same in women’s advertising – in Denmark, for example, they had something called “Madam” sizing, for women who fell outside of that slim, athletic spectrum. I think the approach they had in those days is much fairer than what is done nowadays. They provided clothing for everyone, not just a minority.
 
You can only call something fashion if everyone can wear it – and I think the proportional view of 1920s, 30s, 40s fashion is the best approach for creating that. It’s something that everyone looks and feels good in. That, to me, is the approach that will hopefully last throughout the ages; when people realise that fashion shouldn’t just be slim, fitted, and skinny; it should be something that everyone looks good in, and which is comfortable for everyone to wear. We need to get rid of the term ‘plus size’, which is offensive, because everyone is their own size, and they don’t need to conform to some manufacturing ideal thought up by the fashion industry.
 
The drape cut has remained very prominent, especially among Savile Row tailors. And now, in fashion, you see pleated trousers coming back with slightly wider legs. It will never go back to a full revival of the early 20th century, but I do think there will be a throwback to the things that are best for everyone – a classic cut, where nothing is too big, wide, slim or narrow; a very good average between contemporary fashion and the things that were good about the old ways. And I can only hope, eventually, that we will revert to a higher standard of quality.
 
EW: What materials and tools do you have on your table top?
 
Tom: A lot of beautiful fabrics; ones that comply with the requirements of vintage tailoring. They tend to be on the heavier side, so instead of super 100 fabrics, I use fabrics in that weigh no less than 350 grammes per metre. I love working with Tweed the most. It comes with 1,001 different colourways, and equally diverse textures, palettes and qualities. And I also love working with pinstripe flannel, or a nice corduroy, or a nice moleskin. In general, I like working with the heavier fabrics that drape well and accommodate my vintage tailoring methods, because that’s the basis of my whole craft.
 
To cut these materials, I use Ernest Wright tailor shears. I’ve been working with them for half a year now, exclusively, and the only thing to say is that they’re not really scissors – they’re a power tool. The shears are very heavy, so you need a lot of hand strength, but they cut like a dream. Even with extremely heavy overcoat fabric – which is around 800g per meter – it’s like cutting with a hot knife through butter.

EW: How did you become interested in vintage tailoring?
 
Tom: It all started when I was watching a film: the Guy Ritchie-directed Sherlock Holmes movie, starring Robert Downey Jr..
 
I always had a fascination with history, old times and old clothes, and I found the 19th Century very interesting. I saw the Sherlock Holmes film, and I was triggered in a way I hadn’t been before. I realised that I had never really cared about the clothes I wore – but when I saw that film, I got this spark in me that made me want to wear traditional-style clothes. By the time I saw the second film in that series a few years later, I’d started wearing shirts and waistcoats. Around then came the decision to just make something.
 
I wanted to get into making clothes, inspired by period dramas, photographs and illustrations, especially from the Victorian era. To me it was a very logical conclusion to think: let’s just make it. I was thirteen years old at that time.
 
That’s how it started, and what began as a one-time project turned into a hobby, into an obsession, into a passion and ultimately into my craft. It just took that one little spark, and then it kept on rolling.
 
EW: How intuitive are you in your tailoring process?
 
Tom: I do a lot of things based upon my gut feeling, and what my hands want me to do.
 
I started learning my craft by doing three years of autodidactic learning. I think I spent thousands of hours looking at blogs about tailoring, reading books I’d ordered online, and just developing my own ideas. I taught myself and incorporated what I learned into my work.
 
After that, I had a three-year professional education at the Master Tailor Institute in Amsterdam. That was three years ago now, and since then I’ve adapted or disregarded things which I learned at the Institute, because the way I did it before felt better to me. I still do a lot of things the way I initially did them.
 
Sometimes when I encounter something that’s new to me, I spend hours thinking about it, go along with it and just see what happens. Most of the time it works out – and if it doesn’t, I’ll just have to order a bit of extra fabric!
 
Back when I was still getting into menswear, I filled lots of big notebooks with drawings of men’s suits, which I thought up myself and based upon designs from the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Even now, when I look at it, I’m like, how did I not get bored of this? I spent evenings drawing suit after suit after suit, and it was thanks to these hundreds of evenings of studying, reading, making and drawing that I ended up as the only one accepted to my course at the Master Tailor Institute without any prior formal training. I had spent whole years doing things by myself, and it turns out I did it right.
 
EW: ‘Tom von het Hof’ translates into English as ‘Tom of the Court’. Does your work take you to courtly places today?
 
I have a vague family history of where the name came from, and they were all gardeners in a castle. They were indeed part of the court – but literally only the court part.
 
As of yet I haven’t had any commissions from the royal court, or any noble families in the Netherlands. It’s mostly people who have an appreciation for old craftsmanship. And also some older people who want clothes like the clothes made for their families 40 or 50 years ago. Back then, the Dutch still had a rich culture of tailoring.
 
A big portion of my clients are people who are just like me: fellow craftsmen like barbers, painters and so on. It’s people who understand what it means to be a craftsman, and all the training and study and expense that goes into a craft.

EW: When did tailoring turn from a passion into a career for you?
 
The jump to tailoring is an interesting one. I was doing gymnasium in the Netherlands, which means you’re preparing to go to uni. Halfway through the six years I started to do tailoring, and I really became obsessed with it. I realised that after six years of constant theoretical study, I was horrified by the thought of doing even more of it, because I was always more of a practical person.
 
In my final year of gymnasium, the dean of my school introduced me to the Master Tailor Institute in Amsterdam. With my mum’s blessing, I was able to go there and go for it. At that point, I had no idea of what I wanted to do exactly. I was either going to work for a theater, an opera, or be self-employed as a tailor.
 
The one way for me to truly be happy was to do the one thing I think about day and night – and that was not studying, doing homework and getting a Master’s grade in three or four years. I just wanted to make things – that’s how it all came to be.
 
EW: Have you found a community around classic tailoring?
 
Tom: When you collect vintage menswear, after a while you also come to appreciate vintage craftsmanship more broadly, because you really can tell the difference between the modern and the old.
 
I have surrounded myself with people who are also interested in vintage fashion, and some aspects of the vintage lifestyle. One friend is a gardener, another is an antique salesman, and one is an archaeologist. My girlfriend, who is a painter, also dresses vintage. So, it’s not necessarily a community – but it’s a group of friends. And on Instagram, you have a very big online community of people who wear and collect vintage that always provides a big source of inspiration.
 
EW: What are your future plans?
 
I have a lot of different things to do. In the last few days I’ve had two new commissions: a classic, timeless suit, and a three-piece 1940s ladies’ skirt suit. Besides that, I’m currently making a few hunting suits, three tweed sports suits, a few plus fours, trousers, a nice three-piece dress suit – and, of course, I’m always making something for myself or my girlfriend in my spare time. Most of it is 1920s, 30s – and I don’t have to tell you how excited I am to be making those things.

For more on Tom van het Hof, visit his website and follow him on Instagram.

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