texts & textiles

What's the Difference Between Made-to-Order and Made-to-Measure Clothing?

There’s nothing new about made-to-order clothing. Decades and even centuries ago, most of what people wore was made to order, and clients worked closely with tailors to ensure garments fit properly. In the book Living Modern by Wanda M. Corn, the author outlines how Georgia O’Keeffe would bring a dress to a seamstress and have multiples of the style made in various fabrics and colors.

Now, with consciousness around clothing and consumerism on the rise, more and more brands are adopting a “made-to-order” strategy. But what does that mean, and what’s the difference between made to order and made to measure?

To start, most of us are familiar with ready-to-wear (RTW) and off-the-rack (OTR): a ready-made garment that’s available right away. It doesn’t need any specifications or further preparation. Just pluck it off the rack, purchase it, and put it on! The main benefit to RTW/OTR garments is the instant gratification.

The major downside is that RTW/OTR can mean overproduction of garments, thereby contributing to environmental and ecological damage. And the sizing or fit of ready-wear garments might not work for all body types.

Made to order, by definition, is “specifically made according to a customer’s specifications.” But those specifications are usually predetermined. What certain brands now offer is this: instead of having a bunch of inventory on hand, brands sew each piece when it’s ordered. This cuts down on potential waste with unsold overstock, and saves on space and energy, as brands don’t have to keep inventory on hand in a storeroom or warehouse. The brand usually has each available style, fabric, color and size listed on the website.

The main downside to this method is that it can take anywhere from 2-8 weeks for pieces, but most of these items are worth waiting for.

Made to measure, by definition, is “specifically made to fit a particular person or space.” With a made-to-measure piece, the designer and maker is using your specific measurements, as opposed to a predetermined set of measurements. This is common in menswear, with “bespoke” suits, but less common in womenswear, with the exception of couture.

the Dior exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, 2019

the Dior exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, 2019

the Dior exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, 2019

the Dior exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, 2019

Made to measure is closely aligned with couture: the design and manufacture of fashionable clothes to a client’s specific requirements and measurements. (This is not to be confused with “haute couture,” a legally protected term for made-to-measure garments produced in Paris twice a year by a handful of designers.) With couture, a client orders a specific garment, and that item is made to their measurements, often including one or two fittings to ensure it’s just right.

The best example of (haute) couture in action may be the iconic Chanel jacket. Initially designed by Gabrielle Chanel herself, couture jackets take 130 hours of craftsmanship (or craftswomanship) to make. The designers and seamstresses take at least 30 measurements. Everything about the garment is specifically made to suit the client.

The president of fashion at Chanel, Bruno Pavlovsky, told the New York Times that, “Contrary to what people think, the concept of couture is very modern [...]. It is about being able to design, for every single customer, the unique and the best clothes.”

Although couture is often seen as a kind of “old world” way of manufacturing, more and more brands are popping up that offer made-to-order and made-to-measure services, seeing the benefits to the bottom line, the environment, and the client.

Couture and made-to-measure garments tended to fit the definition of “slow fashion,” with seamstresses taking a client’s measurements and constructing a garment. Yet now, largely thanks to technology, direct-to-consumer brands are modernizing the concept. Often sold at a higher price point, certain brands are even using AI technology to offer women something that men have enjoyed for ages: a custom, bespoke piece of clothing that fits them and their lifestyle.

I personally love the idea of having a closet full of clothes that were specifically made for me, which is partly why I love sewing for myself. (But there are certain garments that are outside the realm of my expertise, so I locate other makers and brands to fill holes in my wardrobe, or I find pieces secondhand.) All of my pieces are made to measure, so when I create a custom piece for someone, I don’t ask them what size they wear (because sizing is arbitrary). Instead, I take the customer’s measurements and work with those, creating a piece that is unique to them.