Bespoke v Custom Made

Bespoke: What is The difference between Bespoke & Custom Made?

Mayfair, London – home of fine tailoring

Bespoke is not, as many now erroneously believe, another term for tailor made or custom made any more than champagne is the same drink as sparkling wine. 

Tyne O'Connell at the Burlington Arcade Mayfair with Cav Spaniels

Tyne O’Connell at the Burlington Arcade Mayfair with Cav Spaniels


The term Bespoke can only be applied with any integrity when the person or person’s working on the item in question are members of one of the 110 London Livery Companies. 

The various Worshipful Companies have sought to enshrine this distinction in patent law but to this date have been unsuccessful.  Anyone who understands the distinction is clear though that there is a big difference in quality between Bespoke and Custom Made. 

Becoming a Bespoke gun maker, or a Bespoke tailor, or a Bespoke cordwainer is not a job, it is a devotion to an ancient craft. It takes several years of dedicated training to become a member of the relevant Livery Companies before one is able to bespeak.

Bespoke literally translates as “to speak” – to let the words of the client define the finished product.  One can order a Bespoke gun, hat, coat, gloves, shoes, items of jewellery or any number of goods.

Mayfair stair case with spaniel and crown

Many people imagine Bespoke is the difference between hand-stitching and machine stitching or the preference for unique items of quality over cheaply made mass-produced products. But as anyone in St James’s or Mayfair knows the term Bespoke is so much more, defining as it does a world or artistry and skill that but for the faithful preservation of the ancient Livery Companies, would have been lost long ago.

Bespoke merchants are distinguished from custom or tailor-made merchants by their membership of the various Livery Companies associated with their skill or craft. Though there are presently no laws preventing a merchant calling their custom-made service, “Bespoke” only Bespoke Merchants backed by the associated Livery Company can legitimately use the term to describe their service. 

A Bespoke suit is a work of hand-stitched artistry.  It begins with a pattern, hand-cut from scratch, much as a cordwainer will begin by making a wooden last of your foot.  

The first fitting is done using baste stitching so that adjustments can be made. A Bespoke suit may involve several fittings or more and usually takes about three months to fully build. There is a minimum of 80 hours required to hand-stitch a suit. A Bespoke suit is fully hand-stitched from start to finish using the same traditions and skills of original guild members from medieval times. 

Whereas a custom made or tailor made suit is usually cut by machine from an existing pattern then adjusted to the customer’s specific measurements.  Again several fittings may be involved, but the assembly of the suit will be machine stitched.

Turnball & Asser St James's Tyne O'Connell

Tyne O’Connell outside Turnball & Asser, St James’s

In the case of a bespoke suit, the tailor will belong to the Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors – there motto is Their motto is Concordia Parvae Res Crescunt – In Harmony Small Things Grow.  

In choosing a tailor that has membership of the Worshipful Company gives the customer a guarantee that all the people working on their suit – the cutter, the stitcher and the pattern makers will be members of the ancient Worshipful Company of Merchant Taylors who were founded prior to 1300. They are one of the Twelve Great Livery Companies, first incorporated under Royal Charter in 1337. 

The Merchants Taylors’ Hall still stands on Threadneedle Street as it has done since 1347 having survived the Great Fire of 1666. It is one of the forty  medieval Livery Halls remaining in London. 

Bespoke Shoe makers or Cordwainers will belong to the Worshipful Company of Merchant Cordwainers. Bespoke Gunmakers will belong to The Worshipful Company of Gunmakers. Each of the Bespoke services are backed by the associated Livery Company.

Custom-made, also known as tailor made. The tailor, shoe maker, hat maker or gun maker one employs, is not obliged to be a member of any of London’s Livery Companies. 

The difference between bespoke & custom made.

Did you Know?

Women were allowed to be members of medieval guilds. Although only the head of a household would have been a guild member, the whole family would work in the same trade. So if a husband died, his widow was allowed to continue his trade in her own right under a law called Femme Sole.