“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”
Forgive the grandiloquence of quoting Michelangelo in a tog blog; our tailor Rory Duffy himself would eschew such comparison between artist and artisan, but I can think of no better metaphor to convey the purpose and process of a first fitting. The try-on which we have watched Duffy assemble with such care and precision is in fact a deliberately approximate garment, larger than he knows he’ll ultimately need, to allow him the same method of creative reduction that the sculptor applies to marble. Excess cloth can be easily smoothed away and marked for alteration, but tightness can be difficult to diagnose and address.
Considering the many hours of work that have gone into the try-on, a first fitting with Duffy is a relatively swift affair as he checks the bite of the collar, the nip of the waist, the fall of the hemline, and a dozen other details which add up to the whole of a well-fitted and balanced garment. With the exception of establishing the waist, which requires a client’s body to actually feel a precise measure of cloth, Duffy uses no pins in the fitting, preferring to mark alterations in chalk; this is partly to avoid pin damage to the cloth, but primarily because a pinned alteration at one seam affects the way the coat lays on the figure elsewhere. A coat is essentially a three-dimensional equation in cloth which must be balanced with each adjustment, and not always were one would expect. A short hemline must be adjusted at the shoulder seam, for instance, and a collapsing back shoulder drape is rectified by lowering the arm scye. Less surgically invasive shortcuts can be taken, of course, but they don’t tend to address the fundamental problems. The standard alterations of lengthening or shortening the back length to address gaps or ripples respectively across the back of the neck, for instance, do little to rectify the overly sloped or squared shoulders which are often at the root of the matter.
Because I’m asking Duffy to explain everything as he goes, this particular episode describes rather than demonstrates some of the tailor’s most delicate and discreet arts at this stage: those of managing the expectations and massaging the egos of his clients. Those larger try-ons happily tend to preclude awkward reckonings with the march of time between fittings, which can be significant: not for nothing did Henry Poole himself install his infamous weighing chair to track it. Moreover, because of the enormous expense of bespoke, inexperienced clients can be anxious at this point because they don’t understand one key axiom: the first fitting is for the tailor. The client can indulge their perfectionism at the second and subsequent fittings, but at this point it is the tailor who must realize his vision.