Often when I tell someone about my tailoring habit — say, by referring in an offhand way to “my tailor” — I can see they are surprised. This is a fair and appropriate reaction. A woman who goes regularly to a tailor, who indeed goes often enough to have a tailor, is the sort of woman who might also have monogrammed stationery, some sort of quilted handbag, family jewelry and perhaps even a collection of brooches that she uses to pin together an elaborate woolen cape in the fall. I am not one of these people, and this would be obvious to anyone of even moderate perceptive abilities within a few minutes of meeting me. Probably I would give them an enormous clue by spilling a drink or taking something that ought to be kept in a purse out of my pocket.
My tailoring habit originated not from any refined sensibilities but from growing up in a place with limited shopping options. I was born in Belfast in 1993, and the Good Friday Agreement was signed about five years later, meaning most of the violence of the Troubles had ended by the time I was a teenager. But Northern Ireland was still an unusual place. There was so much graffiti about religion; so much residual sadness and muted grief; so many places you didn’t go, and others where “they” didn’t go; so much comedy specifically about the antics of paramilitary groups; and, most important from the perspective of a teenager, we got all the trendy shops last.
My twin sister and I would read all about New York and London in books and magazines and watch films starring Chloë Sevigny with the zeal of any teenager living in a provincial place, convinced that the real world was elsewhere. We learned enough from these to know that when we were 17 and a Hollister store arrived and hordes of our classmates lined up outside, they were lame for doing so. We also learned about thrift shopping from these trusted sources, and Belfast was, and still is, home to many good secondhand stores. My tailoring habit followed from there, because without alterations, secondhand items often remain in the realm of novelty clothing.
My first tailor was a man with a shop named H.B. Tailor, who insists that his real name is actually H.B. Tailor. The first thing I took to him was a dress I bought for a school dance. It was almost half a meter too long for me. I wanted to have it taken up and a slit cut into the side (a textbook teenage-girl alteration if ever there was one). The alterations cost around £15, the dress cost £20, and when people asked me where it was from, I got to say I had sourced it secondhand and had it altered. I learned that this is the most satisfying response to be able to give to that question, because desirable objects appear even more so when they cannot be duplicated. I have used H.B. Tailor ever since. After that, it was trousers many sizes too big, taken in but left with wide legs or turned into shorts; I often have men’s shirts scaled down to fit my shoulders. Few alterations cost more than £20. I still get most of my clothes thrift shopping, and when I move to a new neighborhood, I always make sure to find a good tailor.
When you start to think of clothes as things that can be altered, the way you see them changes. Good fabrics and interesting colors and patterns take precedence over shapes and sizes. Buying clothes in this way becomes a process that takes time, patience, luck — and is full of mistakes and imperfections. This is antithetical to the slick world of fast, or even luxury, fashion, in which the distance between wanting something and having it is constantly shrinking. New clothes, like so many things, are endlessly churned out in factories on the other side of the world, for customers who have no sense of the time or labor that went into making them. The shift to online shopping has further emphasized this sense of detachment: one click and collect, next-day delivery, free returns, order and wear in 90 minutes. Every layer of friction sanded away. As shopping has stalled during the pandemic, I’ve sometimes wondered if the gulf between the amount of clothing being produced and the amount needed has widened further — perhaps, if anyone bothered to measure this figure, it would be at some historical apex. I read that one retailer alone has accumulated over $4 billion worth of unsold merchandise as of late April. I found this astonishing, until I learned that it has produced this sort of surplus for the past few years, pandemic or not.
The scale of this waste is hard to conceptualize, but it seems to quantify something I have learned from years spent rifling through rails of clothing in every color and fabric you can imagine in thrift stores in almost every city I have visited; or refuse sacks in the warehouse I found while a student in Manchester, where every item cost less than £5; or the piles laid out on mats at a flea market I visited while staying with a friend in Tokyo: When it comes to clothing, there is so much of everything out there already. Tailoring allows me to tap into this rich and varied resource in exactly the way I want, picking out the things I like and altering away everything I don’t. You could see this as incredibly limiting, and in some ways it certainly is. But I see it as a rare form of genuine choice in an economy that offers nothing but an ever-expanding mass of predetermined options — none of which are ever quite right.