Carol Alayne

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The Rule of Thumb

Tuesday, December 30th, 2008

ThumbIn some ways this post is an extension of the last Briefing for Bespoke post (Line, shape, proportion), but this time with a slightly more light-hearted tone as befits the Christmas season.

Strange as it may seem I first came across the Tailor’s Rule of Thumb when talking with the artist Kristin Newton, who uses a selection of ‘body’ parts for estimating proportion when teaching her drawing course at the Right Brain Research Centre in Tokyo (hence the notes in Japanese). This is an example of the way in Head proportionswhich the width of the eye is used as a preliminary means of mapping out the proportions of a face.

Before accurate measuring systems were in place the body was often used as a measuring system. For instance for the Egyptians a common cubit was the length of the forearm from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, whereas a span for the Ancients was the largest distance between the points of two fingers measured on a man’s outstretched hand; around 22.9 centimetres, 9 inches or 1/4 yard. The measurement of an inch is gauged as the distance between the base of the thumbnail and the first joint, and from this connection, in French and Portuguese both the words for thumb and the unit of measure have a common derivation; respectively un pouce and polegada (from polegar – thumb).

Gulliver in LilliputWith the Tailor’s Rule of Thumb however, the purpose is to establish comparative proportions so that by taking just one measurement, irrespective of one’s size, it should be theoretically possible to map out the basic elements of a body’s contours. Jonathan Swift has Gulliver refer to this during his stay in Lilliput (Gulliver’s Travels ):

“The Seamstresses took my measure as I lay on the ground, one standing at my neck, the other at my mid-leg, with a strong cord extended, that each held by the end whilst a third measured the length of the cord with a rule of an inch long. Then they measured my right Thumb, and desired no more; for by a mathematical Computation, that twice round the Thumb is once around the Wrist, and so on to the Neck and Waist, and by the help of my old Shirt, which I displayed on the Ground before them for a Pattern, they fitted me exactly.”

There is an anecdote in the tailoring community about a client who came in to buy some trousers, wrapped the waistband twice around his neck and left with them over his arm with the pronouncement that they  would be a perfect fit. An interesting snippet but one that perhaps needs a grain or two of salt. Much of the art of the tailoring process lies in the accurate measurement and the subsequent balancing of a pattern. A highly skilled job needing a critical eye, so perhaps this novel method should be left with the Lilliputians.

It might be fun however as we are in the midst of party season to find some alternative proportions that would work for everyone. Of course the true test would come once the post Christmas dieting has kicked in.

Let me know what you come up with! And of course… a Happy New Year to all.

Photo: thanks to Glasgow University, RBR (Tokyo)

Briefing for Bespoke: Psychology of Appearance

Thursday, December 11th, 2008

Smile on frown, TokyoAppearance comes in two forms; how we see ourselves, and how others see us.  And one impacts on the other.  One is more to do with self expression, the other with fitting in.  The important thing is not to mix the two up or the consequences, at an extreme level, can be severe.

We read how there are countries where wearing the wrong sort of clothes can have devastating results; in Iraq, Afghanistan and Northern India  women receive harsh punishments for openly wearing western clothes rather than the burqah or sari.   We don’t  have to journey as far as that to find  in our own backyard similar adverse reactions to styles of dress.  In Lancashire (UK) in 2007 a young couple dressed as ‘moshers’ or Goths were set upon by a group of teenagers and murdered because they stood out from the crowd.

The way in which we dress can provoke life influencing decisions from others and it is interesting to note that as we chart our way through one of the most challenging periods of financial uncertainty in modern times, this is having a corresponding effect on how people dress.  The pervasive ‘dress down’ styles which were becoming increasingly popular in City offices have, according to my clients who know such things, been supplanted by the more formal aspects of business wear in the interest of job preservation.

Paradoxically, this doesn’t just mean a visit to the ‘off the peg’ purveyors of business wear,  but a move towards something which allows for a closer reflection of personality and  tradition.  With job prospects under threat those first vital seconds, when appearance counts for more than words (Mehrabian. 1997), are becoming almost a new battleground for gaining an edge.  Remember the old cliché…”how do you dress in a recession…up!”, whilst at the same time fluctuations in the stock market apparently influence the height of hemlines.

Leveraging one’s appearance with regard to clothes has to take on board a number of different elements; colour, pattern, texture, style, detail, fit and proportion.  Of these, convention insists that colour, pattern, texture and style fit within fairly tight constraints.  This leaves detail, fit and proportion as the principal variables.

Detail by way of linings, button configurations, pockets, lapels, ventings, can all be used to create a sense of differentiation from others, but again these have to be subtle.  Perhaps the area which can create the most impact is with the fit and proportion.  ‘Fit’ refers to the way in which a garment follows the natural curves of the body, ‘proportion’ deals with the overall balance of a garment and can be influenced by all the other elements.  In some ways there is a sense of  Gestalt about the balance of all these different elements.

From the research that has been undertaken into the psychology of clothing, and my own observation of professional  women in all walks of life, from the concert platform to the boardroom, I would suggest three simple guiding principles.

1. Be aware of what is custom and practice in the environment in which you are going to be moving.

2. The right accessories, or subtle accents on a garment, can make an impact, and a little goes a long way.

3. Well cut garments suited to your proportions say much more about you than the latest fashion trend.

Let’s leave the final words with  Coco Chanel  “Dress sharply and they notice the dress. Dress impeccably and they notice the woman”

Photos: Thanks to Kimball Andrew Schmidt

Briefing for Bespoke: Colour Analysis

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Colour WheelColour analysis is something that came into vogue in the 1980’s with the publishing of two books, one by Carole Jackson (Color me Beautiful) and the other, with a confusingly similar title (“Color me Beautiful’s” Looking your Best) by Mary Spillane. They rely on the theory known as ‘simultaneous contrast’ that was first propounded by the chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul in the 19th century when he noticed how colours, when placed in combination, will influence the way in which they are perceived.

So for instance in this example, the grey rectangle in the upper Simultaneous Contrastsection appears to be lighter than that in the lower, although they are in reality the same.

The system you are most likely to come into contact with is that of Mary Spillane’s  Colour Me Beautiful organisation (CMB) which is now a global concern and operates through a number of franchises.  Others you may come across are the Wright System by Angela Wright,  and that developed by Barbara Jacques for her Academy of Colour and Style.

The CMB system, which accomodates all ethnic types, analyses a client from a colour palette that is divided  into four separate ‘seasons’: winter palettes are bright, cool and contrasting; spring palettes are predominantly tints that are warm and clear; summer palettes are tonal, cool and muted; and autumn palettes are mostly warm and rich shades. All are based on the three dimensions of colour: hue, saturation and value.  These are co-ordinated with the natural colouring of your hair, skin and eyes in order to determine which colours of clothes and make-up are most complimentary.  This is not to say that there are inherently good or bad colours, it is more a matter of emphasis in that some colours look well when matched with the right person and less impactful on the wrong person.

There are two important considerations in deciding whether you should wear warm or cool shades. The first is your complexion. Skin tone is a combination of melanin, keratin, and haemoglobin. It is melanin which gives the skin its brown tones; keratin gives the yellow tones, and haemoglobin gives the red tones.

The second most important consideration is the intensity or saturation of each colour in a range. Some people respond better to strongly contrasting and vivid colours, while others seem to be dominated by them.  A simple solution to this is to wear softer shades with subtle patterns that place an emphasis on face and personality. In most cases however people can play safe by wearing a garment which is of medium colour value.

Once you have established your basic colour palette you may well be able to reach over into tones from other other ‘seasons’, but first you need to establish your primary ‘season’ and how it works with your complexion.

This is a subtle but extremely effective fundamental for the way in which you start to build your wardrobe and a number of ‘colourists’ I have worked with in the past are still active with their corporate clients despite the downturn.  Here is an interesting, practical and simple standby that I picked up from them and it is that in a pinch, the correctly matched shade of lipstick alone can make a dramatic change in lifting your appearance.

Moth Alert!

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008

Clothes mothLast year there were a number of newspaper articles about plagues of moths that was insinuating themselves into our drawers and wardrobes.  At the end of 2008 I have to report that our ‘moth man’  is as active as ever.  I was particularly distressed to find that one of my favourite cashmere scarves now resembled one of those string vests so popular in the 60’s.  And it is not only clothes they attack.

A violinist friend of mine went to his violin case after a few days break to find that the horse hair on his violin bows now resembled a collection of spun sugar.  Moth balls are now de rigeur alongside his other equipment.

Apparently moths often set up a colony in your wool carpet and will migrate from this to your clothes.  There are a number of different treatments one can get, from impregnated cedar balls to the old fashioned napthelene moth balls, the smell of which used to hover in the air around one’s gramdparents.

One of the most effective treatments I have come across is something called a Demi-Diamond.  It has a chemical, harmless to humans and pets, which gives off female moth pheremones which prove to be devastatingly irrisistable to the male.  He ends up by coming to a sticky end on the adhesive pad to which is attached the small phial of attractant.  After that the females pine away.  One of my clients was alarmed to find that when she used them in her wardrobe, instead of the couple of moths she thought she had, a whole squadron had landed in the trap after only a couple of days.

TfW and the Women in the City Awards

Monday, November 24th, 2008

Women in the City AwardsWe are thrilled this year to be able to link with this auspicious event and further promote and acknowledge the part women play in business.  This will be the 6th year of the Awards and they include a number of categories ranging from financial to legal services.  I believe from the creator of the event, Gwen Rhys, that it is complete sell out this year and has been promised the attention of BBC TV, so it should be quite an event.

I am, myself, a member of the City Women’s Network (CWN) which has a membership that extends right across these business sectors and it is always a stimulating experience to attend their meetings and learn from such a broad spectrum of expertise. It seems that there are now many such networks at local, national, and even international level.  My friend, the concert pianist Diana Baker, was a speaker at the Women’s International Network conference a couple of years ago and I had hoped to attend their conference in September this year.  Maybe I will have better luck in 2009.

More recently the Everywoman took place in London with the indomitable Ruby Wax as one of the key speakers.  What an inspiration!

So, well done in advance to all the recipients of the Awards.  A great achievement.

A Briefing for Bespoke

Monday, November 24th, 2008

Tailor from Das Ständebuch (The Book of Trades), 1568Tailoring has a long and intriguing history, and over time it has developed its own unique methodologies and practices.  This post is the first of a series, Briefing for Bespoke, which will chart some of the things it might be helpful for you to know.  It will include topics such as the psychology of appearance, cut, proportion, use of colour, business versus fashion, culture and clothes, and many others.

As you may have seen in the  press recently (although from its imagery I don’t think that the Mail subscribes to the Hemline Theory of Economy, nor do I think it helped with furthering the cause of the serious business woman) companies such as Ernst & Young are taking the matter of how to dress qutie seriously, and in these financially challenging times one can understand only too well how important it is to leverage up any element that has been allowed to fall by the wayside.   Whilst  non-business needs are amply covered by the fashion houses and high streets, there remains a considerable dilemma for those in the business environment.  Anne Freden, chair of Ernst and Young’s women’s network, was quoted by a number of journalists when she expressed how women often found it difficult to know what clothes were acceptable at work.

I feel that the first step is to take a considered look at some of the practical advice that is around and give a measured distillation of what is available in a form that will suit both the needs and lifestlye of those of you that are in the frontline.  I think also that there is a place for some down to earth information about ways in which you can care for your garments, and what new materials or accessories are appearing that will make  life a little easier and enable you to dress with confidence.  This is the purpose of the posts, and I hope that you will feel able to supplement or perhaps challenge some of the comments that will be uploaded.

By way of a taster, I have included alongside this post a simple illustration of an original and highly practical way in which you might fold a tailored jacket ready for travel.

I will leave the last word with Anne Freden who undoubtedly sees the matter of dress as integral to their extensive programme of workshops designed to promote the E&Y women’s network and help women to maximise their potential as a part of the corporate identity policies of her organisation. “The firm doesn’t view this as something that is nice to have, but as an integral part of the business strategy.”

Photo: With CCL

Folding a Jacket

Monday, November 24th, 2008

There are a number of significant differences between the techniques needed to tailor a garment for a women and those for a man. That is not to say however that they are completely different entities.  There are indeed many areas of crossover and this is one such example.

John Reed, who demonstrates this ingenious and original method of folding a jacket, entered the trade some 65 years ago and was a City & Guilds medallion winner.  He is also one of the many personalities that helps define the character of the Savile Row community.

Original footage: Thanks to Naoki Kawamoto Design

Dressing the fuller figure.

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Venus at the mirror. RubensEarlier this year you may have seen the retail guru Mary Portas visiting the boutique of the designer who specialises in larger-sized garments, Anna Scholtz.  Amongst all the furore over the last year or so about ‘Size 0’ models it was refreshing to hear someone in the fashion industry comment that “the curvy customer is, in fact, the average British woman”.  I realise that this can be a sensitive subject, but if you are a bespoke tailor it is an issue that you have to address face on.

When assessing a client with, to use the accepted euphemism, a fuller figure, it does present a different set of challenges for both maker and wearer, and I feel that the continuing trend for covering up rather than emphasizing assets takes away the opportunity for rejoicing in one’s own body shape.

Often I find it to be the case that insufficient time has been spent by a client in assessing their true anatomical structure, for example whether they are ‘big-boned’, or have a larger body mass.  As each of these has a different reaction to the act of standing or sitting it can have considerable implications for the way in which a garment is cut.

Three of my clients come to mind who are completely at home with their proportions, and all have, in their different ways, to lay themselves open to public scrutiny.

The world famous dramatic soprano Jane Eaglen first came to me when she had just broken on the operatic scene and I made a concert dress for her American debut at the Hollywood Bowl.  She not only had to have something with all the glamour of a first night,  but also it had to be something  against which she could push when her diaphragm was in full extension.  In some ways it had to become a part of her performance equipment.  An interesting combination of robustness and elegance for a woman who is  tall with a substantial figure and a personality to match.  We worked on emphasising this with an emerald raw silk gown which had beaded accents, and combined it with a long iridescent silk chiffon coat.

Clarissa  Dickson Wright wanted a garment for an occasion too; The Conservancy Ball.  But it also had to be one that would merge into her wardrobe in a practical way.  Her links to the countryside and the National Trust led the way to a  2-piece rifle-green, wool-crepe top  with a long 8-panelled skirt which broke into soft flutes at the hemline. Over this we made a sweeping shooting cape  from lightweight tweed with a fine leather trimming.  So…practicality with style.

One of the most interesting commisions recently was from Gieves and Hawkes who asked me to create a piece for the Lord Chamberlain of Tonga on the occasion of the coronation of the new monarch.  This garment had to make less of a statement because of the contrast  with the ceremonial garments.  In this instance it was midnight blue silk-satin with an Empire waistline and a long exagerated A-line skirt.  We were however given full permission to add any accents we thought appropriate, so to soften it we included a scalloped neckline and a hint of beading to match the sparkle of the occasion.

If I were to sum up the common elements from each of these projects I feel that there are three points to be made.

  1. Don’t sentence yourself to wearing dark colours all the time, and have a sense of your own unique colour palate; more of this in future posts
  2. Don’t squeeze into a smaller size, wear something that fits your build
  3. Think vertically with detail, and accents that draw the eye forward and up e.g. longer lapels, a longer jacket opening with fewer buttons, detail around the shoulder areas

The exceptional soprano Jessye Norman is once reputed to have said, when being encouraged to enter a crowded elevator by turning sideways, “Honey, with me there ain’t no sideways”.  Frivolous comments aside,  let’s hear it for the women with fuller figures!

Photo: Public Domain

Its a man’s world!

Thursday, November 20th, 2008

Man\'s WorldIt may appear strange that I lead off one of this week’s blog posts with mention of a man’s magazine, but there is a reason for this.  Man’s World is one of the leading mens lifestyle magazines in India, and I was asked to submit some of my thoughts about the Savile Row tradition and how women fit into the scheme of things.

These are some of the questions and my responses.

What about suits for ladies on Savile Row? Most male tailors believe that female clients shift the goalpost much too often. Is that the case and if so, how do you tackle it? What do you think about doing suits for men?

The female form is far more complex than that of a man.  The journey from shoulder to hip, and from hip to floor needs a wholly different approach in both measuring and the balancing of proportions.  Also I question too whether the traditional fabrics used in the inner workings of the jacket are always best suited to the female form.  Some of the new fabrics have interesting properties that I find quite intriguing and perhaps more suitable.

As for doing suits for men.  I still occasionally make them and enjoy the experience, although the challenges are fewer because a man’s suit is something that has evolved over a long space of time and which fits into a well established pattern .  The women’s suit, that is to say something created specifically for women, is still in a process of evolution. Although there are exceptions, generally speaking  I find that women tend to get a man’s suit that has been cut for a women.  Quite a different proposition.

Can you define bespoke?

What do you need, we will make it, and you will feel supremely confident in wearing it.

Can you define Savile Row?

Savile Row is the contemporary manifestation of a highly skilled tradition that stretches back more than 4oo years.  Isn’t it interesting that the Japanese word for a Western business suit is… sebiru-ro… Savile Row!!

Is Savile Row fashionable?

An interesting question.   If you look at any of the fashion magazines you will see constant reference to tailored garments and how fine tailoring can make a fashion house really stand out.  Also you will find that tailors around the world want to align  themselves with Savile Row whether they have any authentic connection or not.  Savile Row has a unique position as a luxury brand without a single owner, and it is something that people aspire to be a part of whether they are makers or wearers.  Asking whether or not it is fashionable is really forgetting that it is actually one of the few constants in a world which is beset by the whims of the fashion industry.

Is it elitist? What would be the most honest reaction of most SR addresses to a person walking in with trainers and torn jeans?

Sadly most tailors would fail to see the opportunity for educating a new client.  Also people dress differently these days.  The fact that someone wears jeans doesn’t necessarily reflect the true reality of the person wearing them.  As research shows, we judge people first by the way they look, not by what they say.  Maybe we need to reflect on this a little more.

Today, is Savile Row mere geography? What about Hong Kong, Thailand or even Hounslow?

Savile Row has two elements.  a) The physical space in Mayfair and the community that is built around it, and b) its universal recognition as a benchmark of quality and service.

What is the biggest change you have seen in the world of men’s fashion? What is the biggest change in Savile Row?

Cheaply available suits that seduce people into believing that they are getting something that they not.   See our post ‘The credit crunch, suits, and a pricing conundrum’.

So if you were in my shoes,  how might you respond?

Photo: thanks to Man’s World, India

MacCulloch and Wallis: An experience with all the trimmings

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

MacCulloch & Wallis is one of the last remaining trimming merchants in the UK.   I have been taking the advice of their proprietor, Victoria Connolly, for the past 17 years but strange as it may seem, until now I have not had the opportunity to look closer at their business, and fascinating it is too!

Their property in Dering Street, Mayfair, looks much the same as it would have done in the days when a tailor, seated and cross-legged, would have occupied prime place in the shop window.  The size of their premises are deceptive (three ‘coal holes’ were converted into offices) and hold an enormous inventory of trimmings, threads, haberdashery, fabrics, equipment, milllinery and bridal fabrics. Much of this has been assembled over time and as other haberdashers have closed M&W has absorbed their stock.  They also have a substantial on-line presence.  Often they get access to the cloth left over from some of the high fashion collections and it is incredible to see some of these fabrics away from the catwalk.

They have an equally wide customer base supplying local alteration tailors, independent dressmakers, designers,  and a number of specialist makers who work for film and theatre.  Their staff are generally drawn from the fashion colleges as they reach the end of their degrees, and in many ways working in this environment acts as a ‘finishing school’, supplementing academic studies with practical experience.  Often you will find they balances a part time job with M&W as whilst making the transition to independent designer.

They aspire to be a ‘one-stop’ shop and certainly have never failed me.  They have the air of an old-fashioned shop keeper and in fact the interior is recognised as being of ‘historical interest’, the consequence being that there is a protection order on all internal fittings and architecture.  Well worth a visit, and as you search for your purchases take a little time to appreciate its sense of ‘old world’ charm.


Recognised as a pioneer of bespoke tailoring for women, Carol Alayne has over 25 years experience of creating striking garments for arts, sports and media personalities and business wear for professionals and executives.



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