Carol Alayne

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Briefing for Bespoke: Line, shape, proportion

Saturday, December 30th, 2017

You may have caught the compelling TV series “Madmen“.  The story of the how the advertising industry took fire on Madisson Avenue in the 60’s.  (30 years earlier the father of PR, Edward Bernays had started the ball rolling by helping the tobacco industry sell cigarettes to women with the somewhat questionable byline ‘A Torch for Liberty’!).  In one episode an eager young secretary was given this down to earth advice from one of her more seasoned colleagues with regards to dressing in the work place.”Go home, cut 2 holes in a paper bag, put it over your head, stand in front of a mirror and take a good look at your at yourself”.  A novel way indeed to assess your body line, but also one that is not too far off the mark.  The first step in deciding how to dress is to get an accurate understanding of your own unique body shape and how to accommodate its proportions.

I can sense that for some this may be something that requires a little courage, but to help you, here is a method that you might find more effective than the ‘paper bag’ solution.
You will need:

  • a digital camera
  • a printer
  • a marker pen
  • some tracing paper or similarBody Shape

Over your usual foundation garments put on a leotord or some similar  body-hugging garment.  Using the self portrait setting on your camera,  take full length pictures of yourself from two aspects; the front and the side.   Print these out in full on A4 paper.  With the pen and  tracing paper copy the outline of your body, then mark in the top of your head, shoulder line, bustline, waistline, hip line, knees, elbows and wrists.

An alternative methoed for perhaps the more creatively inclined I learned from the artist Kristin Newton who has her students stand in front of a mirror looking at their reflected image through a sheet of perspex held a short distance from their face; it is important to view it with just one eye open in order not to distort the perspective.  Then trace around the outline of your body’s image in the mirror directly on to the perspex with a marker.

Before we go to the next stage however, let’s take a step back into antiquity and look at Golden Rationhow  proportion was perceived by  the old Masters using the system known as the Golden Section, or the Golden Ratio.  This is a special mathematical relationship whereby a line, divided into two parts (a, b) has a relationship between the whole and its parts so that the ratio between the small section (b) to the larger section (a) is equal to the ratio between the larger section and the whole i.e. a:b = (a+b):a.

This image showing how the Golden Section was applied is from a study carried out at the Virginia Wesleyian College into Bottecelli’s Birth of Venus.

You can see how ‘perfection’ was perceived as a matter or proportion.  The reality is that few of us conform to this sylph-like ideal, however what we aspire to when selecting the style of a garment is to give the illusion of a well balanced proportion.

Now, using both tracings and photographs, take note of  the areas where the body mass is most emphasised.  Compare how the shape of the silhoutte changes between the bust, waist and hip.  Notice the degree of definition of the waist, small of the back, hips and bottom. The reason for using both tracings is that you may find, for example, from the front aspect you appear full and round, whereas from the side you may have a flatter silhouette.

The way in which we can start to balance out our proportions is by using two separate systems of analysis.  A Body Type template (you will need a pdf viewer to access this file) which associates one’s proportions with suggestions for silhouette, fabrics, details and patterns, and a set of supplementary modifications I have called Qualifiers which help with the vertical and horizontal rebalancing.

With statistics showing that most women wear 20% of their wardrobe 80% of the time,  perhaps with a little more knowledge in how to select for proportion, these statistics can be encouraged to change.  Fashion is one thing, the bodies we were graced with is another!

Initial Image: thanks to Guardian/BBC/AMC

Women tinkering with tailoring! Why not do it for real

Thursday, July 27th, 2017

MarleneAnnie Hall” hit the mark perfectly some 30 years ago in the eponymous film by Woody Allen.   From top down, her combination of trilby, shirt and tie, waistcoat and chinos hooked a generation of women into the masculine look.  Although she was by no means the first person to do so.  Think of Marlene Dietrich and the allure of her androgynous cross-dressing.

It seems that every autumn the fashion press re-visits this theme of masculine dressing and it appeared again in the London Telegraph last week.

I find however that many of the images with which the world of fashion presents us rarely features the full potential of the tailoring tradition when it responds to the needs of the female form.

Historically the bespoke suit evolved to fit the male proportions with a cut and underlying structure that emphasised a strong shoulder line with sculptured upper body, and a defined waist which flattered and elongated the masculine silhouette.  This is still very much the case; however women require something that is altogether different.

When tailoring for women the shoulder line needs something much neater and more delicate, and as one moves down the torso from bust to hip the complexity of the female form and its natural asymmetries requires a much greater awareness of the subtle gradations of the all-round profile which then have to be transferred to a balanced pattern unique to the client.

Although there are obvious differences in requirements from client to client, in the short journey from shoulder to hip I have to take many more measures for a woman’s suit, different ones too, than I would for that of a man’s.  And on top of this tolerances have to built in to take into account the cyclical changes in a woman’s figure.

A frequent comment from my clients is that they feel “trussed up as if in a suit of armour”.  I would suggest that this need not be the case and that with greater attention to the point outlined above, and some modifications to the traditional internal structuring, a woman’s bespoke suit can be just as crisp as a man’s, giving a much more flattering and enjoyable “wearing experience” that responds even to the different way in which a woman moves.

Fashion may be one thing…the board room is another.

NHK – Bespoke for Japan; A woman’s point of view

Sunday, May 14th, 2017

In the midst of a hectic time here in the studio; a royal wedding in Monaco, early planning for the shooting season, and gowns for the BBC Promenade concerts, I received a call to participate in the filming of a short documentary for the Japanese national broadcasters NHK.  They wanted to know more about the tailoring tradition and Savile Row from a woman’s perspective.

They were very much aware of how the demand for tailored clothing is changing among women as their professional lives become increasingly more public, and wanted to know how this was being met by the trade.

As always with filming, what is intended as a few minutes in front of a camera turns into a full day’s work, but it is always good to explain the process of bespoke to those who are interested.

A huge thanks goes out to all my friends and colleagues on the Row who helped out.

The documentary will go out as part of the El Mundo programme on NHK BS1  and I hope that some of my friends in Japan will still be awake to see it!  And when I shortly receive my copy it will be uploaded here on the site, so please watch this space.

P.S.  As a footnote, I bumped into another film crew yesterday in my favourite haberdashers, MacCulloch & Wallace.  The BBC crew were filming the latest episode of the ‘Apprentice’ and one of the participants had been instructed to source 10 metres of , well you’ll see, while she stumbled through an attempt to negotiate the price.   Goodness knows why, but from the look of the cloth I think she may be planning some mid-series nuptials!

Women’s Tailoring: Genesis and Evolution

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

TfW@V&AAfter all the time spent planning, the day arrived  to give my presentation at the Victoria & Albert Museum.  Regular readers of the TfW blog will know that this was something originally put forward as a proposal almost eight months ago, so it was a super feeling to be standing in front of a packed and appreciative audience.  Fortunately I had the presence of mind to have it filmed.

My task was to open the seminar, which was beautifully hosted by the V&A’s Head of Adult Education, Jo Banham.  Following this was an intriguing presentation by Jaeger.  This year is their 125th anniversary and it was wonderful to see some of the pieces and pictures from their archive.  I have a couple of vintage Jaeger pieces myself dating from the time Jean Muir was their designer and I treasure them.

Following this, Alan Cannon Jones, Senior Lecturer at the London College of Fashion talked about some of the new trends in tailored fashion, and some of the techniques that are used to support them.

The video attached to this post gives an edited version of my own contribution.  There were also a number of Q&A points throughout the seminar and I plan to include some of the issues that were raised in future posts.

The topics I covered ranged from a whistle-stop tour of the history of women’s tailoring to an exploration of the practical skills that support it.  This included the consideration of the physiological aspects, hand-crafting techniques, and the complex psychology that underlies the relationship with one’s client.   I concluded with some thoughts around the future of women’s tailoring with reference to a statement I had compiled from the opinions of my clients.

“Women should have same the opportunities for investing in their wardrobes in the same way that they invest in their careers”

I hope that you don’t have too many problems with the download.

Stop Press!

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Paper boyWe reached a milestone recently.  One that you helped to create. For just over a year we have been writing about tailoring for women, and it is incredible to see how our audience has grown.  Our goal was to try to create a hub of information that addressed some of the prevailing practical issues for women when it comes to selecting tailored clothing, and to help you make better informed decisions.  Judging from our Google rankings it has reached way beyond our initial expectations…and cultural boundaries.

From India to Canada interest has been stimulated, and not only amongst our immediate client base.  Discussions have been opened with other craftspeople from the trade, a regular stream of apprentices and work experience students has materialised, opportunities for exchanges between clients and non-clients have been created, and our blog has acted as a talking point for several internet based forums.

This resource has also led to the creation of a number of opportunities for extending our business.  In September we will be visiting clients in New York City, October will see a feature in National Westminster Bank’s ‘Sense‘ magazine, and in November we have the exciting opportunity of opening the seminar on women’s tailoring at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London alongside Jaeger and Evie Belle.  As a result we have received mentions in the online magazines for both Vogue and Elle, and the influential Fashion United blog.

Some of our most popular items to date have been Dressing the Fuller Figure, Restore, Refurbish, Restyle, Resurrect, Remodel…and the A Word, Variations on a Seam, Folding a Jacket, and more recently Trouser Roles.  The credit crunch too stimulated a number of posts, and there appears a regular stream of visitors to the more technically based features in Briefing for Bespoke.

So, thank you all for making this possible, and finally, do let us know if there are any subjects you feel we are missing!

Photo: thanks to Media Bistro

Spitfire tailors

Thursday, August 6th, 2009

Spitfire pilotSomeone recently said to me, ” I’m sure you can see now that men’s and women’s tailoring will never sit side by side.”   Granted, this was not one of the most  forward-thinking of the Savile Row fraternity. (I am not sure that Armani would agree with him either!)  It seems ironic that these days, when the talk is of ‘breaking glass ceilings’, there should be such a lack of joined-up thinking.  I have to confess that this thought was in part stimulated by a book I was given by a friend recently; The Spitfire Women of World War II (Giles Whittell)

The women of the Air Transport Auxiliary may not have taken part in the Battle of Britain but, without their flying skills and courage in Spitfire womendelivering the aircraft to the RAF bases for their male counterparts, the battle would never have got off the ground; they flew Lancasters and Wellingtons too.  There are believed to be about 15 of the women pilots left, all in their eighties and nineties.

To fulfil their posts, they needed to be in uniform and as you might imagine, all the tailors were men.

The book relates a charming account from one of the women pilots about a trip to a local tailor in order to be measured up, and the consternation caused amongst the erstwhile cutters when a group of them first walked into the shop.  “Whoever heard of such a thing!”.

Apparently the basic measures were accomplished without incident, but when it came to the bust Spitfire Womenmeasurement the approach of the tailor seemed somewhat unusual.  “He would take a few quick steps, throw the tape measure round the back, catch it in mid-air and, turning his head away as if he couldn’t bear to look, wait until the two ends met before giving a fleeting glance to the number of inches it recorded.”  The process was completed by the cutter whispering “the awful secret” in the “hairy ear” of his amanuensis.  What a performance!

The end result was that their long awaited uniforms arrived with trouser seats four inches lower than they should have been.

Thank goodness times have changed…or have they!?

Photo: thanks to HarperPerennial, The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail

Figuring it out: Hacking jackets, Mars bars and shotguns

Wednesday, March 25th, 2009

Hacking JacketA respondent to a recent post asked the question;  is buying a bespoke garment considered  a good return on  investment considering the initial spend?  Putting aside for the moment matters such as fit, design and satisfaction of requirements, I thought it provided an interesting challenge.  So I decided to investigate something from my own experience; my favourite ‘hacking jacket‘.

I made this garment twenty years ago, just after I came to London.  The fabric is a 100% worsted wool special edition tartan that I picked up at Holland & Sherry in Mayfair.  I wanted a key piece for my wardrobe that would be flexible enough to wear with tailored trousers, or jeans and trainers; for more formal or informal gatherings.  I use it throughout the autumn, winter and spring, and probably a minimum of once each week.  Erring on the low side this has given it around 600 outings in its lifetime (20 years) and it still has a long way to go!    The reasons for the length of its lifespan lie with the fact that the nature of its construction means it can be altered, the quality of the fabric makes it durable but still elegant, and it can resist the trauma of visits to high street dry cleaners without falling apart.

The original cost would have been in the region of £750.00 which  means that so far it has cost £37.50 per annum, and of course this is diminishing.  How does this rate with what you would expect to pay in the high street?

Prices, as you might imagine, have changed since the late 80’s.  So I contrasted this with two of my passions; Mars bars and shotguns.  Pretty extreme!

In 1989 the price of a Mars bar was 26 pence, and a standard 12 bore Holland & HollandRoyal ” Model shotgun £21,100.  When I went to the local newsagent today, a Mars bar cost me 65 pence.  I didn’t have sufficient loose change in my pocket to pick up a shotgun; they now retail at £55,250.

So putting all this together I would suggest that the current price of a hacking jacket, from around £1500, is pretty much in line with the current pricing structures, and a good return on investment.

Not only that… but you get what you want!

P.S.  I just had an evening with one of my closest colleagues on the ‘Row’.  John Reed (see ‘Folding a Jacket‘) reminded me about the fact that we are all different, and the beauty of bespoke is that it respects and responds to our differences.

Briefing for Bespoke: Performance

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

ThumbFollowing on from our Briefing for Bespoke: Fabric post I felt that it would be useful to highlight some of the things you should take into account when selecting a fabric. These will determine whether or not it is fit for purpose, giving consistent performance throughout a garment’s intended lifetime.

There are three sets of factors to think about:

  • the inherent properties of the fabric
  • comfort
  • wear and tear


The properties of a fabric fall into seven different categories.

Cover is the first, and it relates to how well, or little, a fabric embraces a figure  for either concealment or warmth.  The more crimp in a fibre the better its covering properties, and as crimped fibres tend to cover more area, in the manufacturing process less raw product can be used which makes for a lighter weight fabric with less bulk.  The next category is colour fastness.  Quite a critical issue as over a period of time hue and intensity can fade as a result of exposure to sunlight or overly rigorous cleaning processes.

The outward surface of a fabric is known as the face and this is determined by the fibre length, fibre crimp, yarn structure, method of manufacture and finishing.  All of these influence whether or not the final result will be crisp and well defined, or something much softer.  Feltability is the way in which wool fibres matt together and it gives woolen fabrics body , firmness and stability.  The down side for felted fabrics is that they need extra care in their maintenance.

Different fabrics react to heat in different ways and this can produce alarming results particularly during the pressing process.  Heat sensitivity is something you should bear in mind particularly with man-made fabrics.  Interestingly, one of the ways in which we tell the difference between man-made and natural fabrics is to burn a small sample with a match and the resulting smell will give you an immediate indication of its composition.  With modern manufacturing processes man-made fabrics can mimic their natural counterparts so accurately that this test is not so out of place as it might first seem.

Luster refers to  the amount of light that reflects from the strands of the yarn and this can be affected by the length of the fibre, its cross-section, crimp and structure.  Fibres can be combined to give a hard gloss, soft luster, or dull matte appearance. The finish on a fabric can also affect the luster.

The last category is a fabric’s drape or stiffness.  This determines the degree of flow you require in a garment and whether or not you want to create something more structured or relaxed.


Comfort concerns not only to the physical contact a fabric makes with the body, the feel, but also to the stretch which allows the wearer go move freely.  Two additional factors which are rarely considered are how a fabric reacts to moisture, and its electrical conductivity.

Their are three ways for assessing how a fabric might react to moisture. Porosity, absorbency and wicking.

Porosity relates to the ability for air or moisture  to pass through a fabric and  is determined by the tightnessEverest of the weave.  Ventile,  a fabric originally developed for RAF pilots in WWII to improve their chance of survival when forced to ‘ditch’ in Arctic seas during convoy duty, was also used by Sir Edmond Hillary’s Everest expedition.  Its construction was such that when the fabric becomes damp the fibres swell and tighten up preventing moisture penetration.

Absorbency is governed more by the  chemical and physical structures of the fibres and governs affecting how a fabric deals with matters such as perspiration, water repellency, colour fastness, shrinkage, spotting and static build-up.  Wicking is the way in which a fibre transfers moisture along its surface.  This has particular applications in sportwear by taking moisture away from the body to the outside of the garment where it more easily evaporates.

With electrical conductivity, although this can be influenced by the context in which the garment is worn, one of most uncomfortable experiences for the wearer is to find that their diaphonous gown has suddenly become figure hugging, and they they are both the recipient and giver of electrical shocks.  (If this is the case and you don’t have an anti-static shift to hand, rush for the body lotion and apply it to your undergarments!)

Wear and Tear

Finally, wear and tear.  This is caused largely by abrasion or over-stretching. As a rule of thumb the stiffer  the fabric the less able it is to withstand rubbing or chaffing.  Snagging is also a form of abrasion where individual yarns are caught and  pulled from the main body of the fabric.  The ability for a garment to return to its original shape as its elasticity diminshies also limits its life.  This can be caused by general use, or by the effect of chemicals or overheating during the cleaning process which can also affect both colour and composition.

For the next post we shall look forward to a brighter note with some tips for taking better care of your wardrobe

Photo: thanks to ChorLeoni & Everest News

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


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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