Bespoke

By Maeve Maddox

A reader has asked for a discussion of the word bespoke:

I keep reading it in articles, and at least half the time I see it I end up looking it up because it just doesn’t seem correct to me.

Bespoke is an adjective that comes from the archaic English verb bespeak. One of the meanings of the prefix be- is “about.” When miserly Samuel Pepys dreads that a man wants him to be his son’s godfather–an honor that would require some outlay of cash–he says,

[The man] who I feared did come to bespeak me to be godfather to his son.

That is, “who he feared had come to speak to him about the prospect of his standing godfather.”

In early usage bespeak could also mean “to speak out,” “to ask for,” “to tell about,” and “to predict,” as well as the meaning that has survived in the bespoke of the reader’s question: “to engage beforehand; to order goods.”

Bespoke and bespoken are past forms of bespeak. For example,

A new set of chains was bespoke. (A new set of chains was ordered.)

She had arranged or bespoken to have him killed. (She had talked about a hit.)

In its current use as an adjective, bespoke refers to custom-made goods in contrast to goods that are ready-made. The adjective can also refer to a person who provides such goods, (e.g., “a bespoke tailor”).

In England the expression “bespoke suit” is a common way of referring to a tailor-made suit. In the context of conspicuous consumption, bespoke seems to have something to do with the desires of hedonists who don’t know what to do with their money.

Watchmakers look to bespoke design to court the super-rich:” We will offer a bespoke service where the customer has a say on everything: the material, the case, the dial, the hands,” said Thierry Andretta, president of the firm where prices for custom-made watches start at 100,000 Swiss francs ($113,000).

Gourmet dining, private flights, bespoke safaris, slimming clinics and art auctions emerging as top status symbols

The Privileged World City: Private Banking, Wealth Management and the Bespoke Servicing of the Global Super-Rich

American speakers of less extravagant means and tastes are more likely to refer to the things they special-order as “custom-made.”

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5 Responses to “Bespoke”

  • Peggy Campbell

    Great question since Arch Digest (et al) use this word now, IMHO, ad nauseum. We get it already. It’s almost like writers create copy so they can use the word. It’s overdone–let’s go back to being creative when we write!

  • elaine

    I’ve run across this in marketing for mass produced clothing as well. Google “Ann Taylor bespoke detail”. It may be unusual, or intricate, but it is clearly not bespoke, in that context.

  • Al

    I get weary of seeing this term misused by the wannabe elitists and those appealing to people with more money than sense. Often much more.
    As I understand it, the term bespoke, comes from English tailors who would import exotic cloth, perhaps to make shirts from, assigning the entire bolt to one select customer. When asked by other customers if it was available, he would reply, “it be spoke for’.

  • venqax

    I have only seen/heard the term used in a British context and so assumed it was simply a Britishism for “custom made” in SAE. I didn’t know it was also used in these other areas. The etymology of the term is interesting.

  • Andy Knoedler

    In the mid-1980s I decided to get my first suit. So I went to Austin Reed on Regents Street in London and ordered a bespoke suit. I had my measurements taken and then I had to answer the famous question: “And which side do you dress on?”

    Even after two fittings, the jacket was too small and I’ve left it behind. But the two pairs of trousers that came with the suit lived on for years. I still have the pair with the turn-ups and wear them at least once a month.

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