Atelier Bow hat by Anya Caliendo

Bespoke and Couture | Modern Millinery

Millinery Operations with Kristin Silverman

Several months ago, I went on a bit of a rant about using the wrong words for hat shapes. Recently, I saw a wonderful piece by The New York Times: “Bespoke This, Bespoke That. Enough Already.” So, cue another entry of me being pedantic. Again. 😉 I hope at least one person will say “Oh, I never knew what that word meant before!”

I had to laugh out loud at the column. People misusing “bespoke” has been driving me batty. The word refers to goods — especially clothing — made to order. A bespoke suit uses a custom pattern, not a stock one. It is fitted to the customer’s exact measurements. It doesn’t mean “made in your choice of stock sizes.”

In the world of millinery, it generally means more than “your choice of head size.” Bespoke millinery can involve custom dying to match an outfit (for a wedding or the races). It ideally is much more personalized than “pick a color from this chart of 5 options.” Bespoke millinery can involve custom designs that are never repeated for another customer.

On Etsy, there are more than 30,000 items in a search for “bespoke” — ranging from a mostly accurate use of the word, to “tell me your name for custom engraving/embroidery” … to things that are in no way bespoke. The mystery is: Do people not know what the word means other than being fancy and impressive sounding? Or do they know and just lie about their wares to get more views?

A similar thing happens with “couture” and “haute couture.” In France, there are strict laws governing who can use those terms. In the U.S., where we have no such rules, it’s a free-for-all! Most people seem to think it means something fancy or artistic or fashionable.

Here’s a piece I particularly love by Stephen Jones:

There’s a bit of a debate among milliners about when (if ever) it’s appropriate to use the word “couture.” Some argue that there’s no such thing as a couture milliner. The more accurate term is “model milliner.” Yeah, I’d never heard that term in my everyday life, either. It’s pretty obscure.

Many of us use a more specific wording: “made using couture techniques.” It’s more accurate. It skirts around the debate. And — most importantly — instead of seeming like a meaningless appropriation of the word, it actually tells you something. Couture technique means hand sewing instead of machine sewing. It means things that are made slowly, one at a time rather than mass-produced.

We can’t police word use. There’s no point in trying to stop people from using “couture” as a synonym for fancy or designer or stylish. That ship has long since sailed. I just won’t be joining them. I’ll only call a piece “bespoke” if it is. And I’ll only call a piece “couture” if it meets at least some standards of design and craftsmanship.

Can a milliner be a couture milliner? I don’t know, but I feel pretty okay calling Stephen Jones one. Oh, and he’s the first result in Google if you search for “model millinery.”

I’ll also heartily accept “couture” to apply to milliner Anya Caliendo, who has the rare distinction of presenting at New York Fashion Week.

P.S. If you say to a milliner “Oh, so you’re a haberdasher!” you won’t impress them with your vocabulary. A haberdasher sells either men’s clothing or men’s accoutrements (handkerchiefs, socks, hats, etc.) or sewing notions such as buttons and ribbons and needles — depending on where in the world you are.

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