What Suits Can Teach Us About Markets

In the book, Return to Order, there is a chapter on standardization and how it favors the advance of frenetic intemperance in economy. Standardized goods, we claim, lead to the standardized masses. It destroys the human element that gives warmth, life and meaning to economy.
In theory, such affirmations are detached and abstract.The best way to understand standardization is with real life examples. An article on custom-made suits in the September 4, 2012 issue of The New York Times Magazine is a perfect example of the point we make.

Author Adam Davidson comments on how the art of making a tailored suit is fast disappearing. Those who still wear suits today simply do not realize what was once involved. We are so used to picking something off the rack that it hardly occurs to us that buying a suit was something special.

And yet it used to be a personal experience. The made-to-measure or the more labor intensive “bespoke” suit used to be the standard, not the exception. The tailor was an artisan not a manufacturer. Davidson describes how the bespoke suit called on the tailor to create a unique pattern, cut a chosen fabric and construct a suit that fit perfectly the client and his preferences. Every aspect of the suit’s design was customized from the width of the lapel to the size and number of pockets. No two suits were the same. Davidson asked a custom tailor what makes a bespoke suit so unique. He replied: “It’s the result of skills that only a trained hand can perform. Modern technology cannot create anything comparable.”

While the bespoke suit may be a work of art, the nature of the business does not allow for huge profit margins. There is no economy of scale, since the costs of producing each suit is just about the same whether it be one or fifty. Because of the small volume, marketing is usually limited to reputation and customer loyalty. A person can make a good living at the trade but he cannot strike it rich and still maintain quality. “The only way to make money in the perfectionist craftsperson industry,” Davidson concludes, “it seems, is to stop being a perfectionist craftsperson.”

Only a few decades ago, there were thousands of traditional tailors plying their trade. There were also thousands of clothing factories that produced made-to-measure suits using quality-tailoring skills. The result was a comfortable, durable and attractive suit at affordable prices. Now, Davidson states, there are only a few dozen such tailors left in the United States catering to the high-end market. Likewise, there are only a handful of quality clothing factories left standing. In their place are cheap mass-produced suits, often made by the millions in China, which have flooded our markets.

What is really lamentable is the loss of tailoring skills more than the actual suit itself. We cannot expect everyone to be able to buy expensive bespoke suits that can now cost as much as $4,000. We would rather see a return to the same skills, artisan spirit and quality work that once governed the whole price range of suits, from inexpensive to very expensive.

There is no doubt that standardized suits may be cheaper, but our point is that something very important has been lost in the process. Lost is that taste for quality that enriches and spreads throughout the culture. Gone is that personal interaction with the customer that helped determine fashion and established clothier traditions. Now it is the international fashion houses that dictate what will be in fashion for the whole world. We are left with cold impersonal clothing markets dominated by mass-marketing techniques and mass-produced items with a general decline in quality, especially as one descends down the product line.

Some might object that the demise of the tailored suit is merely the result of the inevitable march of market forces. Nostalgic consumers should stop living in the past and accept the tailored suit’s standardization as part of this “progress.”

We would reply that these trends are not the result of orderly markets but of a disorder we call frenetic intemperance. Those infected with this disorder seek to free themselves of all market restraints and engage in any and all risky practices in a frenetic rush for ever greater volume and profits. This often ends in failure since not all have the resources to compete in such aggressive environments.

Much more than market forces, frenetic intemperance has changed and undermined the tailoring landscape. For those who stay in the tailoring trade, for example, there is the constant temptation to sacrifice quality and reputation and expand production to make more and easier money.

Davidson notes how modern clothiers often begin small and established a strong brand reputation based on a tailoring tradition, and then roll out on all sorts of cheaper mass-produced branded products like fragrances to become billion dollar businesses. There are also those willing to adulterate their own strong reputation by branding their names and selling them out to bigger concerns. Others are encouraged to abandon their tailoring skills and outsource, mechanize and cheapen their production by moving overseas. Everything is geared to disregard quality tailoring and engage in a frenetic search for expansion.

Ultimately, what we see in the case of the tailor is a clash of cultures. In the culture of frenetic intemperance, there is the rush for increasing standardization and centralization of production. By its massive scale, such production leads to a diminishing of quality and embellishment. It also leads to the standardized consumption and the glut of markets. Sometimes, as in the case of some “designer” goods, these products are even more expensive that tailor-made goods. We feel such production impoverishes a culture and, by its intemperance, carries within it seeds of self-destruction.

Return to Order discusses a second culture that is not ruled by frenetic intemperance. It represents a market that is naturally tempered by human values and institutions. Our proposal does not concretely suggest that all should go around in custom-made suits. All we are saying is that the tailor represents something of these values that are missing from our culture. When someone buys the tailor’s suit, he also buys reputation, tradition, quality, durability and value. When an economy is imbued with these values at all price levels, it enriches a culture and serves as the basis of a stable and thriving social order. These values that temper an economy are those which we want to return.

This clash of cultures is what Return to Order is all about.


  • Francis Slobodnik

    Even those who have the means have lost the appreciation for refined things such as a tailored suit.  Elites of today like to dress casually most all of the time.  I wear suits for almost all occasions as I believe that how I dress adds respect and dignity to the event I am participating in. A common experience for me is while attending social events at which I am only a guest, is for staff to come and ask me questions about the event, I suspect it is because I have a suit on.  I kindly direct them to the correct person who is usually dressed in a polo shirt, khaki pants and clogs.