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How buying my first tailored suit helped me through a life crisis


I have a new suit. It’s bespoke, made in the UK and costs £2,000. The process of getting it made, and now wearing it and feeling great in it has been an emotional and physical balm. It’s substance-based therapy – and as a veteran of talk cures, let me tell you: this alternative works, and it works fast.

I long wanted a suit that fit me well. I am tall but not thin and menopause stole my waist. Still, like many of my peers, I crave style more and more, because more confidence is the unexpected bonus feature of middle age.

Staying relevant in the workplace is also essential for many of us who are still in business. Looking good on the outside helps with the “invisibility problem”: women over 50 are the fastest growing segment of the UK workforce, but are often overlooked in recruitment or promotion due to prejudice and ageism.

What started me on this journey (there, I said it) was a comment from a reader under an FT article headlined My Quest for the Perfect Suit by Annachiara Biondi. The best of these ready-made ones cost £1,000. “Go for customization. Will be cheaper in the long run,” said one reader. Among the suggestions for tailors: Susanna Hall (thanks “Inversnaid” for that tip).

Hall, it turned out, was just the right choice for this novice buyer of tailored suits. She is casual – the exact opposite of what I imagined a fancy tailor – and naturally knows how to put people at ease. As it should be, because she has been doing this since 1996, after studying textiles at the art academy and working together with her father, designer / architect, she started for herself.

“I fell into making clothes,” she tells me when I asked about her backstory. It combines, she says, “my love for creativity, design, colour, fabric, fashion and people”.

Only about 15 percent of Hall’s clients are women — but that’s more than anyone when she started — and then the cutters weren’t able to expertly fit women’s bodies.

We flipped through books of swatches and settled on a pale blue-grey worsted wool with a herringbone stripe, trimmed with a paisley-patterned lining © Lily Bertrand-Webb

I knew nothing of this when I walked into Hall’s compact Clerkenwell store in November 2022. I was a wreck. My marriage was in deep crisis and I was traumatized. In the midst of this mess, donning cloth armor to face the world was an enticing prospect.

I quickly learned, from those who have survived personal lives with nuclear weapons, that it is crucial in these moments to have a sense of your “embodied self.” It sounds like wellness nonsense, but it’s a solid concept: embodied here means being aware of being in your body. Celebrating it.

That’s why yoga and running are so good in bad times. It is also, I realize in retrospect, why middle-aged mad women have suits made, garments that are perfectly tailored to their bodies. It’s a kind of self-love, this act of being measured and seen and cared for by a tailor like Hall, and by the skilled cutters, all of whom are in the UK, who make the suits to her specifications.

But when I first stepped into Hall’s shop out of the pouring rain, all bodily awareness was limited to panic over whether I would have to strip down to underwear to be measured. (Hall is so experienced, in fact, that she uses only her eye and runs a tape measure over customers’ clothes.)

We sat down with some fabric swatch books to go through possible looks and color combinations. What did I like? I mentioned Margaret Howell’s understated vision and the oversized, long, 1980s-style coats popularized by Katharine Hamnett. And to be more topical, Cos. The bold, simple-cut pieces from the chain store don’t usually suit me — but I like the look.

We flipped through sample books and opted for a light blue-grey worsted wool with a subtle herringbone stripe. It is trimmed with a paisley patterned lining that is almost purple. Hall sketched and discussed the possible look of the suit. Exaggerated pockets on the jacket, deep vents, large turn-ups on the trousers – everything just that little bit “extra”. I loved it, paid the deposit, went home and waited.

In the months that followed, only the fabric swatches on my desk reminded me that something was up. I began to doubt my decision. Was owning a suit a colossal act of vanity and folly? Yes of course. I didn’t tell anyone for months. And spending that much on clothes isn’t easy when your idea of ​​spending money is a bargain jersey in TK Maxx. Such is the aversion of the English middle class to be ostentatious, licentious or conspicuous.

My previous experience with custom outfits was a wedding dress. It was through Antonia Pugh-Thomas, now a couture maker with a shop in London. In the late ’90s, I got her number from a friend of a friend. She’d just started, the decor was in her flat and it all seemed pleasantly rebellious and under the radar, somewhat obscuring the fact that I was getting married. And that my father paid for it.

A tailor's hands measure and cut the fabric into a suit jacket
Susannah Hall at work on the suit © Lily Bertrand-Webb

This suit, however, was conceived as a forever piece of clothing, a statement of adult self, paid for by me. Two children have grown up since Pugh-Thomas made that glittering silk shirt – beautiful as it is – worn only once, while I was “given away” from one man to another.

In early 2023, Hall got back in touch. I had to fit in. She put the loosely stitched jacket and trousers on me, missing all details and lining. It was perfect. The doubts have been cleared. Hall put pins on everything and then sent it off to finish it off.

At the beginning of April, the suit was back. My first sight was it hanging on a rail next to other completed outfits waiting to be picked up. An electric blue slimline number caught my eye – maybe next time?

By now my marriage was starting to bond again in what was a raw recovery for both of us. The parallel process of having the suit made was an important part of my own reboot and recovery.

When I put these pieces on, it felt like something broken snapped back together. The pants fit perfectly. A jacket that was loose – but not too loose. I was in tears and incredibly grateful to Hall for realizing this vision of a slightly better version of myself.

Isabel Berwick hosts the FT’s Working It podcast and writes the weekly Working It newsletter – sign up at ft.com/newsletters

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Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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