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A short history of the suit

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October 27, 2015 by Ville Raivio

The following is a translation from my classic style book, Klassikko, published in Finland this year. Placed at the beginning of the Suit chapter, it aims to tell how the western suit of clothes was born, how it evolved through time, and how its forms told the story of the unfolding 1900s. Hopefully some smart publishing house will buy the translation rights for Klassikko, and Keikari’s readers can read the rest of the book one day.

A short history of the suit

The suit is a centuries-old western garment whose cut and details are the mirror of times. In its current form this whole comprises a jacket and trousers made from the same fabric to be worn together. Another pair of trousers along with a waistcoat were popular additions, but these are rare in the 2000s as fewer men need suits often, and manufacturers aim to cut costs and speed up production. To put it extremely succinctly, it can be said that the western men’s suit is the hundreds of years old, traditional leisure garment of the British upper class. Its root form was born from the reform of the English King Charles II in 1666. By his order, the men of his court began wearing three-piece suits of clothes composed of a decorative knee-length jacket, very long waistcoat, and knee breeches, usually cut from the same fabric. The jacket had copious buttons, sometimes the vest was even longer than the jacket, and often the jacket had turnback sleeves that resembled trouser cuffs. The whole was called a justaucorps.

The waistcoat often had sleeves as well, but no inner structure or shoulder pads. The justaucorps was inspired by the contemporary court dress of Persia, experienced firsthand by European travellers of the Silk Road, and its buttons were sewn on the right side of the body. This way swords were not caught in the cloth when mostly right-handed men took offence and weapon. This is how we still button. By the king’s orders, this new dress surpassed the doublet ensemble that had been worn since the beginning of the 1600s. Silk and lace were commonplace in the former garments, but the new suit of clothes was made from wool. This decision was remarkable because wool cloth had previously been the fabric of peasants and labourers. A similar decree was issued by the sunny Ludwig XIV of France, where the new look was boosted by the thoughts of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who spoke for a return to nature. The clothes of the 1700s were stiff work because silk couldn’t be shaped like wool, and neither did the shoulders have padding nor the chest have canvas, both of which would have brought even shape for the garment. Most of the jackets had but two darts, both sewn on the back instead of front. Those to the manor born favoured silk fabrics decorated with gold or silver embroidery. Thus, the gentleman’s clothes during these times were imposingly decorated but poorly fitting. Still, English apparel was less showy than French as early as the 1730s, and tourists from the continent were surprised by the very plain Englishman.

After the 17th century doublets and 18th century justaucorps came the full dress jacket-looking frock with a double-breasted long jacket and high turndown collar, large buttons, wide lapels and slim sleeves. Its usual companions were a large, white linen cravat, double-breasted waistcoat, form-fitting leg wear, and high riding boots. Often the jacket was worn with knee breeches and knee-length hosiery, and boots were replaced with low buckle shoes. The popular long waistcoats lost their sleeves in the 1770s cut, at a time when macaroni dandies, overtly primmed and decorated young men, raised disdain on the British isles. Their style was a verge interpretation of French court dress, and these sons of noble families continued their lark unto the beginning of the 1800s.

During the Regency era, England changed course. At the beginning of the 1800s, one George Bryan “Beau” Brummell designed and bespoke his own version of the frock, which was accepted by the gentry. Without Beau’s friendship with the current king’s son, the costume of his design would have hardly triumphed. The new look was based on the country attire of the British upper class, made from sturdy, thick, and durable wool cloths. With the popularity of these garments, English tailors had learned to stretch, shrink, and alter wool with steam so well that the demanding class accepted their works. Beau’s dress was wholly understated, woollen, unadorned, silkless and, compared to the old look, inexpensive — nearly democratic. It was the first ray of a new dawn. The jacket and legwear were made from different cloths, but the dress had no reek of horses like the usual country attire. Instead of a loose cravat, a starched linen neckcloth had appeared around the neck, and it was folded artistically. On the feet were high leather boots like the ones on the countryside, but now these were made on chiseled lasts and polished to a presentable form. Instead of knee breeches, long-legged pantaloons were worn.

On America’s side, strange things were happening at the beginning of the 1800s, when makers like Brooks Brothers laid the foundation for the modern clothing factory. They sold readymade suits, for which all details had been decided beforehand, though their fit was altered to suit the customer. Off-the-peg clothes were on offer even after the 1750s, but they were made slowly by hand. Cloths and custom clothes have always been relatively expensive, and recycling used apparel was commonplace already during the Middle Ages. With the help of factories, the growing mass of pauper immigrants could be clothed for reasonable prices, as well as the enormous Union forces of the American Civil War. A sad but true result of cheap readymade clothing was the gradual disappearance of daily folk costumes and local, traditional garments on both sides of the Atlantic. The tape measure, invented at the beginning of the 19th century, greatly assisted tailors’ work, and improved the cut and fit of clothing. To this day its inventor has not been found. During the 1820s to 1840s, gentlemen occasionally wore two separate waistcoats with their knee-length frock coat. Their fabrics were heavily patterned and -dyed up until the end of the century.

The frock coat finally surpassed other British formal daywear garments in the 1830s. While the Brummellian dress inspired countless forms, the day frock was likely most influenced by military uniforms as it was always double-breasted, and buttoned high on the chest. Within a few decades, the jacket began to be cut with an increasingly narrow waist while the skirt widened. Finally this combination lead to a corseted silhouette on men with slim enough waists. Innovations lead to changes in clothes manufacturing: the sewing machine was invented in the 1840s, the buttonhole machine came two decades later, the 1870s brought the buttoning machine, and the 1900s arrived armed with machine knives that could cut several cloth layers at a time.

Before the 1850s, the most common western daywear for fine men consisted of a black knee-length jacket, grey striped trousers, white shirt with detachable collar, a cravat or ascot tie, and dress boots. Headwear was usually a top hat, and a cane came swinging in one arm. The whole was the common dress of the Victorian gentleman, essential apparel for the so-called rising middle classes and established gentry. It was extremely popular up until the 1910s. The jackets of this time had a longer and clearly narrower waist than today, at its narrowest it resembled a corseted figure. The short reefer sailing jacket, resembling a pea coat, was also in vogue concurrently, though it wasn’t a an outer garment. The rowdy students of Oxford and Cambridge also took to wearing short jackets for daywear. The 1850s brought the first waistcoats that were made from the same cloth as the jacket and trousers in a suit of clothes. At this time, tailors’ trade magazines and men’s style publications were set up to spread the marketing and manufacturing info of apparel.

The arch form of the current suit appeared on men in the 1850s, when the so-called lounge jacket grabbed attention. This original name referred to a carefree lounging garment that was fit for walks, the countryside, the home and leisure time, but not for parties or occasions. Its cut was well full and comfortable, so the clothes were carefree and pleasing after stiff, stuffy morning dress or white tie. The lounge jacket shape was born when the morning jacket hem was shortened and cut less rounded, four buttons were sewn to the body, and the very short notch lapels of the Tweedside country jacket were added. The breast pocket still used today was an essential part of the lounge even then. The double-breasted suit appeared in the 1860s, inspired by the similar-looking reefer jackets, which were like shortened navy uniform coats. The reefers were indeed buttoned higher than pea coats, but the overall shape was still similar. The hems and edges of the first lounge suits were usually decorated with piping. The early suits had sleeves that were very full on the bicep and tapered much towards the wrist. They were common sportswear and country clothing. As time went by, the size of the lapels grew, the number of buttons lessened, and the buttoning point moved from the chest closer to the bellybutton. The same happened to the waistcoat’s buttoning point and lapels as well.

During the 1870s, the new lounge suit proved very popular among the grandees as well. When the frock coat lost popularity, the lounge suit cut from dark wool slowly took its place as gentlemen’s day attire. The dark suit was the most popular daytime dress around the streets of Europe already in the 1890s. At this time, its cut was loose, lapels minuscule, and the buttoning point very high on the chest. Shoulder padding as well as full canvas structure inside the chest, still favoured by tailors today, became the golden norm just before the 1900s arrived. The former evens out crooked shoulders and gives them gravitas, the latter brings an unsurpassed shape to the garment. The Victorian era was the golden age of tailoring because new types of clothing were born in great amounts, the skill in shaping wool cloth reached its peak, the tape measure helped artisans perceive bodily forms, and clothing finally combined smartness with structure and fit. The lounge suit had surpassed all other men’s day garments in popularity by the end of the century, and the previous formal garments were reserved for parties and grand occasions.

Morning dress was already used at the beginning of the 19th century first as a sporting garment, worn on equine morning outings. Hence the name. The oldest models did have an M-shaped lapel gorge and several metal buttons, though, but the current minimal morning dress dates from the beginning of the 1900s. Up until the Second World War, British men followed the dress example set out by the Royal Family, and Europe commonly followed the Brits. Thus the latest changes proceeded from the King or his family to their closest high-ranking servants, and from them onwards. In time, these effects reached the outer rims of the western nations. The suits and jackets of the 1900s were cut very short like bumfreezers, the shoulders were heavily padded and rounded. Finally these shapeless and straight-hanging sack cut jackets were replaced with form-fitting ones in the 1910s, suits that had defined waistlines. Hard, large padding was left off as the newer style had a natural, rounded shoulder line. In America, the youngsters let loose with very long and narrow jazz suits. Back in Italy, a peculiar ethos of futuristic clothing was born within artist circles, and gave birth to wild experimentations while predicting the clothes of the future based on the clothes of the day. The 1920s were mostly happy and young men wanted to feel the age in their clothes. Suits became narrower, shapes were rounded, the jacket hem was lengthened still, and the most popular silhouette was long and slim.

The Wall Street Crash of 1929 decimated countless lives and had a profound effect on American clothes manufacturing. Left with no occupation, diminishing funds, and a hungry family, rags were the last thing in men’s minds. While sales slumped and moods were low, the great invention of the 1930s was the made to order suit. The customer could choose his cloth and pick out a few details, but the garment was not made to his measurements. After the Second World War was done and wrapped up, men had scarce money or will to pay tailors for bespoke orders. Made to measure or made to order deals got the job done well enough. As if an objection to the lightness of the ‘20s and the roughness of WWII times, the 1930s suit was huge in shoulder and nipped in waist, the better to form an exaggerated V-shape. Most jackets, even the single-breasted ones, had peak lapels that suggested added height and broader shoulders. At this time, double-breasted suits were also at the peak of their popularity. The amount of leisure clothes grew greatly and the famed drape cut enjoyed its high time. The few drape jackets still made have retained their main feature: a bit of loose fabric cut on the chest and around the sleeves. This guarantees a wider range of movement for the hands and makes the chest look slightly broader.

Jacket hems were commonly short again, below which a trouser-covered bum swinged. War time rationing greatly hampered all quests for elegance, though the men returning to the home front in the 1940s did not want to fight the government, as happened two decades later. Instead they wanted to belong and be accepted as part of society after so much suffering. The decade’s suit was by all means loose, padded, full, comfortable but mostly shapeless. The ‘40s youth did rebel a bit by looking scruffy instead of kempt, and favoured roll neck shirts instead of collar shirts, knitwear in place of suits. When the 1950s arrived, the most popular American garment for the professional man was the grey flannel suit. Cut in the sack style, it was boring but appropriate, and inflamed no ardours. The so-called natural shoulder line was the greatest innovation in men’s suits for two decades. Now there was little padding so the shoulders looked rounded and soft. After the World War’s second iteration, dressing up for dinner slowly disappeared from grand estates as well. It was popularly not felt the thing to do anymore in an age of new social order and democracy. Elsewhere, American style and culture spread across the globe through Hollywood’s golden era films, whose leading men wore their own custom clothing, not the creations of some “designer”.

During the mid fifties, synthetic fibres appeared and were marketed as the herald of a future without the trouble of ironing or starch, that would never wrinkle or break down. Mixed cloths were woven as well: wool brought its own virtues and synthetics theirs. The fifties also saw more and more men leave ties at home, and begin popping their shirt collars to rest above the lapels. Peak lapels nearly disappeared from single-breasted jackets and suits. Right before the 1960s arrived, contoured, even sexy continental cuts from the French and Italians bested prior, dull models in the US. The influence of the Roman Brioni, in particular, was noted among the fine jet-setting crowd, and the company was the first to hold a catwalk fashion show for men. A clearly defined waist and strong shoulders appealed to men and women all the way in England and America. In addition, fewer men wore jackets during the summer in the ‘50s, so the apparel industry feverishly tried to sell jackets on both sides of the Atlantic. As these were warmer than shirts in the heat, their place was taken by shirt jackets that were made to look like sports jackets, but lacked shoulder padding, canvas structure, and linings. Fabrics with a porous surface offered help for the man in search of a cool summer jacket.

The 1960s were one big rebellion and the suit held no appeal apart from its most casual forms, like corduroy models. Unity was no goal anymore, for all wanted to be beautiful and unique snowflakes. During previous times, men had passed on to their sons what little they knew about the secrets of classic clothing. During the Great Renunciation this tradition was largely lost. As fathers didn’t want to seem like mummies or lose track of the changing times, they now asked for advice from their sons, who told all about the core of cool. Dressing no longer changed through the joint efforts of tailors and style icons, it was the garment industry’s marketing and mass copies that showed the way. The Peacock Revolution that began in England blanketed Europe and America under garish patterns and strong colours. Tommy Nutter’s company helped renew the stuffy image of Savile Row, and showed entertainment stars that not every suit is the same or a completely boring garment. All men’s clothes became slimmer, and rock was rolling while red wine and free sex were flowing.

The 1970s were a time of comical proportions. Shirt collars, ties, lapels and trouser legs were enormous and fitted no one. For some reason nobody told this to the people who lived through the decade. The era was also the high time of the fashion designer, and they sold huge amounts of clothing with peculiar, futuristic designs. In America, Ralph Lauren set up his own company, but differed from other designers in that his inspiration hailed from the first decades of the 20th century, from the traditions of the American East Coast and the British isles. Despite its dementedness, the seventies was the last age to see common, everyday use for the three-piece suit. Afterwards it has become much rarer. With the comical clothes vanished the last bits of smart day-to-day clothing etiquette. As the decade waned, Europeans grew tired with tight clothing and drew inspiration from loose, comfy American cuts. This silhouette was to last for some two decades.

The 1980s suit was baggy and lax with capital shoulders. This cut culminated in Giorgio Armani’s unstructured vision of the tailored jacket with a dropped buttoning point and lapel gorges drooping on the clavicle. It was indeed comfortable and differing, but far from balanced or distinguished because its proportions differed so much from the golden mean. As the inner structure was removed, these jackets offered poorer fits for the human form, and often the set sleeves hanged outside the shoulder’s natural line. During the ‘80s, men’s fashion shows became more popular and the great economic boom fed into conspicuous dressing. In America, the colourful, loose and different costume design of Miami Vice struck the pace. This slack look continued through the 1990s, even though the eighties’ boom had ended humiliatingly. A particular nineties vogue were black suits. During the 2000s, suits grew shorter and very tight in all directions. This look has continued to this day, but clothiers always have the allure to develop and market new and “contemporary” cuts so that we might feel ourselves uncomfortable, and buy new pieces. Despite this, the man who knows classical proportions, balance and the limitations of his body can nonchalantly use his favoured clothes for decades.

The greatest variables in the disappearance of morning dress, white tie, and frock coat were the two world wars, and their concomitant social changes. The strong grip of hierarchical estates and the privileges of the owning class crumbled. New generations wanted to make a visible stand to the past worlds of their fathers and grandfathers. Stiffness did not appeal to those who had accustomed to the lightness of uniforms. Ordinary life thus became more ordinary, and the suit took the place of former garments, which were now reserved for formalwear. Weddings, state occasions, diplomacy and grand balls kept alive the clothes of times past. The suit has been cut anew and its details changed all through the 1900s, but its core remains the same. These many stages can be studied, for example, from the wonderful book Sharp Suits by Eric Musgrave.

During the 2000s, the suit has become a more-or-less ceremonial garment instead of everyday clothing, used to separate celebrations from the commonplace. It is also part of occupational dress for chosen sectors, worn as a marker of appreciation towards the client, listener, viewer, organisation or values. The American clothing company of Paul Stuart has described the suit’s stature in an interesting way: “A proper function of the business suit is to offer a man a decent privacy so that irrelevant reactions are not called into play to prejudice what should be purely business transactions.” In other words, the suit is a mostly neutral garment that hides a man’s place of birth, leisure pursuits, or free choice in clothing in a way that does not bother others. Likely the complete opposite of wearing the suit would be doing foreign business in folk costume. Naturally, suits will not remove accents from speech nor change the wearer’s opinions, but it will also not stand out in city or business settings. The suit has stood the test of time because it is eminently suitable and adjustable.


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Only a beautiful life is worth living.


"If John Bull turns around to look at you, you are not well dressed; but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable".
~ Beau Brummell