For nearly four hundred years, no piece of clothing has been as synonymous with man as the suit. Decorating the backs of both dandies such as Brummel and steely men like Washington, the suit has been the great equalizer, the peak of fashion, a contemptible nuisance and a dozens other things to dozens of other people. Today, Suitored takes a look at the history and evolution of the suit, and looks at how the suit has changed, and how it has remained a staple in wardrobes for nearly four centuries.
Historians and enthusiasts tend to fuss over minor details of suit history, like an overbearing mother on prom night. However, a few things are generally agreed upon. Royal court dress is believed to be the earliest recognizable suit, consisting of a long coat, waistcoat, cravat, and trousers. A direct ancestor of the three-piece suit, the style is believed to have originated in the courts of France. Here, a young, exiled English king would whittle his days until he could return home to London.
In 1649, King Charles I was executed, and his son fled a hostile England in 1651. He would not return until 1660. When Charles II returned to claim his father’s throne, he brought with him, his mistresses, his advisors, his friends, and his fashions from Europe. This French style court dress replaced the style favored by his predecessors, and would be the start of England’s relationship with the suit.
From then on men emulated the court dress favored by the King, resulting in increasingly elaborate clothing. Gold thread, powdered wigs, and bright, garish colors were not unusual, with no end apparently in sight. The next revolution in British tailoring came from an exceptionally uncommon commoner. Beau Brummel, a favorite friend of the Prince of Wales was admired for his quick wit, and keen eye for fashion. Brummel kept himself meticulously clean, and favored an understated look. Brummel believed that the ideal man shouldn’t draw the eye with his clothing – this would indicate he was too behind, or too ahead of the times. He should communicate a sense of refinement, class, and restraint.
The result was a clean, sensible, subdued look that featured a tailcoat, contrasting trousers, waistcoat, white shirt and cravat. Everything was subdued, not at all flashy, but very well made, and very well tailored. Prince George thought he was brilliant, and so, everyone else did as well. By 1811 however, Brummel fell from the Prince’s favor, and his debts began to stack up. He fled to France in 1816 to escape debtor’s prison, and would never return to England.
The Victorian era changed things greatly in England and abroad, and with the emergence of a new middle class, and growing industrialization, fine clothing became available to an increasing number of people. Here, clothing takes two turns, with formal and casual clothing going their separate ways. A formal event would call for a frock coat, which was a knee length, peaked lapel, double breasted variant of the tail-coat with full front. More casual events would have men in a morning coat, a similar coat with a cut away front.
The Leisure Suit
In America, the leisure suit emerged in the late 1800s as a form of athletic wear. The well-dressed sporting man adopted this hardy suit, more suitable for riding, shooting, and other leisure activities that he might take in. Usually made of tweed or a similar sturdy material, the suit might include a waistcoat. This would be the first iteration of the modern two piece suit that we would recognize, with a familiar cut and drape.
Frock coats became less common, and morning coats became more formal, taking their place. Eventually, the dinner jacket (or tuxedo) became acceptable as formal evening wear, and the leisure suit rose to its current place as acceptable everyday business wear. By the late 1910s, a prosperous gentleman might wear a dark leisure suit to work, before going home to change into a tailless dinner jacket to eat.
The Twentieth Century
For the next hundred years or so, suits remained largely unchanged. Waistcoats became optional, worsted wools became the material of choice, and the sight of a notched lapel, two button single breasted suit became common. A three-inch notched lapel suit form 1955 would still be acceptable today as businesswear, with a bit of care and tailoring.
The suit today occupies a curious position in society. There are far too many office men who get by with an irregularly sized blazer and chinos, and never learn to tie a tie. Our editor argues that even one is too many. Some men today simply don’t understand the importance and influence that a great suit can carry.
However, simply by reading this, you’ve shown your own care about how you present yourself to the world. Whether you’re an old hand, or a novice, hopefully this article has gripped your interest, and helped inspire you to stop dressing like a teenager and more like a grown man.