Men started wearing trousers with a shirt and an overcoat centuries ago, and this pairing was popularised by the term ‘suit’ to make a statement for men who liked to dress up. Some considered it effeminate for a man to pay so much attention to wearing clothes every day while some wore it and made a sartorial movement. But where did it all come from and who started wearing this iconic piece of garment?
Before the kind of suits that we know today, men had their own version of extravagant dressing. They wore high neck collared shirts with a lot of frills and ruffles, pantyhose and long hats with feather and high heels. Heavily embroidered fabrics like velvet and silk were used to construct enormous frock coats that would obstruct the movement.
High neck collar shirts paired with Tail Coats
During the late 1890s, Beau Brummel came from England, who narrowed down the silhouette and did all the necessary to make suits practical. He ignored the elaboration and opted for best quality tailored suits in its finest fabrics. Brummel was friends with the aristocrats and would attend public events with them, making his style influential.
Prince of Wales, Edward VII
The Prince of Wales, Edward VII, was one of the trend lovers at that time and was known to have a large wardrobe full of suits. He was a style icon of his time and was widely followed by upper-class men. His dressmaker Henry Poole would construct the finest tailored suits for him and the duo attracted a wealthy clientele for Henry Poole at Saville Row. Saville Row has been the hub for the tailoring sector since the 19th century. The term ‘bespoke’ was used to identify Saville Row, as they came up with the concept of flawlessly customised garments only fitted for a particular individual. Not everyone could afford a suit from Saville Row but that’s what made it more luxurious.
Over a period, details kept changing. The silhouette became more athletic; a three-piece suit including a waistcoat matching to the overcoat was well received. The War brought many practical changes like the edition of trench coats that are still in demand and cargo pants with huge pockets that are travel-friendly.
Later in the 1930s, Europe gained its hold on fashion and made suits an impeccable dress code for menswear. The silhouette enhanced a man’s physique and the details were subtle like a button down collar, stiff cuff and straight-leg trousers. The dress sense became subtle and stood out from the crowd as opposed to the royals who wore elaborate garments.
The Teddy Boys during the 1950s innovated suits to blur the class barriers taking place in America. It was initiated by underprivileged Africans and South Americans to oppose the racism by ‘white males,’ because they were treated as the poor class. The style of suits by the Teddy Boys consumed large amounts of fabrics to prove that they could afford it. Hence, the silhouette was slouchy, jackets were longer, shoulders were broadened and the pants were widened.
Cinema and music icons affected the suits between the 60s and 80s. The Beatles’ suits with polo neck sweaters and collarless jackets were loved by masses while Giorgio Armani invented a new silhouette and used fabrics that were not used before to make suits for the movie American Gigolo. These linen suits became more relaxed and casual and were paired with t-shirts in contrast to the suits that were used only for formal occasions or work wear.
Towards the beginning of 21st century, suits became more slim-fitted, trousers were cropped to the ankle and colours were mainly neutrals. James Bond movies since the 60s have also been a key example of flamboyant black and white suits.
From being a sign of wealth to being useful in the war, from making a fashion statement to making a revolutionary movement, the suit has served for more than a century and still hasn’t gone out of style. In fact, it kept evolving with time and served every generation and taste. What do you think is next for suits?
Text: Pinanki Shah
Images: 100 years of Menswear by Cally Blackman, Henry Poole, Saville Row, D&G, Pinterest