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The History of Suits

Suits have been around for centuries. In fact, they go back as far as the 17th century when royal court dresses comprised suits, wigs, and knee breeches.

This apparel was popular in the Western world but quickly faded during the French Revolution.

However, over the past 50 years, woolen cloth made its way into British tailoring, the necktie became popular, and hats and waistcoats became unfashionable.

Beau Brummell

Beau Brummell
Lounge suits started appearing during the later parts of the 19th century. As mentioned, the origins of the suit go back to the 17th century, when King Charles II of England established the standards for such types of dress. At the time, men of the English Court were required to wear long coats and waistcoats, which were called “petticoats.” In addition to such flamboyant dress, these men were also required to wear cravats, knee breeches, wigs, and a hat.

Beau Brummell

During the 19th century, Beau Brummell, a friend of the Prince Regent, redefined the styles of the 17th century and was credited with popularizing them. His style allowed European men to wear tailored clothes accentuated by knotted neckties. The new clothes appealed greatly to the people due to their simplicity. In addition, more subtle colors were used, eventually paving the way for such styles to become the new standard.

Brummell’s contributions greatly influenced modern-day clothing, including the modern necktie and suit. He was also the one who included bathing as part of a man’s regular daily repertoire. For those belonging to the upper class, Brummell introduced dark-colored tailcoats. He paired his tailcoats with a pale waistcoat and pale trousers. A cravat, tall boots, and white shirt completed the ensemble.

Victorian Period

Victorian
The period during which Queen Victoria was the reigning monarch, introduced a variety of novel fashion items. The frock coat became popular. The color black also became popular, and soon became the standard color for men’s clothing. In the mid-19th century, the morning coat became the popular standard. Although this was considered slightly informal, it was still used for riding. Both the morning dress and frock coats were not considered suits because the fabrics and colors did not match. The frock coat was normally used for business occasions, while the tailcoat was worn as evening dress. It was only towards the end of the 19th century that the world witnessed the arrival of the modern lounge suit, which at the time was considered an informal suit worn at the seaside, in the country, or during sports events.

At this time, a standard item for informal evening events emerged – the dinner jacket worn with a white tie. This evolved into the dress lounge, which soon became known as the black tie. When the dress reached the United States, it was given the name “tuxedo.”

Initially, the dress lounge became the standard for only small gatherings and large formal events; the use of a white tie and tails was still prevalent during formal events. However, this changed slowly and in time the dress lounge eventually found its way into bigger events.

Edwardian Period

Edwardian
During the Edwardian era, frock coats started losing their appeal. Men discovered they could be fashionable without sacrificing comfort. Many businessmen started wearing morning coats. Initially, only those engaged in business loved wearing them. However, men began seeing these coats as the more acceptable standard. So even for men who were not engaged in business, the dress lounge became the norm.  The dress lounge worn at private men-only functions, so the black tie became very common

Aside from this fashion revolution slowly unfolding in Europe, another story was happening in the U.S. Here, the “sack suit” slowly made its way to the top in terms of popularity. This “sack suit” was loose and unfitted. Only the shoulder part seemed to fit the wearer. Since there were no darts on the suit, it was quickly regarded as informal.

The change became highly noticeable. What used to be frowned upon started to become the acceptable norm in fashion wear.

1910s

1910s
What started out in the 1900s lived on. The suits didn’t change, and men used them as part of their everyday routines. However, constant additions were made to the whole getup, and, during the early 1900s, hats supplemented men’s attire. Those in the upper strata of society would wear silk top hats during formal occasions. Flat straw hats and fedoras were also worn for a host of activities. The working and middle class were one in their choice of accessories – they preferred wearing newsboy hats and flat caps. Traveling would entail another kind of hat, the Panama hat.

When World War I broke out, fashion experienced a dramatic revolution. During such dour times, one would  expect people to focus less on the regality or sophistication of their clothing choices, and more on the functionality of their dress wear, which is quite normal during periods of crisis when people make more conservative choices.

Two Men Wearing Frock Coats

In 1919, at the Treaty of Versailles, lounge suits were worn to informal gatherings. However, frock coats were worn for daytime meetings. When World War I ended, men had already become used to the lounge-coated suit. Those lounge coats lost their appeal and were replaced by the “morning coat” for “formal” wear.

Of course, older men didn’t easily succumb to the influence of the morning coat. They continued to wear their frock coats. Little by little, huge change came to America in terms of what suit to wear during evening outings. Long, full dress tails were replaced by short dinner jackets; however, this did not deter older men from wearing full dress tails. In Great Britain, the black tie became the norm and was considered less formal than the white tie.

1920s

1920s
The popularity of trousers, such as those in fashion today, which are no longer a tight fit on the legs, could be attributed to the 1920s. Then, straight-legged, wider trousers started to become more popular. Around the cuff, the measurement was about 23 inches. It was among younger men that trousers started to be creased, and single-breasted suits became dominant. Those who wore double-breasted ones were older men, who were considered part of the jazz age. Such men preferred to wear short jackets, comprising two or three buttons.

For formal events, men would wear a dark blue or black swallow-tailed coat matching the jacket. This came with a silk top hat, white bow tie, and white gloves. The use of a white handkerchief was also popular during this time. Of course, Oxford shoes were a staple.

Men also started wearing shorter jackets in the early 1920s. Jackets with high waistlines were prevalent then as well. In fact, inspiration for this style came from World War I military uniforms.

It was in 1925 that wider trousers started to become part of men’s fashion ensemble. The once high-waisted jackets returned to normal waistlines. Lapels became wide and peaked. Sleeves likewise adapted to a loose fit. Single-breasted jackets and double-breasted vests grew in popularity.

Of course, hats were still present, but became more a symbol of class, separating the elite from the masses. The “elites” wore Homburg hats or top hats. Those in the middle class preferred bowler hats or fedoras. In summer, men from all classes would wear straw boater hats.

1930s

1930s
The 1930s was the age of celebrities, a time during which the “drape cut” became fashionable. This cut has more fabric in the shoulder area, light padding, a nipped waist, and full sleeves. The effect certainly enhanced a man’s figure, and appealed to people.

With celebrities becoming fashion icons, it didn’t take long for the drape cut to be adapted in various parts of the world. Some of the most popular celebrities back then, such as Fred Astaire and Cary Grant, wore loose-fitting trousers and matching coats. It was at this time that the style of suits worn by men changed dramatically.

1940s

1940s
When World War II broke out, people once again started wearing more conservative clothing. Although they no longer opted for frock coats, they turned to the minimalist look because of the reduced availability of materials.

1950s

1950s
After the war, everyone was reeling from its effects. People simply wanted to find a way to “escape” the haunting memories of the war. The only difference between the 1950s and the 1920s was that the impact of World War II was far greater.

Men’s suits were usually double-breasted, with broad shoulders. Fabrics started to become more accessible. This led pants to become fuller. Cuffs also became more prevalent during these times.

Just like the influence of celebrities in the 30s, new Hollywood stars likewise played a huge role in determining what was fashionable and what was not. Since they wore fuller pants with bold details and cuts, such clothing became more popular. Wide-pleated trousers likewise returned, paving the way for men to find dancing less difficult than it had been wearing tight trousers. The rise in the number of cinemas and the accessibility of television could also be attributed to the way in which men’s fashion evolved at this time.

With more people propagating freedom of thought and fashion, there were some notable names of men who revolutionized suits. Marlon Brando was a front-running fashion rebel. Back in his time, plain T-shirts were regarded as “underwear,” and wearing T-shirts in public was regarded as rude. Marlon Brando did just that, and he started a major breakthrough in fashion!

Wearing plain T-shirts in public actually paved the way for the parallel development of both work and leisure clothes. Jeans also became increasingly popular during this time.

The New Edwardian Look, introduced by Savile Row, emerged in the UK with the appearance of slightly flared jackets, narrow cuts, and natural shoulders. Such jackets were meant to be worn with a curly brimmed bowler hat. The look also featured a long overcoat and a velvet collar. Savile Row was likewise the one who introduced the term bespoke. This would refer to any suit that was cut and sewn by hand.

With more people engaging in sports and leisure activities, sports coats gained a strong foothold. The early 1950s saw an increase in the number of people wearing tartan plaids. In the second part of this decade, more types of checks were introduced. Corduroy jackets also became prevalent.

In time, with all these developments, the suit became strongly associated with manhood and masculinity. Suits became symbols of elegance and power. While many fashion changes occurred over the years, the opulence of fashion never waned. However, it was also in the 50s that more equality in fashion was seen as suits ceased to be items made only for the rich. They became a staple of the everyday working professional.

1960s

1960s
The 1960s can be remembered as the decade of rebellion. There were those who enjoyed classic and conservative clothing, but this group had some serious competition from the Baby Boomer generation (which included the first members of the hippie era). Much of their rebellion was inspired by their common opposition to the Vietnam War, an opposition they voiced in their music and the clothes they wore. They never wore suits, but opted for loose-fitting, soft fabrics with floral designs, as well as jeans. Hair was worn long and topped off with bandanas, headbands, and other bold accessories.

However, there were some big names among those who preferred the classic look – Michael Caine, Sean Connery, and the Beatles. The Beatles actually wore collarless jackets with skinny-fit suits. Drainpipe trousers cut short around the ankles were also worn.

1970s

1970s
In the 1970s, the bright colors of the hippie generation dominated the fashion scene accompanied by revolutionary changes in fashion accessories, which included bell-bottom trousers and platform shoes (even for men). Discos became popular and music, in tandem with the fashion revolution, heralded a new era in clothes design, one driven by such ideologies as the “peace” and “freedom” movements. Aside from the hippies, big collars and high waists became 70s staples. Wearing hats became less of a trend. Men eventually experienced a sense of freedom in donning their suits.

1980s

1980s
The 1980s was marked as a new era for suits. This decade was highly influenced by celebrity actors, actresses, and singers. Suits grew in size; haircuts became bigger too. It would seem this decade paved the way for social affiliations to act as the basis for the type of suits men wore. Cultural interest became a significant factor too.

Generally, the 1980s showcased padded jackets, which eventually became less padded. Informal and skinny ties also symbolized this decade, along with narrow lapels. Two-piece suits became a greater part of the fashion scene compared to three-piece suits. In addition, men developed a greater appreciation for comfort when deciding on design and style.

1990s

1990s
The 90s signaled the advent of the urban look, which actually was a relaxed, less fit look. Baggy suits were really popular. Bright colors became a thing of the past as they were overtaken by drab colors. Those sharp cuts actually became “boring” and less artistic cuts.

2000s

2000s
This was the starting point of the getaway from drab colors as pastel colors became the norm. Open styles dominated this era, allowing men to experiment with their choices. Suits, however, were generally regarded as out of style, as men thought of them as really “formal.”

2010 to Present

2010 to the present
Men’s suits have experienced some revival this decade, anchored on the classic look. Decades that greatly influenced these years include the 20s, 40s, and 50s. Some men of the modern era wear vintage-inspired classics or any clothing that appeals to their tastes. Today, everyone has the freedom to express their own style.