The suit has been one of the most timeless garments for men since the 17th century. The history of the suit is one that reacts heavily with some of the biggest moments in history. Suits today might not be as prevalent as they have been in the past, but they still hold a secure place in any man’s wardrobe. Be it for a job interview, a wedding, or even a day in court, a suit is still a necessary part of modern life. Let’s take a look at the history and evolution of these timeless threads.
For starters, a quick definition of a suit as there will be plenty of items of clothing mentioned here that may confuse what readers think a suit is. A suit is a garment with a matching coat, trousers and/or waistcoat. The suits we wear today resemble most closely what is termed a ‘lounge suit.’
Now, with the preliminaries out of the way, let’s look at the not so humble 17th century.
The 17th Century Restoration Era (1660-1688)
We can trace the suits origin to the dress code implemented by King Charles II, King of England in 1666. He was tired of the opulence and flamboyance of the era and so banned things like extravagant jewellery. Instead, he decreed that English men at court would have to wear a long coat, a waistcoat (which they called a petticoat at the time), a cravat (a precursor to the tie), a wig, knee breeches (trousers), and a hat. While not the same, you can see the beginnings of a suit’s silhouette appearing.
18th Century France (1700-1799)
17th century fashions continued into the 18th but became more extravagant and opulent. But something was peering over the horizon, a massive cultural shift that would see the nobility adjust their fashion accordingly. The French Revolution (1789). The late 18th century fashion demanded that the nobles’ wigs had to go along with their heads.
Bright colours and wigs were associated with the nobility and during the French Revolution, any symbol of opulence or extravagance had negative connotations, to put it mildly. A kind of anti-fashion had appeared which favoured simplicity and modesty. This meant that men tended to wear plainer and darker clothes with no wig or powdered hair. This was not true of everyone as more conservative men still wore their wigs. But this is where the dark suit was born and it managed to stay in vogue well into the modern era.
The Regency Era (1811-1820)
While the suits of the 18th century were still very influenced by the suits of the 17th, but the 19th century saw a fashion revolution led by one man, British dandy Beau Brummell. He redefined, adapted, and then popularised what was happening in France during the Revolution and brought it to England. He saw the simpler clothes and darker colours and essentially laid the groundwork the modern idea of the suit. The predominant clothing introduced was a tight fitting, dark coloured tailcoat with non-matching trousers, pale waistcoat, white shirt, cravat, and tall boots. Think Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice.
The Victorian Era (1837-1901)
Adding to the look of the Regency era was the frock coat. It appeared right at the start of the Victorian era and exploded in popularity. These look similar to modern overcoats. It had a single vent, either single- or double-breasted, and went down to your knees. This was a little more formal and eventually, during the mid-Victorian era, two new coats appeared: the morning coat and the lounge suit. The morning coat kept the tails of previous coats whilst the lounge suit got rid of them. Frock coats and morning coats you could wear with matching trousers but you didn’t have to, so technically this isn’t a suit. Enter, the lounge suit.
Developed in Scotland during the 1850s and 1860s, the lounge suit was originally for outdoor events in the country or by the seaside. This lounge suit is essentially what the modern suit is today and it is a little funny to think nowadays that it was originally designed for informal events rather than the formality we typically associate them with.
The Edwardian Era (1901-1914)
At this point, frock coats were becoming less popular and morning coats were becoming far more formal. At first it was the businessmen who made it so, but eventually it became acceptable outside of the office too. The humble lounge suit was also gaining traction with it becoming acceptable to wear outside of its original outdoor setting. Lounge suits were also typically made of much thicker material in comparison with modern suits due to a lack of central heating. Everything was still dyed darker colours but now it was for practical purposes. Cities were fairly dirty and sooty, so the darker colours meant that it was harder to see if you were covered in filth. Country suits, however, had the luxury of introducing patterns and brown tones. Good examples of this are the first season of Downton Abbey and to an extent the first season of Peaky Blinders.
The Roaring Twenties (1920s)
After the First World War, among the many casualties was the frock coat. The lounge suit now reigned supreme and would do so well into the 21st century. The trousers were typically very high-waisted especially in comparison with today. The jackets were tight at the beginning of the decade but by the end they had become wide at the shoulder with the waist tucked in. Paired with the high trousers, it created the illusion of possessing longer legs and greater height. Colours and patterns had made a comeback and with this burst in colour came accessories. In came pocket squares and tie pins that added a little more personality to a man’s suit. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby has many great examples of this, the costume design on that film was phenomenal.
The 1930s was essentially a refined continuation of the 1920s. These suits were again cut with a wide shoulder, but the waist was taken in even further. This look was often associated with the heroic male leads in Hollywood. Stars like Clark Gable and Cary Grant made this the look for men during the decade.
With the outbreak of the Second World War, materials had to be rationed so minimalism was on its way in for suits. Suits as a result became standardised and streamlined. Jackets were cut as straight as possible without any hint of a waistline, lapels were narrower, and trousers were very trim. All this was done to save fabric. This is the same reason why waistcoats and vest became unpopular. The grey flannel suit is one of the iconic looks from this era.
In stark contrast, the Zoot suit showed up within the youth counterculture. Zoot suits had very baggy pants and long jackets. Everything was oversized. People often criticised it because it went against the rationing of cloth. People even went so far as to say it was unpatriotic. So, it managed to anger those in authority? Must be a perfect expression of a counterculture then.
Once the war was over and cloth rations were a thing of the past, suits reverted to the looks popular in the 20s and 30s. Lapels became wider, pants had pleats again, and no longer was the slim look in vogue. The vest was still going out of fashion as central heating became far more commonplace.
Suits in general, for the first time since their inception, weren’t the only way for men to express themselves. T-shirts, jeans, and leather jackets were a new form of rebellion. Less flashy and urban than the zoot suit these new fashions were inexpensive and accessible. But if you were a rich, educated boy who wanted to rebel than the Ivy League style was for you. Casualisation was taking the world by storm and even the Ivy League style wasn’t exempt with outfits rarely having matching trousers and jackets.
For the traditional suit, this was mostly a continuation but towards the latter half of the decade we get some wild experimentation appearing. Everything became much slimmer. Ties, lapels, pants, you name it. The Beatles are a great encapsulation of the style of the 60s. They all started wearing the same narrow, black single-breasted suit. By the end of the decade, they started going far out there, man. The counterculture mostly kept away from suits during this period, becoming solely the property of ‘squares’ and a symbol of ‘the Man.’
In the disco era, suits came back in a big way. They were tight-fitting. They had massive lapels. They had flared trousers. Even the vest made a comeback. The difference being that none of this was formal at all. The complete opposite in fact, as suits were adopted by the disco culture. Think John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Bright colours have once again made a comeback.
Taking a hard right turn from the 70s, the 80s brought conservatives suits back in a big way. The prime reason for this, was the power suit. We can thank Giorgio Armani for this design that was everywhere in the 80s. It’s dated now but the power suit brought the return of the double-breasted suit and pinstripes. Lapels stayed big and shoulder pads were used.
For whatever reason the 90s just decided to take the worst aspects of the 80s and make them bigger. Bigger shoulders, bigger jackets, bigger lapels. Everything was even boxier than the 80s. To keep it short, it was one of the worst decades for suits.
Slim-fit suits made a triumphant return in the new millennium. Gone was the ridiculous boxiness of the 90s and in came the minimalism we saw from the 40s. The suit overall got shorter and the button position got higher. Nothing too crazy here as it is very similar to the suits we still wear today.
So there you have it. A very broad and simple history of the suit. Maybe in the future we will see newer interpretations of suits. Maybe they will go out style completely? That’s doubtful but it is exciting to see how much has changed yet how much has also stayed the same. What is you favourite era for the suit?