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The fascinating history behind the suit

One of my favorite topics to discuss is the history of menswear. I love how men’s attire is so often rooted in pragmatic and practical beginnings. And although I’ve covered a range of topics on this blog, most recently on surgeon cuffs, I haven’t yet taken on a more global approach and looked at the suit as a whole. The history behind the suit spans almost three centuries.

To begin, we need to go back to the mid 17th century. England was buffeted by a plague and not long after, the Great Fire of London. In an effort to usher in a new era of stability, Charles II of England required that his courtiers wear simple tunics. This was quite a change from the flamboyant wardrobes that were commonplace at the time.

This simple tunic, shirt, and pant combination gained traction among merchants and aristocrats. And the earth toned color palette was reinforced by the typical English countryside attire for men of a dark coat and riding pants.

But it wasn’t until the 18th century that this relatively austere gentleman’s dress code went through another transformation.

A gentleman by the name of George “Beau” Brummel is arguably the godfather of the men’s dress suit. A friend of the prince regent at the time, he was working with the prince to develop new military uniforms for one of the English regiments. Brummel believed that fit and fabric cut were the most important things when it came to gentleman’s attire.

Aside from muted tones in color, Brummel’s influence was perhaps most obvious with the tightly fitting clothes. This was the neoclassical period in England, after all, and everyone was trying to emulate the Greek culture. That meant looking more like Greek statues, which in turn, meant showing off one’s lines and contours. When the regiment donned the new dress uniform, it soon caught on by the masses.

Although fit was more important than ever, this was far from the suit that you are wearing today. It took another century for tailors to make little changes here and there and for the fit to relax, just a little. Eventually, the confluence of military, medical, and sporting details resulted in what we recognize today as the men’s dress suit.

The V-shaped torso being a nod to Brummel’s work to emulate the Greek statues, working button holes owe their heritage to the needs of surgeons, and padded shoulders trace their roots back to traditional military uniforms that look best when a man is standing. Also, the center or side vents on a modern suit were cut that way such that a gentleman could ride a horse.

By the turn of the 19th century, the suit had spread all over the world; in so small part to Britain’s colonial and military endeavors. The advent of mass communication via journalism and photography amplified this effect.

With the rise of American business, the suit really became a staple in men’s closets. The interplay between sportsman attire and formality was just what American business culture wanted.

Since then, the suit has changed, but only by a little. Its general structure remains more or less the same. Pockets come and go, fit may come in a little and then recede, but the general idea of man’s modern day suit of amour, one built from wool instead of iron, has endured.

Pretty cool history, isn’t it?!

I hope that by understanding a little more of the fascinating history behind the suit, you will feel a little pride the next time you put one on!

Further reading:

The Economist: Suitably Dressed

 

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