History Of The Suit
While the word ‘fashion’ is a by-word for something that is modern and up to date, fashion fanatics are probably in third place after train-spotters and historic reenactors when it comes to their willingness to dig out their history books. From the fussy court fashions of the 18th century to the freewheeling designers of the 1950s and 1960s, most tailors draw their inspiration from somewhere, and as purveyors of fine British fashion, we’re particularly interested in how the history of clothes intertwines with the history of the British Isles. And with that in mind it’s hard to think of a better subject than the history of the suit, which figures so prominently in our line of work, and also in British society of the last few centuries.
Most fashions start out at the top, and that’s certainly where the business suit can trace its ancestry from. Following the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, colour began to flow back into the lives of the aristocracy in Britain as the drab Puritan aesthetic was thrown out, and continental fashions took hold. As a middling European power still scarred by decades of repression Britain’s tastes were in thrall to the French, and elaborate court attire that relied on velvet, lace, heavy embroidery, breeches and stockings were commonly worn by the rich and famous.
But while the aristocracy remained the centre of gravity in France, the burgeoning industrial revolution in Britain was tipping the scales towards the growing wealth of the mobile middle classes. Newly wealthy farmers, industrialists, bankers and professionals wanted to ape the fashions of their social betters, but baulked at the cost and impracticality of the most ostentatious outfits. Instead, stripped down versions of courtly dress that were fashionable but easier to wear when riding or inspecting fields and factories became more popular. Not only that, they became a uniform for the new Briton: sharp, simple, practical and on-the-rise where the decadent style of the French was seen as a symptom of the corruption and inequality that caused their revolution.
Tailors are a canny lot, and it was obvious that there was a lot of money to be made out of a whole new social class that had a lot of cash and an appreciation for the finer things in life, so they began to produce garments to suit every taste. The late Georgian and early Victorian period was a boom time for British fashion, producing garments we’re familiar with today such as the morning coat, frock coat and lounge suit. Inspired by the military dress of British heroes such as Nelson and Wellington, collars and lapels came to the fore, while single and double-breasted versions of these many style variants came and went in fashion as time went on.
But while the outlandish style of earlier aristocrats had gradually morphed into the more traditional and staid formal dress that we might recognise today, there was still a divide between those formal outfits that might only make an appearance at balls and functions, and the classic business suit we know and love today. Having had a century or two to bed in, the new money in British society needed something to wear in its leisure time that was smart but also comfortable and informal. Something that was warm and practical, whilst also being smart enough that it would bear inspection by surprise visitors and your fellow aristocrats. The solution was the lounge suit, which lacked tails and was generally baggier, making it easier to wear while playing sports or ‘lounging’ in the home.
It was this innovation which finally seems to have marked the divergence between the formalwear of older times and the modern business wear we know today, as frock coats and morning coats essentially stopped evolving, worn only by the older generations and those with a very conservative sense of style. It was also a time when the landed classes were losing the last vestiges of their formal power in Britain, and such informal fashions were equally accessible to self-made people in trades, politics, business or the media.
British history did have one more twist to deliver to the modern day business men's suits, though. As one of the first truly global forces in the world, the birth of the suit and the height of the British Empire collided to make that style of dress the standard around the world, something that is seemingly difficult to shake even to this day. While colonial subjects found it difficult to be taken seriously by British investors if they didn’t match their style of dress, many other countries around the world also ended up adopting the suit for convenience’s sake, an early product of the kind of globalisation we now take for granted.
Nowadays the suit has become a must have item of fashion for every man's wardrobe. Finding a suit that has the correct fit and style for you has never been easier with companies offering tailored and bespoke men's suits in a wealth of styles and materials.