History of the Suit in 22 Minutes: The Evolution of Menswear from 1800 to Today


Welcome back to the Gentleman’s Gazette!
In today’s video, we share with you the history and the evolution of the suit in
22 minutes. Even though many elements of the suit, as we know it today,
have remained unchanged since its inception, there are certainly
differences in the details of a suit from 2020 compared to a suit from the
1980s or 1940s. First of all, what exactly is a suit? The term “suit” is derived from
the French term “Suivre” which means to follow. Meaning, the jacket follows the
pants or vice versa. So a suit is a combination of a jacket and a pair of
pants in a matching fabric. It’s not just the color but also made out of the same fabric.
Like many aspects of classic menswear, the origins of the suit can also be
traced back to Beau Brummell. He was the prototypical gent in the 19th century
England. Before Beau Brummell, menswear was heavily influenced by the French
Corp and evolved around heavily embroidered fabrics such as velvet and
knee breeches and stockings. Beau Brummell replaced all of this with lone
trousers worn with boots and a coat that didn’t
have much ornamentation or color. Frankly, Brummell may not have been the first one
to simplify the classic French men’s wardrobe because at that point in time,
it had already become unpopular. French menswear was negatively associated with
the French Revolution and people who wore it were beheaded in the guillotine.
Nevertheless, Beau Brummell definitely popularized the new less ornamental
style. Now, it seems like the top and the bottom of Beau Brummell’s outfits weren’t
always exactly the same and matching but the whole silhouette and the more muted
color stream laid the groundwork for the modern suit, as we know it today.By the start of the Victorian era which lasted from 1837 to 1901, the first and foremost
garment a man would wear was a frock coat. It was basically a black coat that resembles modern overcoats. It had a single vent in the back and was
either single or double breasted. In terms of length, it reached down all
the way to the knees that’s why it resembles an overcoat. While the single
breasted version of a frock coat was more common, the double-breasted version
was more formal because it was also known as the Prince Albert. Later in the
Victorian era, the frock coat basically split up in two different elements. On
the one hand, we had the morning coat that kept the tails, on the other hand, we
had the lounge suit which lost it. While the morning suit remained the length, it now
had open quarters rather than the closed quarters of a frock coat and it often
had just a single button and it wasn’t double-breasted anymore. At the time, it
became the number one option for formal daywear but in today’s world, it’s
probably even more formal and typically only worn at Royal Weddings or high
society weddings. Maybe in England, it’s a little different where you can still see
the regular Joe wearing a morning coat for their wedding but in the US and out
side of England, it’s typically just done so in very certain circles either by
people who really appreciate classic men’s clothing or because they have a
certain status in society. If you want to learn more about morning dress, please
check out our in-depth morning dress guide here. While frock codes and morning
coats could technically be worn with matching pair of trousers, more often,
they were worn with contrasting trousers. Still in a darker color scheme but
nevertheless, they weren’t made out of a matching fabric. On the other hand, the
lounge suit consists of a top and bottom of matching fabric. Because of that, it was
also known as Dittoes which is derived from the term “Ditto” which means
same fabric for tops and bottoms. The lounge suit was originally developed in
1850s to the 1860s in Scotland. It was made out of heavier fabric and was meant to be a
garment for casual outdoor occasions. Nowadays, in the mind of most people, a
suit is a very formal garment but during the Victorian era, it was the
opposite. It was a casual garment that was not meant to be formal at all. Specifically, the matching aspect of trousers and pants made it less formal
because frock coats and morning coats were worn with somewhat contrasting trousers.
Another difference was obviously the length. It was a much shorter coat without
the tails and was cut more sack like without pronounced front darts. As the
name implies, the lounge suit was primarily a garment for the casual
lounge, something to be comfortable in, especially in the British countryside. Of
course, at the time, central heating was not the norm and so
suits were always worn with a vest or a waistcoat that was matching so you
always had a three-piece suit. As we started the 20th century, the suit, as we
know it today, was pretty much developed. From that point on, the shape was defined,
it was merely details that changed. It could be the lapel width, the jacket
length, the buttoning point, the height of the gorge, the type of fabrics that were
used, but overall, it was just an adaptation to an existing model. In the
first decade of the 1900s, which is also known as the Edwardian era, the lounge
suit persisted. It became more and more popular. The more formal frock coats and
morning coats were still around and were typically worn by older men but they
lost ground very quickly. If you ever had a chance to touch a suit from the
Edwardian era, you’ll notice that the fabric is extremely heavy and coarse
because on the one hand, the fabric finishing wasn’t as refined as it is today and on
the other hand, it was quite expensive and again, there was no central heating
and because of that, suits had to be worn inside. Many households still
heated with coal and cities were, in general, a dirty sooty place to be.
Because of that, the city’s suit was typically tailored out of darker colored
fabric. On the flipside, country suits typically had more patterns and brown
tones in them. For example, if you watch the first
episodes of Downton Abbey today, you can see the trend that country suits are
less formal and more colorful than their city suit counterparts. The 1920s were an
exciting decade for the suit as it went from super slim to fuller towards the
end. Right after World War I, the suit had a strong military influence. The jacket
was cut trim, maybe slightly longer at a higher buttoning point, and trousers
were quite slim with cuffs and relatively short,
however, by the end of the decade, fashion-forward suits already had the
precursor of the drape suit which meant there was more fabric in the chest and
also the pants were cut a little wider. Drape and the drape suit really became
popular in 1930s England in the US and you can learn more about it
here. During 20s, trousers all had a very high rise especially compared to today’s
pants. All jackets were cut pretty tightly towards the beginning of the
1920s, towards the end, they had become wider in the shoulder with a bit more
waist suppression and in combination with the high rise pants, you get that
visual illusion of longer legs and a pronounced waistline. While the pant legs
initially touched the sock, by the end of the decade, the most fashion-forward
suits had an opening of eleven and a half inches. However, it wasn’t a flare
cut, it was a straight cut and sometimes even a tapered cut so there was lots of
room in your trousers. If you want get a better idea of this style in action, you
may want to watch the series Jeeves and Wooster and we also cover their Styles
here. Because it was the roaring 20s, which is also known as the Jazz Age, the
big difference in terms of suiting materials was that they were more
stylish, there was more flash, there were more colors, more patterns, and
everything was bit more lively compared to previous generations of
suits. There was also an increasing interest in accessorizing their suits with, let’s say,
pocket squares or shirts with collar pins. In the end, it was a rebellion
towards the tradition of having dark suits and muted colors without bold
patterns. For example, if you watch the show Boardwalk Empire,
you see exactly what I mean. You see really loud suits in bold colors, stripes,
and it’s just a very interesting time for the suit. Likewise, the Great Gatsby
reflects this perfectly with his pink suit. The 1920s were also known for the
double-breasted waistcoat which was typically worn underneath a single
breasted jacket with notch lapels. Today, they would be considered quite unusual.
If you see a double-breasted waistcoat, it typically features a jacket with a
single or maybe two buttons and peak lapels. You’d also won’t button the
jacket in order to show the double-breasted waist.
The 1930s were characterized by a suit that had a heavy drape cut with wide
shoulder, a lot of waist suppression, high-rise trousers that were just cut
very full and just tapered slightly towards the shoes. It was the number one
style in England and in the US but also, places like Vienna. Jackets were
typically a bit longer and had no vents in the back for an ideal clean line when
you would stand. Also bear in mind, the fabrics were sold quite heavy so they
draped really well and they didn’t wrinkle very much. Overall, the look was
very masculine and it built the basis of a very heroic look on the silver screen.
Just look at Cary Grant or Clark Gable who perfectly used the suit to underline
their personalities in the movies. To learn more about the style of both of them,
please check our respective guides and videos here. Overall, I’d say a 1930s drape
style was a little more refined, more tapered towards the leg compared to the
late 20s suits. Even today, the 1930s are often referred to as Golden Age of
classic menswear in big part because of the way the suits were designed and you
can learn more about that to get a better idea of it by checking out our ebook
Gentlemen of the Golden Age. Now in the following decade, the suit changed a lot.
World War II meant that everything had to be rationed and so there was no more
fabric for these elaborate full cut large suits. Instead, the 1940 suits was
characterized by minimalism. The gray flannel suit became the option
of choice for professional everyday wear, it wasn’t double-breasted,
it was single breasted, it had narrow lapels and a very trim cut trouser
without cuffs in order to save fabric. For the same reasons, waistcoats or vests
became unpopular and if you look at the suit from the 1940s, it is very close to
the fashion of a 2020 suit because it’s lean and trimmed and overall, very slim.
Of course, the fabrics were still a lot heavier than they are today and they also had
a bit more texture than what you would get today. The exception in 1940s minimal
suit was the rebellious Zoot suit. It was a product of the
counterculture rebellion youth, particularly in African American and
Mexican communities. They had really baggy pants, a long jacket, and everything was
oversized and excessive. The shoulders were super padded and often, people
criticized it as being unpatriotic because it put your own idea of fashion
beyond the rationing of fabric. During the 1950’s, the post-war rebellion
definitely had an impact on the suit. To the end of austerity, some people went
back to the suit style from before the war
so lapels came wider, pants had pleats again, and it wasn’t as slim anymore.
Pleated pants were particularly popular because they allow for a range of
movement and more comfort and that, by the way, is still true today. The vest in
a three-piece suit continued to decline because central heating was more or less
well established at the time and so the need for extra heat inside had vanished.
Again, it was a post-war period and just like after the 1920s when there was this
post-war rebellion against the previous generation’s style, the same thing happened
in the 50s. It wasn’t just the zoot suit but many other young men rebelled
against the style of their fathers and grandfathers by wearing t-shirts or
jeans or leather jackets. Another example of this rebellion, maybe so in a more
subtle way, was the Ivy League style which was epitomized by the sack suit
style jacket. It is usually defined by a three-roll-two jacket with a single
center vent and pants without pleats. The other style of jacket was always single breasted and had very little or no padding in the shoulders which made for a very
natural silhouette which is more closely associated with Italy today but in fact,
the Americans have done that for a long time too. This was a time when Brooks
Brothers really dominated in American history and overall, the casualization of
clothes also didn’t make hold of the suit so Ivy League style was
characterized by combinations, more so than the suit. Yes, the suit was still
around but sport coats have become more popular due to their increased texture
and color variation. Now at the end of the 50s, we saw yet another subculture in suits known as the Mod suit. It was slim-fitting with narrow lapels. It
was worn with narrow ties, non pleated pants that were very thin and straight cut. For
good examples of 1950 suits, you can look at Frank Sinatra or the Rat Pack,
they really epitomized the style of the time. During 1960s, the style
of the 50s was more or less extended when it came to suits. So you had closely
fitting suits with some shoulder paddings that were worn with narrow
ties. Trousers were rather narrow, a little more tapered towards the ankle
and short so you wouldn’t see a break on the shoe. Even if there were cuffs or no
cuffs, fabrics were still rather heavy and textured but they made some
advancements and now added nylon and new artificial fibers to the fabric because
that was a new thing. At that same vein, sport coats with bolder patterns seem to be
favored for more muted ones. A good glimpse of the style of the 60s can be
seen in this series Mad Men where you can see, for example, people wearing bold
plaid coats, slim suits to the office. The style definitely came to halt in 1970s
which can be considered to be a low point in the history of the suit and
men’s fashion, in general. Suits were still relatively tight but had really
big lapels, they were rather flashy, and pants oftentimes in a flare cut. Now
interestingly, the 70s sort of returned the three-piece suit but it wasn’t formal at
all. It was rather casual and more part of
the disco culture. Just think of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. Along
with the bright colors, synthetics were now predominantly used in 1970s suits
which didn’t make them better in the long term and just overall, it was a
decade to be forgotten. Now, the 80s on the other hand, were a lot
better for the suit. If we had to break it down to one thing, it would be probably
the power suit. It was popularized first by Richard Gere as American Gigolo but
also on TV by Miami Vice. The central figure in this suit silhouette was
Giorgio Armani. It had a suit jacket that was soft yet broad in the shoulders, had
wider lapels with a much lower gorge yet a very very little buttoning point.
Overall, Armani created a very defining suit silhouette but today, it is easily
dated as the 1980s because of that. Another great example of the power suit
was the stuff that Michael Douglas wore is Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street.
All of those suits were designed by Alan Flusser and they’re the epitome of what
a power suit is to this day. To learn more about the Gordon Gecko style, please
check out this video here. In short, you saw the return the double-breasted suit,
you saw pinstripes again and full cut pants. Despite the fact that Armani
essentially reduced the structure of the suit and made it very soft, it was still
considered to be something that had strong or large shoulders and a defiant
silhouette. In general, the 80s were a time of excess and a celebration of
capitalism and the power suit was a direct expression of that time. Now, the
1990s were another low point of the suit. They basically took the worst aspects of
the 80 suits, pronounced it, made it even more ugly. The 90s suit was more clownish;
single breasted jackets sometimes had three or even four buttons, double-breasted ones
had six buttons but only the very bottom one was buttoned on an extremely low
buttoning point so just the proportions looked off. Pants were boxy and
baggy and were too long and puddled around the ankles. In contrast to that,
the early 2000s saw the return of the slim fit suit. The new millennium brought
a total reaction to the fully cut puddling suits of the 80s and 90s and
went back more to a minimalist style that we had seen before in the 40s.
Some would even argue that it went back more to a 1960s mod style suit. Now, not
only did the suit get slimmer but it also got shorter and the buttoning point
got higher. At the same time, some people preferred to wear the black suit as an
easy way to create a minimalist uniform that was reduced. Pants were often hemmed
quite short, jackets had narrow lapels, and a perfect example of that is Tom Brown
which made extremely short jackets and pants. Others like Tom Ford, for example,
had still slimmer cut suits but they weren’t as extreme. Because of that, Tom
Ford suits can still be worn today versus Tom Brown suits are more a fashion
statement than something a regular man would wear in an everyday setting. In
the following decade, society, in general, became more casual and the need for a
suit really disappeared. At the same time, there has been a resurgence in classic
men’s clothing of people who don’t have to wear a suit but who intentionally
want to wear a suit because they like the look of it and how it makes them
feel. While popular suits, in general, are still slim, the gorge on the jacket has
moved further up especially for peak lapel jackets and the buttoning point
has come up also. Sometimes, the jackets have even gotten shorter to the extent
where they don’t even cover part of your bum anymore. Suit Supply became a
worldwide phenomenon reflecting this trend towards a slimmer shorter jacket,
higher buttoning point suit. Likewise, Internet technology enabled all
entrepreneurs to come up with online made-to-measure services so people can
customize their suit online without the need of having to see a tailor.
Nevertheless, with the general resurgence and interest for the topic of suits and
classic menswear, there are probably more bespoke tailors today than there were 20
years ago. Thanks to the Internet, interest groups from
all across the world can now connect, share, and drop their knowledge and so
the general knowledge about suit and classic men’s style has definitely
increased. In most recent years, the casual three-roll-two jacket with more
natural shoulders in a slim silhouette and sometimes even string trousers have
become more popular, so it’s all about getting more casual with more texture
and brighter colors in a jacket that is soft and unstructured and sometimes, even
made out of a knit fabric which is extremely flexible and feels more like
wearing a sweater rather than a traditional suit jacket. So what will the
following decade mean for the suit? It’s hard to tell but we, at the
Gentleman’s Gazette, will always focus on the classic style that is still
relevant in the present. in today’s video I’m wearing a dark blue double-breasted
suit made out of a very fine worsted wool fabric from Vitale Barberis Canonico
it’s a custom suit and it’s extremely soft in the shoulders in the fabric it
really feels more like a sweater than anything else because it’s such a fine
high twisted yarn it is prone to wrinkles at the same time I can steam it
out in the shower I am combining it with a double cuffed summer shirt in bolder
stripes of white yellow blue and brown and a yellow silk knit tie from Fort
Belvedere that matches the linen pocket square with cross stitches and of
contrasting blue which pick up the color in the outfit
my shoes are hand patinaed Brown monk straps that have a nice color gradation
between yellow brownish light brown and darker Browns and I’m tying it together
with a suit using a pair of shadow striped socks from Fort Belvedere in blue and
greyish blue my cufflinks are gold monkey fists from Fort Belvedere and you
can find them in our shop here

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