Fashion tends to reflect the social and economic climate and this has certainly been true over the past one hundred years. However, the suit has always been present in some form, although its prominence in the world of men’s fashion may have fluctuated from one decade to the next. Here we explore the evolution of the suit over the past century and society’s attitude towards this staple of men’s clothing.
New Century, New Suit
Following the austere darkness of the Victorian era, the beginning of the twentieth century saw a new lightness in society’s approach to life in general. For young gentlemen, this meant a break away from the dark, long-coated suits worn by their fathers.
The first two decades of the century saw jackets become shorter and flap pockets gradually begin to replace larger, patch pockets, giving a generally smoother and less cluttered look. Revers began to get longer and wider, although the jacket was still buttoned relatively high compared with later styles. Both double- and single-breasted styles were popular and trousers were wide-cut with turn-ups.
Good Times and Bad
Between the wars, there was a jauntiness about suits (think Brideshead Revisited). Cream and beige often replaced the drab greys and blacks that dominated previously and, although the waistcoat still featured, it and the jacket often appeared in a checked fabric over plain trousers, giving a less formal, if still tailored, look.
Rationing during World War II literally meant having to cut one’s cloth accordingly, so trousers tended to be flat-fronted rather than pleated which required more fabric. They were worn high on the waist and had a sharp crease from waistband to turn-up hem. Colours became darker again, probably as a more practical option, with the pinstripe gaining popularity.
Post-war, as material became more abundant, trousers became wider-cut and pleated again. Shoulders got squarer, giving a strong, masculine shape, with darts added to give a tailored look to the suit. Pockets were flapped or patched (though smaller than before) and the breast pocket became a favourite feature.
The Rise of Youth Culture
Up to the 1950s, there was no massive variation to the basic suit shape – until the rise of the Teddy Boy! This marked the start of an era where young people had money to spend and a culture of their own. Definitely not standard wear-to-the-office garb, jackets were longer, bearing a resemblance to the Edwardian style of five decades earlier and had long, velvet-trimmed revers. Trousers were straighter and tighter, often referred to as ‘drainpipes’. Ties were narrower, shoes had thick crepe soles and hats were absent.
Beatlemania struck Great Britain in the early 1960s and bought with it the Beatle suit. Trousers were straight cut and jackets were cropped, collarless and buttoned high; the look was finished with a narrow tie and distinctive Beatles haircut. Later, the suit as we know it took a back seat to other trends (the hippy and psychedelic eras) and only appeared for weddings, funerals and job interviews or as the go-to uniform for office middle management.
Flamboyance, Flares and Excess
Sometimes referred to as ‘the decade that taste forgot’, the early ‘70s saw suits with flares wide enough to cover the platform shoes worn with them, as well as the many pocketed (and sometimes belted) safari jacket. Thankfully, towards the end of the decade (and heavily influenced by Travolta’s role in Saturday Night Fever), the suit began to resemble a more familiar and flattering shape, albeit in a dazzling shade of white.
The excesses of the 1980s were reflected in the generous amount of fabric in its suits: shoulders were heavily padded on broad, box-cut jackets, either single- or double-breasted; trousers were wide and pleated at the waist. Summer versions were pale or pastel in colour, worn without socks and sleeves rolled up.
The birth of ‘metrosexual man’ (epitomized by David Beckham) in the mid-90s recognized the male as not being afraid to take care of his appearance regarding grooming and fashion. Shoulder pads were dropped in favour of a more natural shape. Single-breasted jackets were subtly fitted to the waist and trousers were narrower than previously, but not tight, endorsing a true appreciation of design and good tailoring that has continued ever since.
In the middle of the second decade of the twenty-first century, men recognize the value of a well-cut suit: it has come of age without being stuffy. Gone are the flares of the ‘70s, the shoulder-padded nightmares of the ‘80s and the dangers of over-flowing drainpipe trousers.
Over the past 20 years, designer suits have become more mainstream but certainly not less special. Armani, Tom Ford, Prada and Hugo Boss share the stage with British designers such as Paul Smith, Jasper Conran and Alexander McQueen. And the likes of Daniel Craig and Bradley Cooper, both currently starring in blockbuster movies, ensure the well-tailored suit is here for a while yet, both on and off the red carpet.
This season, checks are back, either alone or sharing the suit with a plain, contrasting fabric. Jackets are single breasted and can be worn over a waistcoat – another on-trend feature. And whilst the familiar collar and tie have not gone away, there is scope for a more casual feel to the suit with an open-necked shirt, buttoned polo shirt or this season’s knitwear.
The gentleman’s suit has been with us, in various guises, for over a century; safe to say, with the current high levels of innovation in men’s fashion, it will be with us for a long time to come.