“A Well-Dressed Gentlemen’s Pocket Guide” by Oscar Lenius, provides an insightful and interesting read on the history of the modern suit ( – it’s actually a great little guide for all things sartorial if you can find it), and so here is a precis of what he has written.
“Robe” once referred to a set of garments, and as far back as far back as the 14th century, Edward III sported a “Great Wardrobe” that contained numerous “suites of clothes”. A “suite” then could consist of up to six garments, and it would take another 500 years or so for those six garments to be whittled down to a more practical two or three pieces. Clothes were still not yet “tailored”, in that they hung loosely on the body.
Towards the end of the Middle Ages, those loose robes were shortened, and stitched more in line with the contours of the body. Sir Gawain’s Green Knight displayed “his hips and haunches…elegantly small” in a tunic “tight at the waist. At back and at breast his body was broad”. Sounds like a suit to me! This look proved popular and sensational, and some thought this more fitted look represented loose morals. The French even went so far as to attribute their loss at the Battle of Crecy in 1346 to divine retribution against their own indecent dress sense!
THE ITALIAN RENAISSANCE – cultural rebirth
The new “tailored” garments came in at the beginning of this period, and Spain quickly took the style lead as it instituted the sombre elegance of black, which the English combined with cream (which today is still a formula for formal grace). Louis XIV of France presided over an ostentatious period which included powdered wigs, silver buckled shoes brocades, satins, velvet and lace. Charles II of England, exiled in France, rebelled against this upon his return to England, and sought something a little more English that would stand the test of time.
THE ENLIGHTENMENT – intellectual rebirth
Samuel Pepys, the son of a tailor, recorded in 1661 that he stepped out in a “coate” in “the manner now among gentlemen”. It was a knee-length adaptation of a loose riding garment that had replaced the padded doublet, a tunic like garment. 1666 saw the introduction of the “vest“, a straight cut, close-fitting garment, personally promoted by the king. Soon everybody who could, was wearing a waistcoat!! Finally, the bulging French petticoat breeches morphed into a narrower style, cut to the knee. By 1670 then, the English had anglicised the French look into the first edition three-piece suit!!!
REVOLUTION – political, industrial, artistic
The 18th century saw the English country gentlemen begin to adapt this Court garb for their country pursuit of hunting, and so coat-skirts were cut away at the front, leaving tails at the back. Brocades and velvets were discarded for plain cloth for comfort and practicality. Colours became sober, to blend with the countryside.
An arrogant youth named George Bryan “Beau” Brummell met the Prince of Wales in 1795, and charmed him with his wit and sense of style as they developed their relationship. Brummell set new rules to cope with new circumstances. He now was not only concerned with the quality of the material, but also cut and fit, so that a combination of all of these attributes attested to a gentlemen’s fine appearance. Weavers of fine cloth in the north of England and the tailors of London were complicit in this, as cloth moulding techniques were developed to help achieve this new fine sartorial appearance Brummell brought to the fore. By the way, Brummell’s colour preference for garments was blue, the now ubiquitous uniform of so many. The tail coat evolved into formal dress, and a looser frock coat replaced the tailcoat for everyday wear, which soon gave way to the modern lounge suit.
J & E – the Modern Suit
Today, the world is a more casual place when it comes to a gentlemen’s wardrobe. Many work places no longer require suits to be worn, but most client facing professions still do, and I think that is dictated by clients who want their professional partners to look…….professional. Of course, suits and formal dress are still worn for special occasions (weddings, Royal Ascot,….), and there are still men who like to wear suits, in their own way. A tie may not be necessary, but a sharp fitting suit in a vibrant colour does make a statement. And wearing a suit does give people an air of confidence and purpose – it’s a grown-up thing to do. Also, other people’s perceptions of men in suits, especially if it’s a quality, well cut one, is all important because it’s a reality.