The suit is sartorial nobility and masculinity. It is the symbol of manhood and embodies elegance, dynamism, flair and all those elements that accurately define the idea of ‘Man’.
Suits have been around for a very long time, but even though they have seen a lot of change throughout the past century, their meaning and philosophical core have remained unchanged.
The history of the suit can be more easily analyzed if you break it down into decades. Each decade of the 20th (and beginning of the 21st) century has left its mark on how we define the ‘absolute’ suit. Modern man’s suit is the result of the evolution it has been through, which itself has been influenced by the social, economic and cultural settings and happenings of past decades, which have all contributed to its most recent form and style.
The 1900s were a big turning point in the history of men’s fashion and style. In the Western world, this decade represented the end of the Victorian era and a new beginning for men’s fashion. Leaving constraining fashions behind, men discovered that they could look good and feel good at the same time. This is how the modern suit was born.
The Victorian frock coat was replaced by sack coats and lounge coats. During this time, men wore three-piece suits that consisted of a sack with a matching waistcoat or vest; these were often worn with contrasting trousers. Another option was to match your pants and your coat, and wear them with a contrasting waistcoat. The waistcoats usually fastened quite low and did not feature a collar.
In this decade, pants were ankle high, featured turn-ups or cuffs and were creased both at the front and at the back. The space between the pant and the shoes was filled with short gaiters or spats.
In the 19th century, there were very strict rules regarding what one could wear, and there were severe sanctions for breaking those rules. However, as things began to change socially and culturally, so did the clothes that men wore.
In the 1910s, suits remained almost unchanged, but their democratization of fashion continued to grow. During this decade, men also wore a lot of hats. The upper class combined their formal wear with a sleek top hat, while fedoras and flat straw boaters were acceptable for a wider range of activities. Most men, particularly of the middle and working classes, wore flat caps and newsboy hats. When traveling, the Panama hat was the headwear of choice.
Due to the unfortunate occurrence of WWI, fashion did not evolve much during this time, as people were more interested in functional clothes than in being fashion-forward.
It is only to be expected that during crisis periods, fashion becomes redundant and gives way to practicality and conservatism.
With the war finally over, the world was recovering and formality became a thing of the past. During the jazz age, men wore short jackets that featured two or three buttons, and favored long tailcoats and pinstriped suits.
If you wanted to look formal, you would wear a black or dark-blue swallow-tailed coat, trimmed with satin, and you would match your satin-adorned pants to your jacket. A lack silk top hat, white gloves, a white bow tie, a white silk handkerchief, a white flower boutonniere and a pair of leather Oxford shoes were the way to go. This might sound quite formal, but it was a look that was far more relaxed than that of the long-gone Victorian era.
Sartorially speaking, the 1920s were divided into two periods. In the early 1920s, men wore shorter jackets with high waistlines, which were greatly inspired by the military uniforms of the First World War. You would think that they would have had enough of those uniforms and want to forget everything associated with the War, but one might interpret this trend as a re-appropriation of clothing associated with the War, which took on a new meaning.
Narrow lapels on jackets and narrow, straight pants were two of the staples of the early 1920s.
By the year 1925, wider trousers appeared in mainstream fashion. In the second half of the ‘20s, jackets returned to normal waistlines and the lapels became peaked and wide. Non-tapered, loose-fitting sleeves were also fashionable during this time. In the last years of this decade, men wore double-breasted vests, which they would pair with a single-breasted jacket.
Hats were also fashionable, but they were class-coordinated, and upper class citizens wore top hats, or Homburg hats. Middle class men, on the other hand, wore bowler hats, trilby hats or fedoras. In the summer, straw boater hats were en vogue for men of every class.
The 1930s heralded an expansion of 1920s ideas. This period was the time when celebrities became increasingly popular and everyone wanted to look like a movie star. The “drape cut” suit was the fashion that took the world by storm with its flexible construction; more fabric at the shoulders, a slightly nipped waist, light padding and full sleeves tapered at the wrist were what composed this very elegant attire. This suit was meant to enhance a man’s figure.
In around 1935, tapered pants became fashionable in the world of men’s fashion.
This new look was adopted by Hollywood celebrities such as Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Gary Cooper, who also wore loose-fitting coats and trousers. This period marked the beginning of a change in perspective regarding what a suit really is.
The 1940s represented a return to the minimalist look, as the world was again shaken by unfortunate events. There is not very much to say about the fashion of this era, other than that the limited supply of materials determined to a huge degree the creation of a new minimalistic look.
Just like the 1920s, the 1950s were a period in which everyone wanted or needed to escape from thoughts of the War and dive into a new way of living. However, the 1950s were not as liberal a time as the 1920s had been; the War had a much larger impact on several nations, and many people had now experienced two world wars.
After the War, men’s suits were mostly broad-shouldered and very often double-breasted. As fabrics were now more accessible, pants became fuller and generally featured cuffs. Bold accessories, bold details and bold cuts were also all staples of the 1950s suit. These styles were often worn by the new Hollywood stars, who were becoming more popular as cinemas expanded and television entered the mainstream.
The wide, pleated trousers returned, making it easier for men to dance. ‘Teddy boys’ wore longer jackets and velvet-collared draped suits.
The 1950s was the first decade of the rebels, with men like Marlon Brando providing breakthrough moments. For example, during this time, plain t-shirts were considered underwear; so, when Marlon Brando appeared wearing a white t-shirt and no shirt, he created the foundations for the establishment of a new trend.
Jeans also started to become more popular, and leisurewear soon became part of everyday living. The 1950s was marked by the parallel development of two types of clothes, leisure clothes and work clothes, as many people used to work or spend their day far from home.
In the UK, Savile Row introduced the so-called “New Edwardian” look, which featured a slightly flared jacket that had natural shoulder cuts and a narrow overall cut. This jacket was supposed to be worn with a curly-brimmed bowler hat and a long overcoat featuring a velvet collar.
Sports coats also increased in popularity and generally followed the lines of suit jackets. Tartan plaids were modern in the early part of the 1950s, while in the second half several kinds of checks were worn.
Corduroy jackets with leather buttons, chinos, and other casual pieces became highly fashionable items that existed in parallel to the new suits.
The first part of the 20th century definitely had a great impact on the definition of the suit, not so much in terms of design as in philosophical meaning, as more and more men had access to suits, and therefore the sartorial symbol of the ‘Man’ took on new meanings and styles.
In Part II, we will look at how the suit evolved from the 1960s until the early years of the 21st century.
This article was originally published in www.attireclub.org and was edited for the purposes of The Quintessential Man.
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