Suit design has been on a varied and exciting journey over the past 350 years, but its conception can be attributed to one man, Charles I.
In the 1600s, he decreed that the English Court needed to be more formal in its outward appearance, instructing members to each wear a long coat, a waistcoat, a long-sleeve white shirt and a cravat.
This was an important benchmark which triggered a number of key milestones in the evolution of the suit, dictated by individuals like Beau Brummell, the flamboyant friend of King George IV. In the 1800s, he was responsible for introducing a style formula that has remained a primary element of suit design to this day - tight trousers, waistcoats and fitted shirts, which made cut and styling the principle indications of quality in the process.
The second half of the 19th century saw the development of the sack coat, a loose-fitting jacket designed primarily for leisure activities, worn with a 'four-in-hand' necktie, which set the basis of the traditional tie as we know it now.
As a new century dawned, longer frock coats were quickly replaced by short lounge versions, a basis for the modern suit jacket. However, black tie and tuxedos proved most popular for formal occasions.
The 1900s also saw a number of blue and white collar professions focusing on the appearance of their staff. Employee workwear, as well as specific dress codes, became more commonplace as a result, a development that providers like the newly established workwear provider Alexandra responded to. Suits became more standardised, as professions such as banking and law set the benchmark for what was acceptable, with shorter morning coats rapidly becoming the order of the day.
Following World War I, economic constraints naturally affected the core design of the suit, with single-breasted jackets becoming a popular choice. The double breasted option only remained a preference for older, more conservative consumers. In addition, this was the era of early cinema, with the sleek style of screen stars like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks having a major influence on modern suit design.
During World War II, rationing restrictions on fabrics and clothes had a major impact on the makeup and styling of suits. In stark contrast to the exaggerated styles of the previous decades, designs became less fitted and straighter cut. As well as this, lapels were narrower, whilst trousers were tapered at the ankle and not as wide on the leg.
Despite being hit hard during the blitz, Saville Row tailors were trailblazers by the 1950s, releasing styles with a more fitted cut and shaped shoulder. These styles were intended to be worn with a bowler hat and slender overcoat, heralding the start of the slim-fitted suit. The popular mod rocker style of the 1960s supported this by advocating drainpipe trousers and skinny fit jackets. Popular film culture had a major effect during the 1970s, with the movie Saturday Night Fever having a key influence on the suit design that has become synonymous with this decade - three breasted jackets with hip hugging flared trousers.
The 1970s also witnessed the rise of casual wear (such as denim and sweatshirts) and it was this, combined with the distinctive and varied fashions of the 1980s, which saw the traditional suit somewhat pushed to the sidelines. Simultaneously, this decade saw marked contrasts in modern suit design for the first time, with soft lines for men running in parallel with padded shouldered jackets for women. Indeed, the popularity of typical women's suit design, namely a skirted suit, shirt and floppy tie, evolved in the 1970s. Although pantsuits (women's suits with trousers) were introduced by designer André Courrèges in 1964, these were only gradually accepted as formal business attire.
In the face of a decline in popularity, with only some companies requiring employees to wear smart attire, the 1990s saw suits become more streamlined, with the option of brightly coloured shirts and ties as a way of showing individuality. All that remained was to make the modern suit fit for purpose, with the first 10 years of the new millennium seeing the introduction of functional features such as crease and stain-resistant finishes, fabrics that allow for breathability and stretch, hidden expansion features, emblem and badge access and designs specifically designed to flatter the wide range of body shapes to be found in the average workforce.
There's no doubt that the basic blocks of the suit have remained unchanged since Victorian times, but a factor that still permeates its development today is the consistent incorporation of fashion trends, lifestyle changes and climates.
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