BUSINESS and politics are full of surprises—and a near certainty. Whether they are politicians, bankers or trade-union leaders, men nearly always meet other men in suits. The uniform of capitalism has conquered more of the globe than capitalism itself. When Barack Obama first visited Hu Jintao, paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China, the men were clad in near-identical dark blue suits, white shirts and red spotted ties.
It has become a symbol of conformity. “Suit” was the chosen insult of hippies to describe a dull establishment man. The garment has been ostentatiously rejected by Silicon Valley titans like Steve Jobs of Apple, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and Sergey Brin of Google. Yet the business suit has an exciting and mysterious history that should give wearers a tingle of pleasure every time they put one on. It is a garment born out of revolution, warfare and pestilence. The suit still bears the marks of this turbulent past as well as the influence of Enlightenment thinking, sporting pursuits and a Regency dandy. In the year that may well mark the 150th anniversary of the suit it seems a shame that no celebrations were held in its honour.
The pattern was cut in the middle of the 17th century. To maintain an image of what is now called “austerity Britain” after a plague outbreak in 1665 and the Great Fire of London a year later, Charles II ordered his courtiers to dress in simple tunics, shirts and breeches. This was a profound reversal. Monarchs had long imposed sumptuary laws preventing hoi polloi from dressing too grandly. Forcing the elite to dress modestly suggested that power and place were no longer to be marked by yards of lace and frills.
Even as court fashion took another turn towards flamboyance, the sombre three-piece look endured in smart society. The emerging mercantile class adopted it, as did landed aristocrats, who spent much of their time on their country estates rather than at court. Sobriety of colour gained further ground after the French and American revolutions. The simplified lines and palette of post-revolution gentlemen’s wear—blue, grey, white and buff—were themselves based on the English country gent’s attire of dark coat, riding breeches and boots.
By the end of the 18th century London had become the centre of gentlemen’s tailoring. In part this was the result of happenstance. English artisans skilled at working the heavier wool fabrics (similar to modern suit material) that are best suited to the British climate were joined by an influx of foreign tailors displaced by the Napoleonic wars. Their skills, honed making uniforms for continental fighters, with designs themselves based on British cavalry uniforms, added a new dash to London tailoring. Then a social climber called George “Beau” Brummel began to weave the strands together.
New model army
He took an odd route to the pinnacle of fashion. As Ian Kelly explains in his 2005 biography, Brummel befriended the prince regent by using part of an inheritance to buy a commission in his 10th Light Dragoons. Though the prince fancied himself as a military man the regiment was a plaything, more fashion accessory than fighting unit. The prince, who took the throne as George IV, lived a high life of drinking and mistresses, but was also a cultured patron of the arts, who commissioned the elaborate and ornate Brighton Pavilion. Brummel’s trips to buy his blue, white and silver uniform for the prince’s regiment brought him into close contact with London’s finest tailors, and he began to develop ideas.
After leaving the army to live on the rest of his inheritance Brummel pioneered the notion that fabric, cut and silhouette were what made a gentleman’s attire (he also outraged popular opinion with the novel idea of bathing once a day—and in hot water). This pared-down style earned Brummel, and his fashion-conscious contemporaries, the label of a “dandy”. The modern understanding of the term to mean a fashion peacock is a misconception. Brummel believed that “If people turn to look at you on the street, you are not well dressed.”
The practice of fitting cloth closely to the human form rather than draping it around the body was new. As fashion historians point out, medieval linen-armourers had long made padded undergarments that fitted beneath suits of armour, reducing a little the discomfort of wearing plates of steel. But the Enlightenment and neoclassicism brought tightly fitted clothing to the surface. In an attempt to emulate Greek statues of naked men, Brummel commissioned figure-hugging trousers and coats. He used plain colours to focus attention on form and line, ushering in what Mr Kelly calls “the tyranny of monochrome”. When the prince regent swapped his flamboyant wardrobe for Brummel’s stripped-down style it spread across London and beyond.
Brummel is credited in some quarters with inventing modern trousers, a garment more widespread even than the suit and with a provenance equally hard to pin down. He is said to have adapted the long cavalry pantaloons favoured by the 10th Light Dragoons as a replacement for the knee-length breeches and stockings that were then commonplace. But other military antecedents are plausible, too. Patrick Grant, who owns Norton & Sons, a tailor established in 1806, says trousers were developed from Russian Cossack cavalry “overalls”, leggings that came over the boot, some time in the early 19th century.
Beau Brummel’s look would not pass muster in a modern boardroom
Brummel’s look would not pass muster in a modern boardroom. No chief executive would unveil a new corporate strategy wearing a broad-collared tail coat, skin-hugging trousers that left little to the imagination and billowing muslin stock in the gap that a tie would later fill. Moreover, the Regency rake would purchase different garments from different specialist tailors. The practice of wearing a jacket and trousers of matching material made by the same firm was still some years away.
Around the middle of the 19th century gentlemen’s clothes began to relax. The frock coat full of wadding, cut close to pull the figure into shape, gradually gave way to a looser but still precise jacket. And through a series of small, incremental changes, various pieces of men’s attire that had evolved to meet specific needs converged to form a single uniform. The tailors who still work in and around London’s Savile Row are experts at disentangling the military, medical and sporting threads that form the modern suit.
The military antecedents are perhaps the most obvious. The modern suit’s padded shoulder has the whiff of an epaulette while accentuating the V-shaped torso of classical antiquity so sought by Brummel. The suit’s W-collar seems to have developed from turning down the stand-up collar of a frock coat, which in turn derived from army and naval wear. Paul Munday of Meyer & Mortimer, an outfit founded by one of Brummel’s favourite tailors, accepts that military tailoring is “technically quite different” to the civilian sort. Military uniforms are designed to look good worn when standing upright to attention, and arm holes are cut narrow to aid shooting and saluting. Yet for Mr Munday the tailoring “DNA is the same”.
Savile Row was inhabited largely by surgeons before the tailors moved in during the 19th century, and their influence can be seen in the “surgeon’s cuff”. On the most expensive suits the cuff buttons, which mirror the pips of military rank, can be undone, allowing the sleeve to be rolled back. This let surgeons attend patients spouting blood without removing their coats—an important distinction that set them apart from shirt-sleeved tradesmen of the lower orders. Surgeon’s shirts, with detachable cuffs, are still made to order by London tailors.
The single or double vents that make it comfortable to wear a coat on horseback are testament to the sporting antecedents of the suit. So are the slash pockets still seen on some suits, which can be easily accessed while riding. Keith Levett of Henry Poole, a Savile Row tailor in business since 1806, is sceptical of the direct military antecedents of the suit. He reckons that its development had more to do with the needs of sporty Victorians and that two garments informed the design of the suit jacket. The morning coat, a pared-down frock coat, though still very fitted, set the trend for smaller coats. This, in combination with the “three-seam coat” with no waist seam or quilting and with small arm holes, made for cyclists, rowers and fishermen, are, he says, the immediate predecessors of the lounge coat.
As the suit jacket and trousers gradually came together, so did the tie, replacing the silk stock that would previously have been worn around the neck. It arrived from Europe. The court of Louis XIV was impressed as much by the neckerchiefs of Croat mercenaries employed to fight the Thirty Years War as by their fighting spirit. The style was adopted in France—the word cravate is apparently a corruption of Croat. The four-in-hand, the forerunner of the tie, appeared in Britain in about 1860 (like the suit) and was the social-networking tool of its day. The pattern and colours denoted affiliations such as school, regiment or sporting club.
If the precise moment of inception is vague the point of victory of the lounge suit over its forerunners as the standard battledress of the office worker is clearer. According to Christopher Breward of the Victoria and Albert Museum the tailed morning coat finally gave up to the lounge suit with the rise of American business culture at the end of the 19th century. By 1890 the American office worker wanted both the informality of the lounge suit, with its sporting heritage, and a snappy, modern and efficient look that its military antecedents gave it.
Still at the cutting edge
From a tight knot of streets between Piccadilly and Regent Street, the suit has conquered the planet. Since the early 20th century the battledress of the executive has changed little, at least on the outside. Colours and cuts come—the fashion a decade ago was for four-button jackets—and go. Yet the modern world has transformed the suit’s interior. Pockets for train and bus tickets appeared with the commuter. Pen pockets and pockets for mobile phones have followed. Mr Munday has fielded inquiries about internal pockets to hold an iPad. No problem, he says. They are not so very different to the large “hare” pockets on the inside of field coats worn by country gents that will hold birds and rabbits felled with a shotgun.
Savile Row has changed too. The custom of the British upper classes, civilian and military, has tailed away as that class has shrivelled. But at Anderson & Sheppard, in business for over a century, “Prince of Wales” is scrawled in marker pen on a nondescript brown box beneath a cutting table. Within are offcuts of clothing ordered by the current heir to the British throne—used for repairs. Royal patronage is a useful draw for the new breed of customers from the Middle East and Russia, whose oligarchs and sheikhs think nothing of ordering a big batch of bespoke suits starting at £3,000 ($4,700) each. Meanwhile, in South-East Asia, factories fling out suits by the thousands that sell for just a few pounds each. Useful and malleable, after 150 years the suit is still holding its ground in the battle for wardrobe space.
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