Suits are something that we take for granted these days. What was once a distinctly western style of dress is now popular all over the world, and is recognised as the uniform for business work and formal events. But suits haven’t been around for that long, and there was a time when they were a new and controversial thing. In fact the word ‘suit’ meant to provide someone with a ‘new set of clothes’ for much longer than it did a particular type of dress. So this raises the question: where did the suit come from, and who invented it?
It Began In England (So Legend Has It)
As you might expect, the modern suit didn’t appear overnight. In fact you could trace its origins to the court of Charles II in the 17th century. After he’d returned to England following the nasty bit of business with his father’s execution and several years of puritanical rule, he decided to start with some serious changes to royal policy. Namely that: men in attendance to their King should wear a coat, breeches, tights, and necktie and a hat. While this wouldn’t exactly blend in on the high-street these days, the basic combination of garments is the bedrock of what makes a modern suit.
Introducing Beau Brummell…
These remained fairly impractical and became increasingly garish until Beau Brummell came along. Beau Brummell was a rich society man and close friend of the Prince Regent in the 18th century. He got fed up of the ridiculous style of dress code, and invented his own changes. These included a more practical and plain dark-coloured jacket, simple necktie, and trousers. His design of jacket still exists in a similar form today in the ‘shadbelly’ coats worn by horse riders during the Olympic equestrian events. To us it might seem understated and formal, but at the time it was a shock for proper society to see Brummell dressed in this new fashion.
When the Victorians came along they brought new changes to Brummell’s classic. Some of this stemmed from practical reasons. Men wanted more flexible, less formal coats to wear when they were out horse riding in the morning. What they got were ‘morning coats.’ These are the same thing that men often wear at weddings today: black coats with long tails and a tight buttoning breast. These went from being a highly informal style of dress to acceptable formal attire. The Victorians also invented various conventions around suits, such as ‘white tie’ and ‘black tie’ distinctions.
The biggest changes through the 20th century came from the way suits were made. In the past all suits were made by what we’d call ‘bespoke’ tailoring. This means having the customer choose the patterns they want and making them a suit from scratch. In the Victorian period ‘made-to-measure’ became more popular, with suits mass-produced in factories and then altered at the tailor’s to fit the individual. These days by far the most popular suits are ‘ready-to-wear.’ These might be a long way from the outfits of two hundred years ago, but they definitely have the same ideas at heart.
Thanks to James Lee for this post. James designs and sells made to measure suits in the UK and loves blogging on anything to do with fashion history.