A History of the Suit

Although many elements of the suit as we know it today have remained since its inception, there are certainly differences in the details of a suit from 2020 compared to a suit from the 1980’s or 1940’s. To understand those differences, let’s trace the history of the suit, from its origins to the modern era.

The term “suit” is derived from the French term suivre. which means “to follow.” In other words, the jacket follows the pants or vice versa. So, a suit is a combination of a jacket and a pair of pants in a matching fabric. It’s not just the color of the garments that is the same, but also the fabric composition.

Like many aspects of classic menswear, the origins of the suit can also be traced back to Beau Brummell. He was the typical gent in 19th century England. Before Beau Brummell, menswear was heavily influenced by the French court, and evolved around heavily embroidered fabrics such as velvet, knee-breeches, and stockings. He replaced all of this with long trousers worn with boots, and a coat that didn’t have much decoration or color. Brummell may not have been the first one to simplify the classic French men’s wardrobe, because at that point in time, the more traditional dress had already become unpopular. French menswear was negatively associated with the French Revolution, and people who wore it were sometimes beheaded by the guillotine. Nevertheless, Beau Brummell popularised the new, less ornamental style. While the top and the bottom of Beau Brummell’s outfits didn’t exactly match, the whole silhouette and the more muted color scheme laid the groundwork for the modern suit, as we know it today.

By the start of the Victorian era the first and foremost garment a man would wear was a frock coat. It was basically a black coat that resembles modern overcoats. It had a single vent in the back and was either single or double-breasted. In terms of length, it reached the knees; that’s why it resembles an overcoat. While the single-breasted version of a frock coat was more common, the double-breasted version was more formal (and was also known as the Prince Albert).

In the Victorian era, the frock coat basically split up into two different elements. We had the morning coat that kept the tails and we had the lounge suit which lost them. While the morning suit retained the length, it now had open quarters rather than the closed quarters of a frock coat and was single-breasted with a single button.

At the time, it was the option for formal day wear. Today it’s even more formal, and typically only worn at high-society or Royal Weddings. In England, it’s only done by people who really appreciate classic men’s clothing or because they have a certain status in society.

While frock coats and morning coats could technically be worn with matching a pair of trousers, more often, they were worn with contrasting trousers. Still in a darker color scheme but nevertheless, they weren’t made from matching fabric. On the other hand, the lounge suit consists of a top and bottom of the matching fabric.

The lounge suit was developed in the 1850's in Scotland. Made from heavier fabric it was a garment for casual outdoor occasions. Nowadays, in the mind of most people, a suit is a very formal garment, but during the Victorian era it was the opposite. Specifically, the matching aspect of trousers and pants made it less formal, because frock coats and morning coats were worn with contrasting trousers. Another difference was the length. It was a much shorter coat without the tails and was cut more sack-like without pronounced front darts. As the name implies, the lounge suit was primarily a garment for the casual lounge, something to be comfortable in, especially in the British countryside. At the time, central heating was not the norm, and suits were always worn with a vest or a waistcoat that was matching so you always had a three-piece suit.

As we started the 20th century, the suit, as we know it today was pretty much developed. From that point on, the shape was defined, it was merely the details that changed. It could be the lapel width, the jacket length, the buttoning point, the height of the gorge the type of fabrics that were used, and so on. Overall, it was just an adaptation to an existing model.


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