The History of the Men’s Suit–and What to Expect When Purchasing One in the 21st Century

The Suit

 The History of the Men’s Suit

The men’s suit as it is known today, with its equestrian-inspired jacket and complementary trousers (and vest, also called a “waistcoat”) all made of the same fabric, is an invention stylistically attributed to the United Kingdom of the late 1800s and was originally worn on informal occasions, especially those associated with the sport of shooting or with leisurely pursuits—so much so that the garment would come to be known as the “lounge suit.” But even as late as the Edwardian era, which extends from the death of Queen Victoria in 1901 to either the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 or the commencement of World War I in 1914, a fashionable man would routinely wear a morning coat, frock coat, or tailcoat in one color and fabric, with pants of another color and fabric, and a vest of yet another color and fabric. By the 1930s, however, the lounge suit had  become the standard “uniform” for professional office wear; and within a decade of its ubiquity, it had emerged as both the defining and iconic garment of the Western man, maintaining that status to date. It, in effect, became the 20th century’s equivalent of the medieval armor:  a garment to impress and intimidate, assert the wearer’s importance, and to do battle—in the business arena.

Until the 1940s, when the concept of the ready-made garment became commonplace, men would go to personal tailors to get their clothing made. But the post-World War II preference for things machine-made as opposed to made by hand, the old fashioned-way, changed all that—except in a few instances, the bespoke suit, discussed below, being one such instance.

Off-the-Rack/Ready-Made

Today, the typical man walks off the street and into a men’s store to purchase a ready-made suit, leaving with the garment that same day or, perhaps, the following day if any minor adjustments are required. Most stores that sell men’s suits have an on-site tailor to do the alterations. Off-the-rack (or ready-made) suits are typically sized to fit the average male:  the waist measurement of the pants is six inches smaller that the chest measurement of the jacket. So a suit jacket of size 40 would be paired with trousers with a waist measurement of 34 inches. In other words, then, the standard sizing of men’s suits anticipates a man with a typically squared, rather than an idealized V-shaped, torso. “Athletic Cut” suits have a greater chest-waist differential (usually from eight to ten inches) and tend to fit younger, more athletically proportioned men, but very few manufacturers offer that option. Suits are also sized as “Short,” “Regular,” “Long,” and “Extra Long,” thereby accommodating men of varying heights, especially as pertaining to the length of their torsos and arms. (And, of course, men who are exceedingly corpulent or tall may find suitable garments at stores that specialize in clothing for “Big and Tall” men). Generally, pants’ legs are left unhemmed (“unfinished”) by the manufacturer and are hemmed by the store’s tailor to fit the customer. And increasingly today, suit-jackets and their matching trousers are sold separately, thereby allowing a gentleman to purchase items that fit his upper body and his lower body with few or no alterations. Establishments that sell suits via internet websites generally offer this option since, obviously, there would be no on-site tailor to make adjustments to standard-sized suits. Allowing customers to purchase garments that fit without alterations or with minimal adjustments also reduces the incidence of returned items, which is a major concern in mail-order and on-line purchasing. A tall, 6’4”, broad-shouldered, slender man, then, who typically would not have been able to buy an off-the-rack suit without having the pants undergo significant adjustments, may today visit the online store of establishments such as J. Crew (www.JCrew.com ) and purchase a 42 Long (42L) jacket and a 32-inch waist (32W) pants with unfinished hems. (In the traditional method of selling suits, a 42L jacket would have been sold with a 36W pants, which would have rendered the tall, slender gentleman described above with trousers four inches too large in the waist and elsewhere. And reducing a 36W pair of pants to fit a 32W gentleman compromises the lines of the pants, so much so that most reputable tailors would decline the task). As an added convenience, some online stores allow their customers to specify the desired trouser length, typically measured by the inseam, determined by measuring the inner seam of a pant, running from the crotch down to the hemline, with allowances for the height and cut of the shoes. (While a gentleman’s outseam measurement [the measurement obtained by measuring the length of the seam running down the outside of the pant leg, from immediately below the bottom of the waistband to the hem] might vary, depending on the waist-rise of the trouser, the inseam remains the same and is therefore generally regarded as a more accurate measurement for obtaining the desired finished length of pants. Of course, for low-crotch pants such as Eastern “harem pants” or hip-hop pants, the outseam would be the more accurate measurement for determining desired trouser length).  And establishments that sell suit-jackets and pants separately via their internet stores and mail-order catalogs are increasingly offering the same option to their store-front customers, thereby transforming the way men’s suits are sold in the 21st century—much to the elation of the many men who possess non-standard proportions, while with no harm to men with standard bodies.

Made-to-Measure/Made-to-Order

Alternatively, a gentleman may have his suit made to measure or made to order (both interchangeable terms), where he makes an appointment with the store’s on-site tailor, who takes the gentleman’s measurements and then has the specified suit made, whether on-site or elsewhere, per those measurements, usually within a week to ten days. With a made-to-measure suit, the gentleman does not return for fittings. He returns to try on the finished suit—with the understanding that any minor adjustments thereto will be made by the tailor, the way the on-site tailor would have adjusted a ready-made suit at any reputable men’s store.  Some of the world’s premiere outfitters of men, such as major department stores, operate accordingly. Typically, the gentleman is presented with several suit styles—whether as made-up samples, photographs, or sketches in a style book—from which to choose. The gentleman, upon the advice and suggestion of the tailor, then selects the fabrics for the suit and its linings, as well as decides on finishing details:  whether the trousers will be half-lined or fully lined; whether the jacket will have “hand-picked” lapels and pockets; whether the buttonholes on the sleeves will be functional; whether the trousers will be finished with cuffs, etc.

Pure, natural-fiber fabrics are best for the making of quality suits:  wool in differing weights for all-year use; linen and cotton for the spring and summer months; and silk for all year use. Some fabrics made of blends of two or more of the aforementioned natural fibers may also be used, though many purists insist in pure fabrics.

A good suit should be lined in silk, but rayon, a man-made fabric made of natural components, and the synthetics acetate and viscose are popular alternatives. What is of critical importance is that the lining, if synthetic, be capable of withstanding the same heat as the natural fabric of which the suit is constructed so that when the garment is being pressed, the synthetic lining is not accidentally singed by the unwitting presser since natural fibers are typically able to withstand greater heat than non-natural ones.

Bespoke/Custom-Tailored

The gold standard of men’s suits is the bespoke, or custom-tailored, suit. It is the equivalent of women’s haute couture. At least 40 hours, some of which are consecutive, and cannot be concurrent, are required for the construction of a bespoke suit. Therefore, any claims by any establishment that it can produce a custom-tailored suit in less than 24 hours is fallacious on the grounds of impossibility. And in reality, given the demand and limited amount of superbly skilled craftsmen, procuring a bespoke suit can oftentimes take several weeks to several months.

The best way to secure an excellent tailor is by referral from a trusted, well-dressed gentleman who has long been a client of fine custom tailors. Once the tailor has been secured, the seemingly sacred process of obtaining the suit begins with a discussion between the client and the cutter, the “architect” of the garment. (Thereafter, the “construction crew” is engaged to construct the garment and apply its finishing touches). (See The Bespoke Suit in the chapter, “The Luxuries of Life”).

 Unlike a made-to-measure suit, where the client is presented with an already-existing suit pattern that serves as the basis from which a suit, constructed pursuant to the client’s particular measurements, is made, a bespoke suit is derived from a pattern that is created specifically for the customer. And that pattern takes into account the pros and the cons of the customer’s physique, personal taste, and lifestyle as the garment is being designed, constructed, and fitted. A good tailor will, for example, discourage a short, broad man from wearing a double-breasted jacket since such jackets, because of their cut and lateral presentation, tend to “widen” the wearer’s appearance. Similarly, a tall, emaciated man would be discouraged from wearing a suit with prominent vertical stripes, which would serve to exaggerate his already-linear physique. But besides such obvious treatments, details such as the slant of pockets, the width and styling of lapels (whether notched or peaked, for example), and the silhouette of the trousers all converge to determine the overall line of a suit. It is the job of the bespoke tailor to create a garment that accentuates the positive and eliminates the negative characteristics of his client.

 

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