The history of suits and their evolution spans back centuries and is something that many people overlook. However, there are plenty of interesting details that have played a part in creating the modern day suit which we find ourselves wearing today.
We’ve looked at 7 suit facts which touch on aspects including the origins of certain accessories such as ties and pocket squares, along with the why particular elements of the modern day suit exist.
The origins of the suit
The first form of the modern suit is credited to George Bryan “Beau” Brummell. Back in the 1700s he was a man who was known for his fashion which stemmed from an amalgamation of formal military dress and English country gentleman attire, and was centred around tailored pieces which fitted the body perfectly.
Having friends in high places (being a close companion of the Prince of Wales) served him well and saw him become a popular figure amongst aristocratic circles – in part due to his sharp wit but also the “less is more” approach he brought to his fashion. He believed if the average man in the street turned to look at you then you either weren’t dressed well enough, or you were too fashionable. His idea of fashion sat in between this – simple, sharp dress which oozed class but not exuberance – cue the creation of the suit.
To mark the homage paid to the man whose influence lives on in the way we dress till this day, a bronze statue of him can be found on Jermyn Street, London.
Why vents were added to the suit jacket
We’ve become very much accustomed to seeing vents on a suit. Whether they’re on the side or the back, the open slit has simply become an accepted element on many suit jackets. But have you ever questioned its purpose?
The centre vent stems back several hundred years when gentleman found themselves struggling to comfortably sit on their horses. The suit jacket would simply sit atop the horse, creating a displeasing look. The introduction of the vents however allowed the jacket to flow on the horse’s body with greater ease. It has since remained an integral part of the suit jacket and the introduction of double vents (side vents) still play their part in helping the jacket sit straight when sat down.
The term bespoke (be spoken for)
The term bespoke is a relatively recent one, with its origins going back to the tailors on Savile Row who initially coined up the phrase. The term derives from when tailors started creating custom made suits for which the cloths were said to “be spoken for” a particular gentleman.
While the term used might have evolved a little over time, the premise behind it has remained the same. A bespoke suit is one which continues to hold its place as the absolute epitome of fine clothing with the garments being crafted to perfectly fit an individual’s body.
How handkerchiefs became pocket squares
While they’re essentially the same thing, the modern-day pocket square is strictly there for aesthetic purposes, whereas a few centuries ago it played a more practical role aside from making for a fashionable accessory. The pocket square started out as a handkerchief and was initially invented by King Richard II of England. Its sole purpose was for personal hygiene and was soon adopted by other upper-class folk. For a period, it was a common sight to see those from upper classes using their handkerchiefs to cover their mouths when they walked amongst regular people.
By the 17th
century the handkerchief became popular among most people but still maintained the sole purpose of being used for personal hygiene. It was only when the 2-piece suit became popular in the 19th
century did the handkerchief start making an appearance in men’s breast pockets. However even still once it had been used, it was then placed in the trouser pocket as no one wanted to leave an unclean handkerchief on show.
The placement of the handkerchief in the breast pocket slowly grew in popularity and before long it was placed there purely for aesthetic purposes. Today, the sight of someone using their pocket square to clean themselves would certainly attract some strange looks.
Origins of the tie
As with many things, the tie wasn’t the first form of neckwear to be worn with a suit and, in actual fact, evolved from its predecessor, the cravat. The popularity of the cravat spread when French king, King Louis XIII, hired Croatian mercenaries during the 30-year war. Their uniform featured neck pieces which were used to tie the top of their jackets. Having taken a liking to these, King Louis took influence from these and adopted them as decorative accessories, and made it compulsory they be worn for Royal gatherings and named them “La Cravate”.
The cravat remained the favoured choice of neck wear for a considerable period of time, and it wasn’t until the 1920s did the emergence of the modern-day tie come to fruition. The main reason for this was the fact that people were leaning towards more casual forms of dress which saw the somewhat showy cravat find itself out of place. The tie provided a simpler form of neckwear which appealed to the masses and saw it claim its place as the favoured choice of neckwear.
Purpose of leaving cuff showing
The general consensus remains that your jacket sleeve should allow for around an inch of your shirt cuff to show from underneath. But how did such a tradition of style come about? Well it was actually born out reasons which were centred around practicality over style.
The shirt cuff was initially left on show to prevent fraying occurring to the jacket sleeve. Since shirts were cheaper and easier to replace, it made sense to protect the jacket sleeve as much as possible by ensuring the shirt came out further. This then became a look which was widely accepted over time and today is seen as the fashionable (and “correct”) way of wearing a suit with it also allowing for accessories such as your cufflinks to remain on show.
The lapel hole’s purpose
The lapel whole, or what you might now recognise as the boutonniere hole, actually served more of a purpose than for occasionally holding a boutonniere. It initially had an adjoining button on other side which could be used to help keep wind and cold out. However, since the overcoat has now become a popular choice of clothing to wear during the colder months, suit jackets are no longer worn in such a way. You’ll actually often notice that some smart overcoats still have a functional lapel hole and button.
Origins of the working cuffs
Ever wondered why your suit jacket has buttons on the cuff? They’re seemingly never used so why are they even there? Well it’s simple. Suit wearing was perceived in a completely different light during the mid-20th
century. A man who removed his suit jacket would be frowned upon, making it a must for any respectable gentleman to keep their jacket on.
Therefore, those working in manual labour jobs, and even surgeons during the war, had to work with their jackets on. To avoid them getting in the way and getting dirty the buttons on the sleeve allowed them to roll their sleeves up. However, as time progressed it became more accepted to remove your jacket and so the buttons on the cuff eventually lost their functional purpose, albeit they have remained an ever-present on modern day suits.
What you’ll often find these days is that many suit makers take shortcuts on the cuffs to reduce costs. Many buttons are simply stitched on or some give the appearance of button hole and buttons however aren’t actual working cuffs. Most high-end suits on the other hand maintain working cuffs which distinguish as being of superior quality.
The history of suits stems far back and the manner in which they have evolved has left us with the fine pieces which are evident on streets around the world today. Beu Brumell set out with a vision of creating suits which were minimal in style yet perfectly formed for the body, and while these days we are more open to creating bolder looks, the premise of the fit being perfect remains the focal point of every tailor who cares for his craft.