When speaking about suits, our hearts beats faster, our palms become sweatier. We have a love for suits, for custom-tailored garments in general. That’s our job, but more than even so – it’s our passion. The history of suits and the evolution of this stylish custom-tailored garment spans back for centuries and is something that many people overlook today.
However, there are plenty of interesting details that have played a big part in creating the modern day suit, which we find ourselves wearing today.
This article looks at 7 suit facts which touch on aspects including the origins of certain accessories such as neckties and pocket squares, along with why particular elements of the modern day suit even exists today.
Origins of the suit
The first form of the modern suit we know and love to wear, is credited to George Bryan “Beau” Brummell (thanks, George). Back in the 1700’s he was the man who has been widely known for his fashion, which stemmed from an amalgamation of the formal military dress and the common English country gentleman attire, The modern suit was one that was (and is) 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 wits, but also the “less is more” approach that he brought to his fashion.
He believed in that if the average gent on the street turned to look back at you then you either weren’t dressed well enough, or you were too fashionable dressed. His idea of fashion sat in between this – simple, sharp dress which oozed class, but not exuberance – cue the creation of the suit we know today!
To mark the homage paid to the gentleman whose influence lives on in the way we dress till this day, a bronze statue of him can be found on Jermyn Street in London.
Why vents were added to the suit jacket
When we see vents on a suit today, we don’t usually get all excited. Whether they’re on the side or the back, the open slit has simply become an accepted element on many suit jackets today. But have you ever questioned what its purpose is?
The centre vent for one stems back several hundred years to a time when gentleman found themselves struggling to comfortably sit on their horses. The suit jacket would simply sit atop the horse, creating a displeasing look.
Introducing the vents allowed the jacket to flow on the horse’s body with greater ease. Since then it has remained an integral part of the suit jacket, and the introduction of double vents (side vents) still very much play their part in helping the jacket sit straight when sat down today.
The meaning of the term bespoke (be spoken for)
The term bespoke is one that has been brought to life, relatively recently. Its origins can be dated back to the tailors on Savile Row, who initially coined up the phrase. So, where does the term derive from? The term bespoke derives from when tailors started creating custom-tailored suits, for which the cloths were said to “be spoken for” a particular gentleman.
Whilst the term used in this retrospect might have evolved a little over time, the premise behind it has remained the same. A suit that is bespoke is one which continues to hold its place, as the absolute epitome of fine clothing with the garments being crafted to perfectly fit a body of an individual.
How did handkerchiefs become pocket squares?
While they are both essentially the same thing, the modern pocket square is strictly one that has been added 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. The sole purpose of it was for personal hygiene, and was soon adopted by other upper-class gentlemen. For a period of time, the pocket square was a common sight to see those from upper classes using their handkerchiefs to cover their mouths when they walked amongst regular people on the streets.
By the 17th century the handkerchief became very popular among most common 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, that the handkerchief did 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 naturally no one wanted to leave an unclean handkerchief on show.
The placement of the handkerchief in the breast pocket slowly grew in popularity globally, 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, but that’s still the original purpose of it, so there you have it.
The origins of the necktie
The necktie wasn’t the first form of neckwear to be worn together with a suit and, in fact, it evolved from its predecessor, the cravat. The popularity of the cravat spread when 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 1920’s that the emergence of the modern-day necktie came to its fruition. The main reason for this was the fact that people were leaning towards more casual forms of dress code, which saw the somewhat showy cravat find itself somewhat out of place. The necktie instead provided a simpler form of neckwear, which appealed to the masses, and saw it claim its place as the favoured choice of neckwear.
The purpose of leaving cuffs 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 actually come about? Well, it actually stems from reasons which were centred around the fact of practicality over style.
The shirt cuff was initially left on show to prevent fraying occurring to the jacket sleeve. Since dress shirts were cheaper and easier to replace, it made sense to protect the jacket sleeve as much as possible by ensuring that 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 purpose of the lapel hole
The jacket lapel hole, or what you might now recognise as the boutonniere hole, actually served more of a purpose than for occasionally holding a boutonniere. 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.
The origins of the working cuffs
Did you ever wonder why your suit jacket has buttons on the cuff? They’re seemingly never used, so why are they even there? Well, it’s quite 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 at all times.
Therefore, those working in manual labour jobs, and even surgeons during the war, had to work with their jackets on. Sounds uncomfortable? Well, it probably was. 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 the jacket, so the buttons on the cuff eventually lost their functional purpose altogether, albeit they have remained an ever-present on modern day suits today.
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.