Representing authority and an emblem of official power, one that suggests a life free from physical toil, the suit creates a professional identity that is essentially male. The three-piece suit, allowing for differentials of cut and fabric, has been the basis of the male wardrobe since the last quarter of the seventeenth century, when King Charles II, on the restoration of the British throne in 1660, appeared in a knee-length coat, vest (the seventeenth-century term for a waistcoat that is still used in the U.S.), and breeches.
Throughout the eighteenth century, the comfortable and practical coat, waistcoat, and breeches, mostly made of wool, underwent little alteration. By the 1780s this style of dress was correct for all but the most formal of occasions and obligatory court appearances. By 1806 the first tailor was established in Savile Row in London, with the emphasis on fit and sculptural seaming and construction. Ready-to-wear versions of the suit were worn by city workers, and by the 1920s, it was worn for all business events, and so the suit became the all-purpose male costume of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. With the advent of 1980s power-dressing, women began to adopt elements of male dress, wearing an approximation of the male suit in the pantsuit (trouser suit).
A suit defined by its jacket, which has an overlapping front panel that usually crosses from left to right. The overlap is held in place by two vertical rows of buttons. Double-breasted jackets should not be worn unbuttoned, as this will spoil the line of the suit. The length of the lapels can vary, sometimes reaching even to the bottom button of the jacket.
A single-breasted suit has a straight front opening that only just overlaps, enough to allow a single row of buttons to hols the sides of the jacket together. The lapel length and the number of buttons can vary according to fashion, but it is not common to have more than two or three. The single-breasted suit was at its most elegant in the 1960s, when Brooks Brothers created slimline suits that were worn by successful men such as President Kennedy and the advertising men of Madison Avenue. The look was revived in the 2010s when the television series Mad Men, set during the 1950s and 1960s, became popular.
The cardigan suit was first designed by Coco Chanel, and it encapsulates all that was revolutionary about her designs, Loose-fitting, this three-piece in knitted jersey fabric included a long-line, edge-to-edge jacket, a ‘pullover’ beneath, and a calf-length skirt that matched the jacket, rather than the sweater. Accessorized by the pearls for which she became famous, the cardigan suit represents a liberating garment that was easy to put on and wear but that retained a sense of respectable elegance and modernity.
JUMPSUIT (BOILERSUIT / SIREN SUIT)
Also more simply known as an overall, this one-piece garment with a front fastening (usually a zipper) on the torso is commonly worn by manual laborers, either alone or over their own garments, to protect them from dirt. The boilersuit is sometimes adopted by people who are not involved in manual work as a political statements, with many feminist women wearing the garment during the 1980s. During World War II, the ‘siren’ or ‘shelter’ suit was popularized as a practical garment to be worn during an air raid. Its invention is generally attributed to Winston Chruchill, who commissioned a garment from his tailor, Turnbull and Asser, that could quickly be thrown on over pajamas. The siren suit was given a couture spin with designers such as Elsa Schiaparelli and Digby Morton producing their own glamorous version.
THE LOUNGE SUIT
The lounge suit gained favor around 1850 to 1860, as a development of the paletot, a loosely cut jacket without a waist seam worn with a matching vest (waistcoat) and pants. A single-breasted suit with a straight front opening that only just overlaps, it was initially worn after lunch and only in private, and never on formal occasions or in the city. However, by 1920 ready-to-wear versions were worn by finance workers, and the lounge suit was subsequently worn for all business scenarios.
THE MAO SUIT
The Mao, or zhongshan, suit had first been worn in China in the early part of the twentieth century as a compromise between historical costume and Western attire, mostly by a government keen to appear modern and forward-thinking. After the Cultural Revolution in 1966, it seemed politically expedient for both sexes to wear the suit preferred by Chairman Mao. It came in only three colors – gray, green, or blue – with a high, turned-down collar and military-style buttoned pockets.