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).
PANTSUIT (TROUSER SUIT)
A specifically female ensemble, the pantsuit is derived from men’s suiting. Groundbreaking figures such as Marlene Dietrich and Katharine Hepburn first dressed in menswear in the 1930s as a symbol of their emancipation and individuality. However, pantsuits specifically tailored to the female form were not made commercially available until 1966, when Yves Saint Laurent designed “Le Smoking” – a sleek three-piece pantsuit that was inspired by Dietrich. However, it was not considered a modern classic until Helmut Newton photographed a version of the YSL suit in 1976.
The tailormade suit specifically refers to a type of day suit bought from a tailor rather than a dressmaker, popularly worn by women at the end of the nineteenth century. Women’s clothing was becoming more simplified in this period, taking on elements of masculine tailoring. The tailormade was a simple suit jacket, cut to fit the female form, worn with a long flared skirt in a matching fabric (usually in plain linen or serge weave). A shirtwaister blouse of white cotton was worn underneath.
TROTTEUR (WALKING SUIT)
A woolen suit for women first seen in the 190s, but that continued to be popular well into the twentieth century. Coinciding with the greater freedoms women were experiencing, it was specifically designed to enable them to move about freely when taking part in outdoor activities such as hill-walking. The trotteur suit was first produced by a company called Redfern, based in France. The skirt was shorter than usual, which allowed for freedom of movement, and was worn with a loose jacket cut in a masculine style.
Known as a dinner suit, or colloquially a “DJ” (for dinner jacket) in the U.K., the tuxedo is a semi-formal suit to be worn in the evening. The suits consists of a black jacket, a black bow tie worn over a starched white dress shirt and a black trouser with satin or grosgrain stripes on the outside seam, often with a cummerbund around the waist. Although it is a design classic, components of the tux can adjust with the prevailing fashion – from the width of the lapels (which should always be in satin or silk) and shoulders to the general cut (double- or single-breasted) or type of shirt worn underneath.
One of the oldest tailored garments, the term vest was first used in the very early sixteenth century to describe a close-fitting, buttoned-up garment worn under a doublet. By the end of the eighteenth century, the waistcoat was short at the back and had long decorative panels to the front, almost reaching the knee. In the twentieth century it had become a plainer garment, matching the fabric of the outer jacket, and could be worn alone with pants or as part of a three-piece suit.
ZOOT SUIT (ZAZOU)
A suit in which all the elements are exaggerated. The shoulders are wide, the jacket long – even sometimes reaching the knee – the waist is cut small, and the trousers are ‘peg’ (loose at the top, narrowing to a tapered ankle). A key garment for African-Americans, Italians, and Hispanics during the Swing age, the zoot suit was at its height of popularity toward the end of the 1930s. Not only was the tailoring eye-catching, but so was the cloth from which they were made, which was colorful and sometimes patterned.
See more suits history on Part 1