Suit Basics – A brief history of the Three Piece Suit

 Bespoke suits are the highest achievement, to date, of an extremely ancient art form – Tailoring. There’s often a lot of detail to get your head around when thinking suits. Fear not Gents, this series of posts will shed some light (and expose some snake oil) on what you need to know about suits.

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(San rock art from southern Africa showing cassocks worn by hunter-gatheres. http://www.mmilotours.com)

#1. A Brief History of the Three Piece Suit

As with most things historical, it’s difficult to accurately plot out a definite evolutionary line from fig leaf to saccaggi suit. Nonetheless it’s never a waist of words to go through some less-known and practical facts about how and why you wear your best.

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Regardless of how you feel about Genesis, it’s intriguing to think that man remained naked only so long as he was innocent. The moment he knew good from evil he covered his nakedness, and the fashion industry was born.

Examples of ensembles can be seen in the earliest of art works, and with humanity’s progress towards more complex societies clothing became an increasingly important form of communication.

Speeding through some fascinating though convoluted history to the immediate precursors of suits; A long jacket and pants (along with a ton of other fluff) were considered civilized dress in much of Europe as far back as the 1500s. The waistcoat was added to the repertoire on the 7th October 1666 by Charles II, and marks the formal origin of the modern three piece suit.

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(King Charles II of England. 1890swriters.blogspot.com)

Some suggest that as a result of the political unrest in Europe during the 18th Century (like the beheading of the monarchy in France, for example) the aristocracy attempted to distance themselves from the stereotypes of self indulgent, useless gluttons. The foppish lace, embroidery and flamboyant cuts of court couture were rapidly and radically replaced during the 1800s. This was also influenced by the slow rise of the ‘middling sort’ who needed distinguished yet practical clothes to signal their economic status

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(A portrait of Beau Brummel and his statue in London. blog.austinreed.co.uk)

The Dandy Movement and Beau Brummel in particular (late 1700s to early 1800s) is widely considered responsible for the invention of the modern suit silhouette.

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The Industrial Revolution of the 1800s contributed to the modern suit in two important ways. It first led to the rise of a new species of wealthy clothing purchaser; The Businessman. Who could both afford tailoring formerly reserved to the upper class, and needed a uniform to signal his position in society. This uniform which exuded wealth, also needed to be practical and comfortable, so its form and silhouette became sleek and flowing. It’s no question that the modern suit still signals business, as well as wealth.

Second the invention of the sewing machine brought mass production to a new level, allowing styles to be easily disseminated to a far broader consumer base. This helped to percolate the silhouette of suits that not only worked with the widest range of body shapes, but was also the easiest to produce en mass. Again, no seeing person can deny the influence of this factor in modern suits.

And nothing too extreme has happened to suits since…until today that is

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Rogue, my favorite local menswear label, is one of the brands pushing the boundaries of what formal wear looks like

Although suits have gone through a few re-interpretations over the years, very little about their technology or their basic fit has altered since the industrial revolution.

With the fashion industry today going through a number of tumultuous upheavals, there’s a definite push towards rethinking menswear, especially what we consider ‘formal’ attire.

You can follow this blog to learn more about tailoring (jump in here for more in this series), or pop into the Studio (625 Levinia Street, Garsontein) every Thursday 10am – 10pm (Free Beer!).

You can subscribe to this blog by hitting the follow button, and join the monthly newsletter here for fashion scandal and exclusive designs.

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