The History of the Suit

Getting suited and booted can turn even the most lad-back of fellas into sharp go-getters ready to mingle their way through an evening cocktail party.

The suit itself has had a long history of iterations and alterations and, depending on where you find yourself in the world, can make or break an introduction, job interview, or wedding photo.

To get to the bottom of the origins and story of the modern suit, we tapped the experts at Australian custom suiting company InStitchu for their thoughts, running through the key dates and figures of the outfit. Straighten your tie, it’s time to suit up.


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Stockings were so hot in the 1700s / Getty Images

Suits are a traditional form of formal attire for men in the Western world and, for over 400 years, the iconic combination of coat, trousers, and waistcoat made from the same material have ebbed and flowed through fashion.

It all really got going thanks to one man; iconoclastic British dandy Beau Brummell. This sharp character is held as the granddaddy of the modern suit. He went well against the grain of the early 1800s and started rocking a simple coat and trousers flourished with carefully knotted neck ties.

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Portrait of George ‘Beau’ Brummell in 1805. This is ground-zero for the modern suit / Getty Images

Prior to this, British fashion had been heavily influenced by the French Court, meaning psychedelic velvet fabrics with lace trimmings, knee-breeches, stockings, and powdered wigs (for God’s sake).

Thankfully Beau came along and refined the look to a more minimalist design which quickly caught on due to his close friendship with the soon-to-be King George IV and saw the men of the 1800s donning boots, pale trousers, white shirts, dark tailcoats, and cravats.

The Birth of the Suit

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British PM Benjamin Disraeli at the height of fashion here / Getty Images

By the start of the Victorian era, a new coat was on the scene: the frock coat. Knee length and worn as an outer layer, it came in double or single breast and was pretty similar to a modern overcoat. From this, the morning coat developed which was a lighter version of the frock and only single breasted.

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Honest Abe looking schmick in his frock coat / Getty Images

On both sides of the Atlantic, frock coats were all the rage and British fashion trends spread far and wide across the world through Britain’s imperial efforts and the rise of the newspaper.

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A gent on the right in “casual” attire / Getty Images

The suit didn’t begin proper however until Scottish gents developed out of these ideas what was initially referred to as the lounge suit. Made out of heavy fabric, it was designed to be casual wear, used when playing golf. The matching jacket and trousers differentiated it from the morning and frock coats, as these were always worn with contrasting colours.

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The suit really begging to take shape here in the 1920s / Getty Images

It was around the 1900s when the suit really got into its groove. Worn generally with a double breasted woolen waistcoat and finished with an overcoat – this was in the days before central heating – slim lapels and high paper collars were the go.

The Suit Dominates

Swing dance was a big thing in the 20s and you needed a sharp suit to match / Getty Imges

By the 1920s, the post-war era was a haven for the suit. The start of the decade saw the rise of the Jazz Suit – a slimmer, sharper cut with tighter trousers to match. This gave way to the “Oxford Bags” of the later years where trousers became roomier – a style that would continue through to the 60s. Men wore these baggier trousers rolled up at the ends which was a style imported from cricket.

Baggy pinstripes was the hot look of the late 20s / Getty Images

Pinstripes were the fashion here and suits were mainly grey, brown, and blue, with black being worn only in formal occasions.

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Some sharp looking gents doing well for themselves in the depression era with their new Triumph 7 / Getty Images

The depression in the 1930s meant suits went back to utilitarian styles. Worn with trousers ultra high, it was also the period in which the trouser pleat became popular, something we still have today.

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The Zoot Suit in all it’s glory. Normally finished with a wide brimmed hat, it was popular in Latin and Caribbean circles. Look at all that luxurious extra fabric / Getty Images.

By the end of the 30s, the Zoot Suit was in fashion – a bigger, baggier suit that was meant for dancing and cam with a shorter, squared off skinny tie or no tie at all (scandalous).

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Military men – some of the few who would have had money – in less ostentatious suits. That coat on the left is pretty sharp though / Getty Images.

That all changed when the war hit and fabric needed to be used for military uniforms. Excessive dressing was seen as an insult to the war effort so new clothing and extra fabric was cut back. This minimalist requirement hung around after the war and suits could be worn as a two piece or three piece, depending on the occasion.

Sports jacket chic to celebrate post-war freedom / Getty Images.

The 50s was mainly brighter single coloured suits but also saw the rise of the sports jacket which could be mixed and matched with differing patterns. Musicians and entertainers wore more extravagant pieces with cross coloured lapels and loose trousers.

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The Fab Four, pioneers of the drainpipe suit / Getty Images

This all tightened up through the 60s as the Beatles revived the suit. By the end of the decade, as the psychedelic movement took hold, suits got more effeminate. Velvet flourishes , flares, and bright colours began to sneak in along with massive lapels.

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The cravat is back, baby! Trousers becoming flared and suits becoming more popular for women / Getty Images.

Lapels only continued to grow into ever more ridiculous proportions as the leisure suit and the disco suit rose to fashion. This was worn with wide, pointed collars ala Saturday Night Fever.

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John Travolta smoldering in the epitome of the disco suit. No tie, silver chains, and prominent chest hair a must / Getty Images

The 80s was the revival of the power suit. Pinstripes made a comeback along with massive shoulder pads and suspenders. These were what you would wear when dominating business meetings and were fetishised by Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. Interestingly, Donald Trump is a hero of the fictional Bateman and an embodiment of the money-driven 80s.

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Trump working out his signature look next to Andrew Lloyd Webber. Check out those shoulder pads / Getty Images.

The 90s was a bad time for the suit. With grunge rock on the rise and baggy jeans coming in, the suit fell out of favour and suit jackets begun to be worn with jeans or over t-shirts. They were massive too, as the baggy 90s infiltrated everything.

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Soon-to-be Pres Bill Clinton on the campaign trail with advisor James Carville in a suit jacket and jeans. Clinton always looked sharp though / Getty Images

The 2000s saw a return to prominence of the suit. Slim fit became the trend, borrowing from the slick Italian style, and dressing sharp was again seen as something cool that reminded us of a more sophisticated era.

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Zac Efron looking somewhat uncomfortable in his skinny charcoal suit / Getty Images

By the 2010s, Mad Men became our suit centre piece. The skinny look was still in and suit fashion was taken to a whole new level with innovations in print and influences from other cultures. It quickly became the decade in which men’s fashion took a turn for the avant-garde and men could get away with wearing pretty much what they wanted. It also revealed to us that a well made suit will never go out of style.

Suit aficionado and style hero, Harry Styles in yellow three-piece with huge 60s lapels and flares. He’s rocking the brave Cuban heels to boot. Iconic / Getty Images.

You can see InStitchu’s full custom, tailored offering and process at www.InStitchu.com

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