Although many elements of the suit as we know it today have remained unchanged since its inception, the suit has undoubtedly come a long way and come through many evolutions. One of the most significant is the suit as a symbol of power, authority, and masculinity. Colloquially referred to as the “power suit,” that’s a special kind of power few other clothes can claim. . It exudes poised confidence, dominate board rooms, and turn heads wherever you may be. Power suits come in many forms and are solidified by the patterns and colors that they are worn in – usually with distinct patterns and dark, commanding hues. Often associated in movies with wall street sharks or trial-of-the-century lawyers, power suits in the real world are worn by the everyday gentleman and heavy hitters alike. To understand how the suit came to have such an impact on men's fashion, identity, and expression, we should trace the history of the suit from its origins to the modern era.
What Exactly Is A Suit?
The term "suit" is derived from the Old French word sivre, which means "to follow" Today a suit is understood to be a combination of a jacket and pants of matching fabric. It is not only the color of the garments that is the same but also the fabric composition.
Beau Brummell & The French Revolution
Every now and then, an individual comes along who redefines the elegance of his time. This person has a more refined sense of taste, a higher standard of dress, and the ability to set fashion trends that are imitated by others. This was the case with Beau Brummell, who in the late 18th century, transformed men's style and dress forever in the late 18th century.
Before Beau Brummell, menswear was heavily influenced by the courtly system in France and consisted of heavy fabrics like velvet, satin knee breeches, and, worst of all, powdered wigs! Beau Brummell replaced all of this with long trousers worn with boots and a coat that had little embellishment or color. Due to his close friendship with the Prince (who would later become King George IV), he was able to influence the upper echelon of British society to adopt his style of dress.
In the process became one of the first people in history to reach celebrity status simply for the way he dressed.
The Frock Coat
By the start of the Victorian era (which lasted from 1837 to 1901), a new style of coat - the frock coat - was introduced. It was basically a black coat that reached down all the way to the knees, resembling the modern overcoat. While the single-breasted version of a frock coat was more common, the double-breasted version was more formal.
The frock coat soon changed as two different tastes emerged. One was the morning coat: it kept the long, closed tails, but it was double-breasted. On the other hand, the lounge suit went with a shorter coat and much plainer style, with single buttons and wider, more open quarters.
At the time, the morning coat became the number one option for formal daywear. In today’s world, it’s even more formal and typically only worn at Royal Weddings or high society gatherings.
While morning coats could technically be worn with matching a pair of trousers, more often, they were worn with contrasting trousers. On the other hand, the lounge suit consists of a top and bottom of matching fabric
This was the precursor of the modern suit we wear today.
The 1900s: The Birth of The Three-Piece Suit
In the first decade of the 1900s, also known as the Edwardian era, the lounge suit persisted. It became more and more popular. The more formal frock coats and morning coats were still around but were typically worn by older men and lost ground very quickly.
If not dressed for manual labor, the men generally wore three-piece suits (jacket, trousers, waistcoat, or vest) with high, round-collared white shirts, neckties, and derby or bowler hats.
Wearing suits gave the lower working classes a sense of pride as well. Those who could afford it chose different suits and accessories for morning, daytime, and evening use.
The Roaring 20s were a time of great political, economic, and social change. After the war was over, men shook off the heaviness of war with their bright suit accessories and were ready to enjoy a time of peace. The three-piece suit with wide lapels and high-waisted trousers with cuffs became incredibly popular during this decade.
The suits were often striped, plaid, tweed, or plain wool. Fabric colors were mainly neutrals: browns and blues, dark greens, greys, ivory, and even the occasional pastel pink! Up until this time, black suits weren't in fashion yet, as the color was dedicated to mourning. This decade also saw the birth of the gangster suit.
The gangsters of the 1920s, like Al Capone, controlled the illegal distribution of alcohol and ran speakeasies during the Prohibition era in the US. They also included the infamous Peaky Blinders, a street gang from Birmingham, England. Although no one condones their actions, there is no denying that they helped idolize the three-piece suit.
The 1930s saw Hollywood come into play, which meant screen idols became role models for the masses. Most major fashion trends were no longer dictated only by the top fashion houses. The suits worn by glamorous movie stars, both on and off the screen, grabbed the attention of American and European moviegoers.
Fashion became more about showing off your frame, so well-cut silhouettes came to the forefront. This led to a suit with a heavy drape cut with a wide shoulder, a lot of waist suppression, and high-rise trousers that tapered slightly towards the shoes The look was very masculine, and it built the basis of a very heroic look on the silver screen.
In the following decade, the suit changed a great deal. World War II meant that everything had to be rationed, and so there was no more fabric for elaborate full-cut large suits. Natural fibers went into making military uniforms. Rayon also began to replace traditional wools and tweeds. The gray flannel suit became the option of choice for professional everyday wear.
It wasn’t double-breasted, but rather single-breasted, and it had narrow lapels and a very trim-cut trouser without cuffs, in order to save fabric. For the same reasons, waistcoats or vests became unpopular. Not much progress was made for the suit in this decade.
By the 1950s, natural fibers like cotton and wool were back in vogue, and more textures were finding their way into tailor shops. And as more and more people had access to TV, pop culture became a trend. At the same time, the fashion sense of leading movie stars James Stewart and John Wayne became mainstream, and many men wanted to emulate the sophisticated suits they saw on the silver screen. The films were a way to show the changes in everyday American men. These changes were centered on the ideal of masculine authority that had been in place since the Depression. The suit had now firmly planted its position in the expression of the dynamism of an men’s life.
The 1960s & 1970s
The 1960s and 1970s saw the further rise of pop culture, a great social movement, and self-expression. This was the age of rebellion, and that was clearly reflected in the evolution of suits. Suits were still relatively tight but had really big lapels.
They were rather flashy, and pants oftentimes in a flare cut. Interestingly, this era sort of returned to the three-piece suit, but it wasn’t formal at all. It was rather casual and more part of the disco culture. Just think of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. The tight white suit and platform heels were later risibly worn by Al Pacino’s Scarface in the 1980s, which popularized suits among aspiring narcos of the time.
The 1980s and 1990s: The Birth of The Power Suit
If we had to break down the evolution of the suits in the 80s and 90s to one thing, it would probably be the Power Suit. The suit was now fully associated with projecting elegance, authority, and mastery of a profession. This can be credited largely back to one person: Richard Gere in American Gigolo.
The central figure behind the suit silhouette in the movie was Italian fashion designer Giorgio Armani. The Italian designed a suit jacket that was soft yet broad in the shoulders and had wider lapels with a much lower gorge. Although Armani essentially reduced the structure of the suit and made it very soft, it still had strong and broad shoulders and a defiant silhouette.
He was dubbed the “King of the Blazer in Europe.” Yet, before the movie he was still relatively unknown stateside. Luckily, Armani found admirers where it mattered most. With John Travolta initially meant to take the lead role in Gigolo, his manager insisted his star wear Armani. In a twist of fate, Travolta opted out in order to pursue other projects. Armani, however, stayed on.
The partnership ended up a perfect fit. Travolta’s role eventually went to Richard Gere, who played Julian, a high-end Hollywood escort. While Julian could be described as a bit shallow, he also embodied everything that Armani wanted to project on his potential clientele: effortlessly sexy, not overly masculine, self-assured, yet confident enough to genuinely be concerned for how he looks. The wardrobe of American Gigolo proved exceedingly successful and Armani was ready to capitalize on the success with the launch of his first international ready to wear line.
This style of suit proved very popular among the wall street folk and politicians. In general, the 80s and 90s were a celebration of capitalism, and the Power Suit was a direct expression of that time. When the denizens of New York and Los Angeles’ agencies and brokerages came calling, Armani was ready to meet their demands. If the numbers are anything to go by, this was a master plan.
*By 1981, the year after American Gigolo was released in theaters, company sales were $135 million. Up from a mere $90,000 the year before! The power suit was in full gear.
The 21st Century
In the new millennium, the world of suits exploded into the multi-faceted and endless universe we know today. The power suit is still popular today. You've probably seen Yves Saint Laurent's or Giorgio Armani's double-breasted suits worn by the influential men on the covers of the Wall Street Journal. If you want to portray strength and confidence , a power suit is a great and affordable investment!The best part is now, with online custom tailoring services, you can now fit your suits online without having to visit a tailor. Some of the options available include:
British Power Suits
First, there is the British cut, which features a highly structured and perfectly fitted look. It brings in a fair amount of formality with its defined shoulders with thick shoulder pads, narrow sleeves and high armholes. British power suits can exude a high level of functionality, authority and attention to detail.
American Power Suits
The American style is straighter, looser cut and features a soft silhouette that pairs with light shoulder pads, loose sleeves, low armholes, no darts and a single-breasted jacket. They're more comfortable than other regions and provide plenty of room to breathe without looking unprofessional. American suits are often considered the least stylish and most outdated of the three styles.
Italian Power Suits
If you want to really show off, the Italian suit is an elegant solution for you. The Italian obsession with beauty puts silhouette esthetics and ease above all else. The Italian version is cut very close to the body and features a tapered waist, high armholes and little shoulder padding. The result is slimmer, more natural fitting suits and an incredibly tasteful way to dress for success. The modern man is definitely better for it.