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History of the Suit

The History of the Suit is an ongoing project to map the events and historical figures that led to the genesis of the modern-day suit. To read The History of the Suit in chronological order, please start at the bottom.

The History of the Suit: The Post-War “Bold Look”

August 21st, 2013

While Christian Dior’s “New Look” was changing the face of fashion for women, men’s suiting was having it’s own shifts in style and fit. Just like with Dior’s designs, men’s tailors were enjoying the boom of the post-war era, and fabric restrictions had been almost completely eliminated. Tailors were able to use more fabric more freely, and a more cheerful and flamboyant look was favored by returning soldiers after World War II.

Difference between peak and notch lapels

Left: Notch Lapel; Right: Peak Lapel

The “Bold Look” was the men’s version of Dior’s “New Look.” It was the dominant style in men’s suiting in 1947 and 1948, but had been developing before then and even took some cues from the controversial Zoot Suit. Soldiers coming back from the war wanted to escape their confining uniforms and the nipped waist of pre-war suits and opted for a looser fitting jacket and pants. The shoulders were broad, the lapels were longer and the buttons were lower, creating a deeper “V” shape down the front. Most jackets were double-breasted in this style with peaked lapels, which became the norm thereafter; most single-breasted jackets sported notched lapels. The colors were also brighter and the wool more patterned: suits came in pinstripe, herringbone, and plaid.

Examples of the Bold Look

While previous iterations of suits often just affected the silhouette of the jacket and pants, the other elements of the suit were altered with the coming of the Bold Look. Shirts now sported a “Command Collar” which was thicker and specifically designed to hold Windsor ties. The stitching on the collar, cuff and front buttonhole pleat on the shirts was more pronounced, and instead of being only 1/8” from the edge, was ½” from the edge, making it a decoration accent. Shirts were also now available in a variety of colors, and the Bold Look was often accompanied with a pastel shirt.

Other accessories also shifted with the Bold Look. Since they had been abandoned during wartime rationing, vests were no longer required to be worn with suits. Ties were brightly colored with large and outlandish patterns. Thick stripes in popping colors like orange and green were the most popular, but ties also featured large polka dots or distinct plaids. Socks had thicker ribs and argyle patterning to stand out when men sat down. Other accessories, such as tie clips and cuff links also got bigger and bolder, often made of thick gold slabs, a predecessor to today’s “bling.”

To many living in the late 1940s, the Bold Look was a garish distortion of the classic suit, with its bright colors, excessive patterning, and oversized silhouette. However, the Bold Look was also a step towards better self-expression through menswear. Women’s fashion was already at the point where there were so many options that women had no problem picking and choosing to create their own style. Men’s clothing had been much more standardized until this point, and the options in color, pattern, and texture that the Bold Look allowed for gave men more freedom in their clothing options as well. The Bold Look also coincided with a trend towards more casual clothing, as in the late 1940s, it was no longer unusual to see a man on the street in a casual style of shirt, without a jacket. The Bold Look, as well as this greater acceptance of casual dressing not only gave men many more options in their dressing, but shifted the understanding of male fashion as something not just utilitarian, but expressive, even artistic.

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The History of the Suit: Dior and the “New Look”

August 7th, 2013

An example of Dior's "New Look" and his characteristic "bar suit"

Dior’s “bar suit”

As Europe and the US emerged from the economic, physical and emotional destruction of World War II, businesses in every industry started to rebuild themselves as civilians began spending money on consumer goods once again. Although there were still limits on the fabric that was being produced, most of the restrictions on fabric usage and silhouette had been lifted, and fashion designers had the freedom to be more creative and lavish in their clothing.

France was one of the countries hit hardest by the war, but the post-war economic upturn was a chance for the country to get back on its feet and in the spotlight for fashion. Because of international restrictions during the war, Parisian fashion could not be exported to the United States and much of the rest of Europe, which gave The US and England a chance to develop their own fashion scenes. Now that the war was over and France was free to import and export luxury goods, French designers flooded the market with fresh designs, the most influential from this period being Christian Dior.

Though Dior’s career as a fashion designer lasted barely ten years, his “New Look” shifted the direction of the fashion world.  The New Look was characterized by his first collection in 1947, and represented a new hope after the somber attitudes of the war period. Dior sought to develop a look that was playful and elegant without being frivolous or immature. The collection had a much more feminine appearance than women’s fashion during wartime, as women were being encouraged to go back to being homemakers once their husbands came back from war. Dior called his idealized feminine homemakers “flower women” and hoped that they would embrace femininity with soft, rounded shapes in their clothing.

The “New Look” silhouette was primarily an exaggerated hourglass. Dior’s “bar suit” featured a tiny nipped waist and padded hips to accentuate the hourglass. The jacket was highly structured to keep it’s curved form, and the pleated skirt that went with it was heavy, full, and used up to 20 yards of fabric, a dramatic change from the two and a half yard limit on skirts during the war. Dior also loved evening gowns, creating them to need outlandish amounts of fabric, and creating volume by using excess tulle. His structured hourglass required corsets, girdles, and waist cinchers, squeezing the body into an artificial shape. This was a complete 180 from the 1920s, where a slim, straight and shapeless silhouette was favored, and loose clothing allowed women to move around freely.

While Dior’s “New Look” was a step forward in expanding the fashion world and bringing France back to couture dominance, his ideals and his silhouette was a step back in encouraging women in the workplace. His designs were used to encourage women to return to the kitchen and look feminine and elegant as a full time job. The necessary corsets involved in his designs restricted ease of movement, and were a throwback to the 1800s when women wore elaborate and restrictive clothing to prove that they did not have to work. Dior’s “New Look” idealized the hourglass and created a new standard of beauty that would affect the way women approach fashion and work for years to come.

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The History of the Suit: The Zoot Suit Riots

July 24th, 2013

The late 30s and early 40s were a period of chaos and cruelty in the United States as war propaganda proliferated throughout the country and racial tensions grew high. Fashion played a role in this tension, as different styles became symbols for patriotism or rebellion. As the History of the Suit discussed previously, the war caused rationing of all civilian resources including fabric and notions, which necessitated new styles of suits and casual clothing to be developed, generally slimmer and more Spartan so as to use less fabric. The Victory Suit was born from the need to save fabric, and as such, became a symbol of the sacrifices that civilians were making for their country during wartime.

An example of a Zoot Suit

At this point in history, a separate style of suit, known as the “zoot suit” was becoming popular among youth minorities, in particular African Americans, Latino, and Italian American communities. While the zoot suit had been developed completely independently from the war, its start contrast from the victory suit in silhouette—as well as wearer—turned it into a symbol of anti-patriotism and crime.

The zoot suit had a much looser, baggier shape than any suit that had come before it. It consisted of large, wide-legged and high-waisted pants, often with a “pegged” trouser leg. Pegged trousers were tighter at the bottom, either with a cuff that used buttons, or with elastic. The jacket was extra long with wide lapels and overly padded shoulders. Zoot suits would often be worn with fedoras, sometimes with a long feather attached as decoration. Because of the amount of fabric used as well as the quality, zoot suits were considered “luxury items” that only the wealthy could afford.

Navy men with clubs

White American servicemen formed legions to attack minorities in zoot suits

While the origins of the zoot suit were never completely clear, they were gaining popularity among groups of youths in the late 30s and early 40s, especially among young Latinos in Los Angeles. In earlier decades, Los Angeles had witnessed extreme levels of discrimination against Mexican immigrants, including forced deportation of thousands of people of Mexican descent, many of whom were actually citizens of the US. When World War II started, many servicemen were stationed along Los Angeles’ coastline in areas with high concentrations of Mexican immigrants. It was tension between the white servicemen stationed in Los Angeles and the zoot suit-wearing Mexican youths that caused what was knows as the Zoot Suit Riots.

The Zoot Suit Riots were thought to be ignited by the supposed murder of José Díaz by a Latino gang of teenaged boys. This was thought to be the cause of a growing tendency towards crime and rebellion by Mexican youths. These same youths were wearing zoot suits, a style that was in direct opposition to the rationing that US civilians were experiencing. The zoot suit became a symbol not only of deviance, but of anti-American sentiments, a sensitive subject during the war. White American servicemen that had been stationed in Los Angeles began targeting groups of youths wearing zoot suits, and a series of altercations between the two groups began happening all around the city. Off-duty police formed a group called the “Vengeance Squad,” taking matters into their own hands, while servicemen roamed around the city beating and clubbing zoot suiters, some as young as 12 or 13. Many members of the navy formed bands that stripped the clothes of anyone they found wearing a zoot suit, sometimes going as far as destroying and urinating on the clothes.

While the Zoot Suit Riots had to do with patriotism, wartime tensions and flat out racism, at its core was the fashion style of the zoot suit. The Zoot Suit Riots were an incredible example of profiling, based completely on what someone of a certain race was wearing. To this day, profiling based on not only someone’s race, but what a person is wearing is an incredible problem in the United States, and New York City’s own Stop and Frisk program has been cited as having problems with profiling. The zoot suit became so much more than just a clothing style during the 30s and 40s, but a political statement and a symbol of the lasting stain of racial profiling in the United States.

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The History of the Suit: World War II and the Victory Suit

July 10th, 2013

With the advent of World War II in 1939, the world became a much bleaker place, not only for the soldiers and civilians caught amidst the chaos, but for the clothes that they wore. With much of Europe cut off from the United States, influences from Paris couturiers and Italian designers could not change the fashion market from overseas. America and Britain began developing their own fashion styles, independent of the European market, and new designers from the States emerged to be publically recognized.

A Men's Victory Suit

The Men’s Victory Suit was more form-fitted and used low quality wool

While British and American designers enjoyed a period of fame during the war, they were also faced with incredible limitations in their designs due to wartime restrictions. All civilian resources were limited during World War II as the needs of the soldiers put extreme strain on British and American economies, and this included fabric, buttons, zippers, and other materials necessary for the creation of a garment. Wool was needed for the soldiers’ uniforms; silk was necessary for creating parachutes, while zippers and buttons were not being made in order to preserve metal. Leather was used for numerous purposes in the war, limiting the amount for civilian use.

These material limitations had a tremendous effect on the clothes that could be made. Silk stockings were banned, shoes were made from wood instead of leather, and skirts could only be made from a maximum of two and half yards, with a limited about of pleats and a narrower hem. Clothing was therefore less flowing and closer to the body, jackets were cropped and skirts were slightly shorter. In Britain, adults were limited in the amount of clothes they could buy using a system of coupons. Some adults could only purchase two or three new outfits a year, creating a need for sturdy, functional clothing.

Men’s suiting was the hardest hit by the material limitations during World War II. Since wool was needed for uniforms, civilians got stuck with low quality wool with limited selections, usually only in black, navy or brown. Double-breasted jackets were forbidden and lapels got narrower to save fabric. Men’s slacks were limited to having a circumference of 19 inches or less, while jackets were narrower and shorter. Vests were often abandoned, and there were no buttons, zippers, or patches that were not strictly necessary. This new style of suit was dubbed the “Victory Suit.”

The Victory Suit represented everything that civilians had to give up for the sake of their country. It was a symbol of pride and patriotism, but also of the limitations set upon creative efforts during wartime. Unlike most fashion styles, it was fabricated artificially based upon restrictions rather than creative freedom. It was not a natural evolution of fashion, and yet the Victory Suit played an important role in fashion history. It was a measure of pride for some, and a symbol of censorship for others. In the coming weeks we’ll look at the aftermath of the Victory Suit, and the outcry against this patriotic yet stifling style.

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The History of the Suit: A Return to Feminine Ideals

May 29th, 2013

While the Great Depression of the 1930s inspired men’s fashion to become more refined, professional, and experimental, women’s fashion during the 30s became more conservative. Not only were the styles altered, but the availability of clothing and the means to purchase new outfits were greatly hindered. Just like in today’s recession, women were less likely to flaunt their wealth through their lavish clothing because it was seen as excessive spending, an insult to all those who had lost their jobs and were struggling to support their families on meager resources. Instead of changing outfits depending on the time of day (as was the norm for women earlier in the century – women would have separate outfits for morning, afternoon, and evening) it became more and more common for women to wear the same outfit for the entire day. As women pared down their wardrobes, the popular fashions became more subdued and attempted to recapture the more traditional feminine ideal.

A 1930s clothing pattern

This 1930s advertisement illustrates the accentuated waist and broader shoulders popular at the time

The androgynous and scandalous loose dresses of the 1920s flappers were abandoned in the 30s for a more shapely and less revealing silhouette. Skirts were longer, usually calf-length, and there was an emphasis on the natural waistline. Dresses were form-fitted at the waist, and empire waists added a seam to emphasize the natural waist, while cropped and bolero jackets hit at the midriff. Broader shoulders and narrow hips came into fashion, while bias-cut dresses were tight fitting to draw attention to the feminine form. New technologies and materials revolutionized female fashion as well—the zipper, introduced into clothing in the 30s, provided a plethora of new options for closures, as well as an easier way to create tight-fitted clothing.

1930s suits

Though women were returning to more traditional roles in the 30s, many had to find work in order to support their families during the Great Depressions, just as the World War I had compelled many women to find work. For the most part, women were discouraged from entering the workforce because many worried that they would “steal” the job opportunities that the newly unemployed men needed. Despite the opposition, women found jobs, and began dressing appropriately for them. While the women’s suit was not a widespread phenomenon, women’s work clothing began to mimic men’s suits in certain ways. Matching ensembles became popular, as women bought their clothing in sets, so that a jacket would match their dress or their skirt. Early women’s suits were becoming more durable and functional for actual work, and longer skirts had pleats for easier movement.

While the women of the 1930s were not exactly revolutionizing either fashion or the workplace, the necessity to support their families found them taking work opportunities they may not have otherwise. As a result, the mindset of keeping women out of the professional sphere began its slow decline, and as a result, fashion began to take note. As the societal roles of women evolved, so did fashion, and women’s suits became more and more widespread.

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