In thinking about ideas or innovations that are ahead of their time, or those which have had a major impact on our lives, it is tempting to focus on those that have had a momentous impact on our day to day living. The wheel, the printing press, the internet, even the iPhone, have all altered our lives radically in ways that can never be reversed. Sometimes these inventions are instantaneous in their adoption, others take time for people to see their true value.
How does this relate to clothing and the day to day items that we use every day? Where are the inventions and radical ideas? Fashion’s rationale is supposed to be revolutionary: each season something has to be adopted. In reality the basic design and sometimes even the basic technology supporting the construction of an item of clothing can be hundreds of years old. Radical new developments have changed the way we dress but they have all required a combination of factors to bring about a universal adoption, the evolution of the components of a man’s business suit is just such an example.
The male shirt is probably the earliest, simplest and most basic item of clothing, barely changing since medieval times. It is a constant undergarment whose basic shape is a front-opening tunic with sleeves and some form of collar. Over the centuries it has served men as a work-wear or fashionable garment and whilst fabrics, cuts and colours have changed, its purpose as a protector to the skin from outer heavier fabrics has remained constant. The cultural dominance of the west means that the shirt – along with the two piece business suit – has spread from its European origins to be seen as the acceptable form of dress – in fact often the most appropriate form of dress – for any business or internationally focused meeting.
The business suit is itself at least 150 years old with a background in the Regency period when Beau Brummel’s influence meant that simplicity of fabric, cut and a fitting which emphasised the overall silhouette began to alter a gentleman’s wardrobe. His ideas about figure hugging clothes in plain colours – known as the Great Masculine Renunciation – were built upon as the social constraints around clothing began to relax its formality. These social changes combined with influences from the military, including Russian Cossacks, brought about the development of long trousers. Details such as single or double vents were a result of activities such as riding a horse, whilst turn back cuffs were a consequence of the fact that professionals couldn’t remove their jackets whilst performing an activity.
The necktie is interesting because there are so many social factors associated with its development and adoption. It became a part of a man’s wardrobe just before the suit started its evolution as during the 1670s a neckcloth began to supplant the lace collar. Stocks and cravats made from silks and linens were the tie’s antecedents. Once introduced it was considered a key part of a man’s attire and convention still considers that a man is incorrectly dressed without a tie to accompany his two or three-piece suit. Whilst so called creatives, artists or poets, from Bryon onwards, have flouted and played with these social conventions, today many hotels, restaurants, professions and social occasions still insist either overtly or subtly that a tie must be worn.
Technologies in fabrics such as nylon for shirts, uncreasable fabrics for trousers, the sewing machine, the adoption of computer-aided design and laser cutters have been key to the mass production of business clothing. While polo-neck jumpers and t-shirts have demonstrated that the suit can be made more casual, it is still, nearly two centuries later, an integral and essential item of a man’s wardrobe- even if it is only kept for weddings and funerals. Topman, Marks and Spencers, Saville Row, tailors in Hong Kong or Thailand- a suit can be purchased to match your income and style. The shirt, the business suit, the tie are universally accepted now as a form of professional dress.
They are not the consequence of a single innovative idea, but rather a steady layering of ideas and innovations over time, yet essentially little has changed over the last century. The cut, the designs and even the colour has varied over the years, yet the concept of the business suit is instantly recognisable today.