Up until the late eighteenth century, it was often the man
who dressed more flamboyantly than the woman, his wardrobe filled
with laces and bows as well as high-heeled shoes with shiny
buckles. Even our presidents were not immune, as a sartorially
splendid George Washington appeared at his first Inaugural
wearing a brocade jacket, lace shirt, silver appointments, and
high-heeled shoes with diamond buckles.
However, as the country changed, so did clothing styles. With the emphasis on democracy and the glorification of the common man, clothing became less ornate, less ostentatious. By the time Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated, he followed the fashion of his time by taking the oath wearing a plain blue coat, drab colored waistcoat, green velveteen breeches with pearl buttons, yarn stockings, and slippers.
At the turn of this century, menswear was still heavily influenced by the Victorian era, as reflected in suits which at times resembled an extension of the upholstered look of the Victorian furniture popular in American homes in the period.
And yet the first decade of this century saw the important introduction of the sack suit, a style characterized by any shapeless coat without a waist seam, the body and skirt having been cut in one piece, and the Ivy League - style clothing from England. It was also during this period that certain other fashion innovations began to appear, such as the polo coat (introduced from England by Brooks Brothers around 1910) and the button-down collar (also introduced by John Brooks, in 1900, after he’d discovered it being worn by polo players in England in order to prevent flapping during play).
The 1920s were a time of experimentation, as the suit silhouette turned to the natural-shoulder look, and the first sports jacket - the Norfolk, modeled after the hunting suit worn by the Duke of Norfolk in the early eighteenth century - was produced. This decade also saw the rise and fall of jazz clothing, which had little semblance of balance or respect for the human form, with its inordinately long, tight-fitting jackets and narrow trousers; the cake-eater suit, named for college students who wore this slightly exaggerated copy of the natural- shoulder suit; and the knicker suit, featuring plus - four knickers that fell four inches below the knee. The 1930s was undoubtedly the most elegant period for menswear, as men gravitated toward the English drape style and the sportswear industry exploded. The British drape suit made it safely into the 1940s, though it was then referred to as the British blade, British lounge, and, finally, as the “lounge suit,” a fitting name for its casually elegant style.
World War II resulted in a marked austerity in dress, due in large part to the restrictions placed on the clothing industry by the War Production Board. After the war, men were ready for another change in their clothing styles, and in 1948 the “bold look” began to be seen.
The 1950s are best remembered for the “gray flannel suit” worn by the conservative businessman. Now men were back to the natural-shoulder silhouette. As reported in Apparel Arts ‘75 Years of Fashion, “No style was ever so firmly resisted, so acrimoniously debated - or more enthusiastically received in various segments of the industry. Natural shoulder styling eventually became the major style influence. Brooks Bros., once a ‘citadel of conservatism,’ became a font of fashion as the new ‘Ivy Cult’ sought style direction. Charcoal and olive were the colors.”
In addition to the introduction of man-made fibers, this period also saw the arrival of the Continental Look from France and Italy, featuring short jackets and broad shoulders, a shaped waistline, slanting besom pockets, sleeve cuffs, short side vents, and tapered, cuffless trousers. This “slick” look made little inroad on those who were staunch adherents of the more conservative Ivy League look, but it was a significant phenomenon nonetheless, as it moved Americans further away from the stylish elegance of the 1930s.
The sixties brought the Peacock Revolution - a phrase popularized in this country by George Frazier, a former columnist for Esquire magazine and the Boston Globe - which began on Carnaby Street in London and featured a whole array of new looks, including the Nehru jacket and the Edwardian suit. In contrast to the fifties, during which time choices were limited, a wide range of alternatives was now available as the focus moved to youth and protest. The designer Pierre Cardin even created an American version of the slim-lined European silhouette, which, along with the immense popularity of jeans, led to the acceptance of extreme fittedness in clothing - a far cry from the casual, comfortable elegance of preceding generations.
During this period, the American designer Ralph Lauren was attempting to convince the American male that there was a viable alternative to this high-style clothing. This alternative was a version of the two-button shaped suit with natural shoulders that had been introduced by Paul Stuart in 1954 and briefly popularized by John Kennedy during his presidency. Lauren updated the Stuart suit by using the kind of fabrics usually reserved for custom-made suits and dramatizing the silhouette by enlarging the lapel and giving more shape to the jacket. Lauren’s following remained small, however, as most men leaned toward the jazzier Cardin-style suit.
The seventies were the era of the designer. They were also a time of intense fashion experimentation, coming at a point when the largest growth in the number of people buying fashions occurred and manufacturers tried desperately to capture the one- third of the buying public that was spending two-thirds of the money. Toward the end of the decade, after years of following the fitted clothing styles of Milan and Paris, there was a dramatic turnaround as a number of European designers and manufacturers began biting off pieces of the American style of dress. Brooks Brothers’ baggy garments and button-down shirts, both indigenously American, began to be produced in European versions, for Europeans had suddenly become attracted to the looser, more comfortable style of dress and were eschewing the tight-fitting silhouette they’d embraced in the past.
While the European look still retained a foothold among American men (represented by designers such as Giorgio Armani, Basile, and Gianni Versace), the pendulum had begun to swing in the direction of a less stylized, more natural-fitting garment. A new generation of American designers joined Ralph Lauren in presenting an updated, purely American style of clothing.
Today, American men’s designers are continuing to rediscover the traditions of their past, exploring the American heritage in menswear. Of particular interest to most is the 1930s, the era of elegance, in which designers continue to find much to inspire them. Yet the experience of the last twenty years has taught them that men want not only quality, shape, and elegance but comfort as well. Clothes that lead the marketplace today are made of high-quality materials. They are soft and comfortable, but their designs still reflect the qualities of traditional Old World style.
For nearly two hundred years now, men in prominent positions have been going to work wearing proper business suits. Over the years, there have been occasional rebellions against this custom, and, in fact, a mere twenty years ago the future of business suits in this country looked bleak, as dire predictions of men appearing at work wearing jump suits and the like abounded. Yet today, perhaps more then ever before, the business suit is the accepted uniform of the successful entrepreneur.
Naturally, this brings to mind the following questions: Why has the business suit enjoyed this longevity? What purpose does it serve? Why should a man even bother wearing one when it seems to limit self-expression and stifle individuality?
Perhaps a starting point in responding to these questions appears in an advertisement placed by the pre-eminent men’s clothing store, Paul Stuart, which states that “a proper function of the business suit is to offer a man a decent privacy so that irrelevant reactions are not called into play to prejudice what should be purely business transactions.”
While this is certainly true, there is no reason why a man in a business suit has to look bland. Even in a business situation, it is possible to dress within certain professional parameters while still managing to avoid the trap of looking as if one just walked off the assembly line. The business suit can and should at least offer the suggestion of character and a sense of individuality. If, for instance, one works in advertising as opposed to banking, one can get away with a bit more verve in a suit rather than adhering to the more conservative look required in the latter profession. But even a man working in banking should not exempt himself from thinking about dress, for whatever one wears says something about the wearer.
More than any other single item of clothing, it is the suit that ultimately determines the overall style of a man’s dress. Although the shirt, tie, and hose all have an important contribution to make to a man’s style, none plays nearly so major a role as the suit, which, since it covers 80 percent of the body, actually defines the general mood and impression of one’s appearance. Accessories should relate to the suit and not vice versa. To think otherwise would be tantamount to beginning the decoration of an empty apartment by first purchasing an ashtray.
“The silhouette” is the term used by the clothing industry to describe the cut or shape of a suit. Women have long realized that the shape of a garment sets the tone of their appearance, but only recently have men realized that they too have a choice of styles that accomplish the same important task for them.
For this reason, the silhouette should be the primary consideration in the purchase of any suit. The fabric and details, which may add to a suit’s attractiveness, and even the fit should be of secondary concern, since it is the silhouette that actually determines the longevity of the garment. If this statement sounds the least bit dubious, think of the tight- fitting rope-shouldered, wide-lapeled, flared-bottom suits of fifteen years ago. Where are they now? In all likelihood, if one still owns these garments, it’s been some time since they’ve seen the light of day.
Today, there are three distinct silhouettes that have demonstrated their longevity: the sack suit, the European-cut suit, and the updated American-style suit. The first two choices offer distinctly different approaches to dressing: the sack disguises the figure of a man, while the European model leaves little to the imagination. The third style, the updated American-style suit, is almost an amalgam of the other two, hiding the body as well as flattering it. To my mind, it is the one silhouette that looks most comfortable on the American physique: casual, but eminently proper, stylish but without the studied elegance of the European model.
The Sack, or Brooks Brothers Natural-Shoulder, Suit
The sack, or the Brooks Brothers natural-shoulder, suit has been, for almost a century now, the backbone of American clothing. First popularized near the turn of the century, it was a silhouette characterized by a shapeless, nondarted jacket with narrow shoulders (which were soft and unpadded) as well as by flap pockets, a single rear vent, and a three- or four-button front. Designed large in order to fit many sizes, it was the first mass-produced suit and it looks it. After all, it was not called the sack suit for nothing.
Perhaps the biggest strength of the sack silhouette is also its basic weakness: it hides the shape of its wearer and takes away any sense of individuality. The reason it has managed to exist successfully for such a long period of time is simply that it appeals to the common denominator. Since it is so anonymous, it offends no one, enabling the wearer to walk into any environment and be acceptably attired.
For those seeking anonymity in their clothing, or wishing to hide an ungainly figure, this may be an acceptable style. But for anyone else, the sack-style suit is woefully inappropriate.
The European Silhouette
Only since the late 1960s has the European-cut silhouette been a major factor on the American scene. This shape relies upon severity of line to project its style. The dominant shape and style in France and Italy for the past thirty years, it has been maintained in a jacket with squarish shoulders, high armholes, and a tight fit through the chest and hips. It is two- buttoned, its back is usually non-vented, and it has a much more structured feel to it than the sack suit. The trousers tend to have a lower rise and fit more snugly through the buttocks and thigh, sitting just under the waist so that one feels them fitting through the hips and thigh, hugging the line of the leg.
As Stephen Birmingham pointed out in Vogue, European men liked to “ ‘feel’ the clothes they wore...a man in a European-cut suit was very much aware that he was inside something. Sitting down was a delicate operation, and crossing the legs was not to be undertaken lightly....”
In the 1960s and ‘70s, the European fit gained much popularity in this country, in part because of the mass acceptance of jeans and the notion that clothes ought to express a man’s physicality. This silhouette offered a radical alternative to the sack suit and appealed particularly to women, who perhaps unintentionally promoted this exaggerated style, which emphasizes a man’s sexuality at the cost of subtlety and comfort. While it is true that a man wearing this silhouette did look thinner, it is also clear that he was compromising taste and style in order to feel thin.
After the initial excitement of this style wore off, American men realized they were projecting a character that was not their own. Europeans, after all, have long dressed in a more formal, studied manner. Their clothing evolved to reflect not only their thin and lithe body types, but also their penchant for elegance and formality. Americans, on the other hand, have always preferred a more subtle and casual style. With their broader shoulders and wider chests, they require a softening in the lines of their clothing, not the hard angles identified with
the European styles. Recognizing this, they are returning in greater numbers to endemic styles that are designed to complement their larger physiques; clothing that is soft and comfortable, but with a tasteful subtlety that is the purest idiom of the
The Updated American Silhouette
The updated American silhouette is a combination of the best elements of the sack and the European-cut suit. The jacket has some of the same softness and fullness through the chest and shoulder areas of the sack, to which it adds some of the European notion of shape.
Long the staple of fine dressers, from Clark Gable to Fred Astaire to Cary Grant, this soft, shaped suit was essentially a spin-off from the sack. The three-button sack coat was modified to a two-button version with some suppression at the waist by Paul Stuart. As mentioned earlier, this style was then modified further by Ralph Lauren, beginning in the mid-1960s. Both his espousal of it and the subsequent support of a score of young American designers gained, for this updated American style, the national recognition and the widespread acceptance it has today.
Like the European model, the new American-style jacket is tapered at the waist, giving the wearer something of a V-shaped appearance. The jacket, with its two-button design, has a longer lapel roll. In further contrast to the sack, this style also has a somewhat higher armhole and the chest is a bit smaller. All these details work to give it more definition than its dour predecessor.
These modifications give the updated American suit a freedom that allows the materials to adapt themselves to the wearer’s physique. This is as it should be. Angular clothing tends to impose itself on the body. It has its own shape, and the wearer must fit into it rather than the other way around. The adaptation of clothing to the wearer’s physique, on the other hand, is the ideal expression of oneself. Like a good haircut, the cut of a suit should never call attention to itself. Elegance or style can be achieved only through softness of line. This is why the updated American-style suit jacket has a modified natural shoulder and is cut with a slight taper at the waist, while the trousers take their line from the shape of a man’s leg.