The Components of Suits and Their Origins
When it comes to the fashion industry a suit is a set of garments that are worn together to create one outfit. A suit can be designed for males, females, children and adults alike. There are many variations of suits ranging from casual to formal yet all of them will contain the basic components that make up what we all know as the suit.
This article is going to run through the major parts of a suit for both men and women while giving a little bit of history about each part and how it came into being. For the purpose of simplicity, we are going to focus on formal suits rather than casual suits so that every major part of the ensemble will be covered, so let's begin with the male suit.
History of the suit
The modern days suit styles we have available to us reach back into the late 1700's. It was during the industrial revolution that suits started to change shape and the heavily embroidered and jewelled outfits of before were pushed aside in favour of more tailored and bespoke styles. In the late 1800's the suit really came into being as the search for a more comfortable lounge suit began. Since that point in time, the suit has not changed in style as much as many other items of clothing and it is regarded as the height of formality for both men and women.
Suits come in a variety of fabrics from man made to organic. While cheaper, more modern suits tend to be made from polyester and nylon, a traditional up-market suit tends to be made from wool. When a suit is made from wool it tends to have a better fit and holds its shape well, however, this leads it to be a dry clean only garment as water and heat can cause the garments to morph and shrink. Many of the polyester and nylon suits from off the hanger can be washed in a machine without issue and make keeping it clean an easy task. Another downside to wool suits is the possibility of attack from moths who feed on the fibres, this can be avoided by keeping the suit in a hanging suit bag.
There are three types of cut for a suit and each has its own advantages and disadvantages. The first cut is the 'ready made' cut which is bought off the hanger and is not fitted to any form or body shape. These tend to offer the most convenience for those on a budget and in need of a suit fast, however, they tend to lose shape and wrinkle quickly as the body does not provide the correct support for it.
The next cut is the 'made to measure' suit which is made to fit length and width but does not take into account a persons body shape or form. These are middle ranged garments which offer a better fit than off the hanger suits.
Lastly, there is the custom made suit, or 'bespoke' suit which is tailor made to fit an individuals body shape. A personal pattern is used to create a flattering and desirable fit for the wearer thus creating a suit completely for their body type. A bespoke suit is at the upper end of the price range but will hold its shape well and last for many years to come.
To begin with the garments, the jacket is probably the first component that you think of when talking about a suit. There are many variations of the suit jacket from the lapels to the pockets, the tail to the lining and the buttons to the collar. For most formal suits, the double breasted jacket is the most commonly used one. To be double breasted, the suit will feature two rows of buttons. The outer buttons are purely for fashion and serve no functional purpose while the inner buttons are used for fastening the front. The lapels are the two strips of fabric that run down the opening of the suit jacket and connect to the collar, in a double breasted jacket, these tend to be made in a peaked style which comes to a sharp point on either side of the suit.
When it comes to pockets, the majority will feature at least one inner pocket and 2 outer pockets. On more formal suits, a third pocket can usually be found on the breast of the jacket which is commonly used for inserting a handkerchief that matches the tie. The front and tails can be cut to different lengths with the front being shorter than the rear. In the tail of the jacket, you will usually find 'vents' which are one or two symmetrical slits running vertically down the rear sides. Originally, vents were created to make sporting activities such as riding easier during the Victorian era, nowadays they help create a better fit for the suit when being seated while dining.
Waistcoats were popular prior to the 1940's and were almost always worn with a suit. During the second world war, they fell out of favour due to rationing of food and fabrics making them hard to obtain. Since the 1970's the waistcoat has come and gone from fashion several times, however, it is seen as a staple for many formal suits. A double breasted suit jacket eliminates the need for a waistcoat yet many still opt to wear one in the case of the need to remove the jacket during wear.
No suit would be complete without a crisp, white shirt. While it is deemed as perfectly acceptable to wear coloured shirts, nothing screams classic formality than a white one. Most formal shirts do not have buttons on the sleeve, instead, cufflinks are worn to add a certain air of elegance and importance to the suit. Shirts are to always be tucked in and should be pressed to perfection.
Suit trousers come in many different cuts ranging from straight legged to wide legged, slim fitted to flared. The most important rule of suit trousers is that they should always match the jacket in colour and fabric. Matching the colour and fabric of the trousers and jacket has been in practice since long before the 1920's. More modern suits now have tapered legs which gives a much more tailored fit.
In the past, formal suits always featured pleats running down the front of the legs. These were commonly stitched in, however, the use of an iron and starch could also create the same effect. Over recent years pleats have fallen out of fashion and are commonly seen as dowdy and old fashioned, especially for more casual suits. When it comes to formal suits, trousers should always have pleats to finish the smart appearance of the garment.
Depending on the occasion, a tie should be worn with a suit. This is especially true for formal suits. The tie first originated from Croatian mercenaries during the 17th century who used a piece of fabric to hold together the opening of their shirts. It was quickly adopted by King Louis XIII of France who made it a staple of men's clothing.
When selecting a tie to wear with a formal suit, the wearer should choose silk over cotton. The tie should also be coordinated with the base colour of the suit and any accessories being worn. The tie should also match the pocket square (pocket handkerchief) worn in the breast pocket of the suit jacket.
No suit would be complete without the finishing touches. Shoes, belts, Bowties, hats and pocket watches can all be added to a formal suit to create a polished look. When wearing a formal suit, black leather shoes are seen as the better option over brown or grey shoes. Laces should always take priority over slip-ons and a good shine is a must. While hats can be worn, it is not commonplace to see men wearing them with a formal suit nowadays and thus is completely optional. It will, of course, completely depend on the event you are attending as to whether a hat is appropriate.
Ladies suits differ slightly to men. Of course, one of the main differences is the skirt suit which is what we shall be focussing on instead of the female trouser suit. While men have worn suits from the year 666, women only recently adopted the garments for outer wear. it was in the 1870's that the actress Sarah Bernhardt created a scandal in Paris by wearing a bespoke trouser suit she called her 'boy clothes'. Since that point in time, the lines between gender stereotyped clothing has blurred and the female suit was born.
Much like men's suits, ladies suits can come in a vast array of fabrics and colours. The difference here is that women are given much more flexibility when it comes to how to wear a suit and the colours they can avail. There are also fewer components involved in a ladies suit making it an easy option for formal and business purposes. As a general rule, the more luxurious and formal female suits are made from wool which gives a form fitting style. Off the hanger, suits are also a good option for women and they tend to be much more accommodating in fit.
For ladies suits, there are also three types of cut each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Like men's suits, there are 'ready made' suits which are bought off the hanger and is universal in design and style. Sizing can be difficult as they are made to a set of standard sizes and do not offer the option of tailoring for a better fit. As the suits come in standard sizes the fabric can wrinkle and drape over time due to the lack of support to the fabric from the body's contours.
Next is the 'made to measure' cut which is created to fit the length and width of the body. Made to measure cuts do not take into account a person's unique contours and is made from a set pattern. These are middle ranged garments which offer a better fit than off the hanger suits and while more expensive than ready-made suits, but more affordable than bespoke fitted suits.
Finally, there is the bespoke suit which is tailor-made to fit an individuals body shape, taking into account the body contours and the shape. A custom made pattern is used to create a form fitting garment for the wearer that fits like a glove. A bespoke suit is at the upper end of the price range but will hold its shape well and is seen as an investment piece due to its ability to stand the test of time.
Jackets tend to be single breasted and button up around the stomach area only, although buttoning up the jacket is entirely optional. During the 1970's and 1980's, the female suit became a symbol of power and independence. This is where the term 'power suit' was coined. During the 1980's shoulder pads were popular and gave women strong, raised shoulders. This fell out of fashion in the 1990's and is now not commonly seen.
Unlike men's suits, a ladies suit can be worn in any shade she desires from light pastel yellow to vibrant fuschia. Business women tend to favour darker shades and pinstripes that give an air of authority to them.
For the female suit, a blouse is normally worn. While a shirt can be selected most women tend to favour a blouse which is much softer in its design. The colour of the blouse can be any shade the woman desires and pastels are usually the shades of choice. Women do not usually wear neck ties with a suit, although in the past a silk scarf was fashioned in place of one creating an elegant and sophisticated look.
SkirtFor formal wear, a skirt is usually cut to hang around three inches below the knee and is loose cut to enable the legs to be crossed. For business wear, a pencil cut is favoured and is usually cut to be an inch or two below the knee. While skirts are the subject of this article, a trouser suit is also more than acceptable and can give women a flattering, confident look.