Suits through time: the evolution of a wardrobe staple

With 150 years of tradition behind the suit, Nick Kraegen looks at how a military frock coat became the staple of every man's wardrobe.

To some, it represents power; to others, a gilded cage. But it has spent a century and a half at the pinnacle of men's fashion, leaving no room for debate - the suit remains the ultimate symbol of style and machismo.

The suit is designed to "enhance a man's physique and masculinity", according to Australian suit designer Matt Jensen of M.J. Bale. While the colour and design can change, many original features live on.

The cut of the shoulders still hints at military silhouettes. The flat lapel evolved from flattening the traditional stand-up collar on British army or navy frock coats, which was designed to keep out the cold. Those now-useless buttons on cuffs were designed for 19th-century surgeons in London, who needed to roll up their sleeves to keep them out of wounds (taking one's jacket off would have been out of the question - working in shirtsleeves was for tradesmen).

And if sitting down in a jacket seems surprisingly comfortable, it's because those vents at the back were added for the horse-mad Victorians.

Savile Row tailors estimate it was about 150 years ago when elements of the various predecessors of the modern suit wove themselves into a single outfit. It is also noted that the industrial revolution was important in the emergence of what is now a man's standard corporate ensemble, as it triggered the concept of "suiting up" in a uniform to attend work.

Today, however, the focus is on the marriage of fashion and form, with comfort high on the agenda. "We're going to a more practical, functional place [in design] - it's about hitting those finely balanced points of form and function," says Jensen, who favours lightweight materials and tailoring to cater to the sweltering Australian climate.

"We're also making jackets that can be folded and stored on aeroplanes - these are modern things that people need."

But the suit has always been adaptable, not just to climates and planes but to individuals. Tailor John Cutler runs Sydney's J.H. Cutler, which was nominated by Forbes as one of the top-10 worldwide bespoke tailors. The family has been outfitting men for 127 years.

Cutler thinks the suit's appeal will endure because no other men's garment sends the same message about its wearer.

"Formality, acceptance in certain spheres of society, like clubs and higher-up business, banking, law ... it's successful because it shows respectability and respectfulness," he says. It may represent the height of convention but an individually styled suit can also announce the personality of the man who owns it. "I think a suit is a good opportunity for a male to express his individuality," Cutler says. "People might say 'no no, it's the uniform' but, actually, I think it's the opposite because people have a choice of colour, style and fabric."

Cutler once dealt with a Russian former nuclear submarine commander who ordered a $20,000 suit made from super-fine wool. He also recalls a businessman who was so delighted with his $50,000 overcoat (made from the wool of the vicuna - a rare relative of the llama) that he bought another.

Today's hottest menswear designers still emphasise their quest for individuality.

"I continue to experiment and research better manufacturing ways to achieve the perfect suit," says Italian fashion powerhouse Giorgio Armani. "The most important element is that the wearer feels confident and comfortable."

Designer Ermenegildo Zegna also approaches suits not as a functional or structured symbol of convention but "as a professional uniform that, in time, was revolutionised and complied to ever-changing lifestyles and needs".

For all seasons

The suit in television

Comedian and host of Channel Ten's 7pm Project, Charlie Pickering, has always loved suits, but recently discovered their practical value.

"When I was studying at law school and getting clerkships at various law firms, I was probably more focused on wearing a nice suit than doing a good job," Pickering says.

"I think a 33-year-old middle-class guy maybe doesn't carry that much gravitas when talking about serious news but when you put on a decent tie and jacket, people listen."

The suit in court

 Michaeel Kirby, retired judge of the High Court of Australia, enjoys wearing a suit because he believes it draws attention away from his appearance and to

his words.

"I'm not into style, I am into substance," Kirby says. "I'm fundamentally a very conservative person and this allows me to get about in conservative outfits, reserving any original ideas to something not in my outfit."

Ultimately, however, Kirby's approach to suiting is practical.

"I look for something that would disguise the decline in my body shape," he says.

The suit in politics

 Former prime minister Paul Keating is remembered for his love of Zegna suits — his preference meant that he broke with a tradition stretching back to the days of Robert Menzies: that prime ministers be dressed by Australian suit maker Anthony Squires.

twitter   Follow ExecutiveStyle on Twitter

This article Suits through time: the evolution of a wardrobe staple was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald.