Classic as well as Utilitarian, the Three-Piece Suit
Is Back--But Did It Ever Really Leave?
By G. Bruce Boyer
The fashion runways are awash in fake suede pants, rhinestone tennis bracelets and polyurethane T-shirts--and that's on the male models! You might actually think that some of these designers weren't even interested in clothes. But don't mistake dubious taste for lack of interest. Well, never mind. For the rest of us who have managed to resist those frighteningly trendy, disk-driven looks, what's fashionable at the moment, perhaps as a rather strong reaction to all that blather about casual business attire in the media a few seasons ago, is a strong showing of high tailoring. Sartoria, the fashion press call it. We've always merely called it good suits.
What is particularly attention-getting is the three-piece suit. This time around in the low-keyed medium of luxury worsteds and flannels.
Not that the three-piece suit has ever really been out of fashion for very long. The Second World War did put fabric for civilian use in short supply, and suits were pared to spareness: no cuffs, no flaps, no double-breasteds were the patriotic ideal, and two-piece single-breasted suits quickly became the order of the day. That sumptuary mood carried over for perhaps another decade, until the mid-1950s. Apart from that glitch, the three-piece suit's history has been surprisingly stable in this century.
But the three-piece suit's history began long before 1900. Its history began, and we can be fairly precise about this, on Oct. 7, 1666. For almost three centuries until that date, as it happened, men were in the habit of wearing doublet and breeches, shirt underneath, cloak on top--the accepted masculine costume between the medieval and modern world. But on the afternoon of Oct. 8, 1666, the English diarist and secretary to the British Navy Samuel Pepys (himself, coincidentally, a tailor's son) was in Westminster Hall, the principal meeting place for English government officials in London, when he heard some surprising news about a resolution made the previous day by King Charles II:
The King hath yesterday in council declared his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes, which he will never alter. It will be a vest, I know not well how.
On a memorable Monday just a week later, Pepys went to Westminster Hall again, to see the king strut out in his new finery: This day the King begins to put on his Vest, and I did see several persons of the House of Lords, and Commons too, great courtiers, who are in it--being a long Cassocke close to the body, of black cloth and pinked with white silk under it, and a coat over it, and the legs ruffled with black riband like a pigeon's leg--and upon the whole, I wish the King may keep it, for it is a very fine and handsome garment.
The style caught on quicker than you can say Giorgio Armani, it being perhaps politically impolite to resist a royal imprimatur, and Pepys went out double-quick to order a vest and coat for himself from his own tailor. It was delivered on Nov. 4.: Comes my Taylors man in the morning and brings my vest home, and coat to wear with it, and belt and silver-hilted sword. So I rose and dressed myself, and I like myself mightily in it, and so doth my wife. Then being dressed, to church.
What is fascinating about this outfit--apart from the tailor delivering it in barely three weeks, when nowadays it seems to take at least twice that--is that, originally, the coat was shorter than the vest. Over the years the vest has shrunk, until it reached its present position--ending approximately at the waistline--at the end of the eighteenth century. From that point on, coats began to shrink as well, until around 1880, when the "lounge" coat--a jacket that just covered the buttocks--was introduced, and began to replace the longer frock coat for business dress. When the First World War ended and men returned to civilian dress, it was to this short coat-vest-and-trousers business uniform they adhered.
By the 1930s virtually all of the silhouette variations seen today in the three-piece suit had already manifested themselves: natural shouldered or padded coats; single-breasted or double-breasted; seamless or postboy waistcoats; flared, pegged, straight or tapered trousers. A wider or narrower lapel here, a slightly different pocket treatment there is what we're accustomed to when we think of changes in the suit.
So, with a few technical innovations, the three-piece suit, single- or double-breasted, has remained basically the same for more than a hundred years. Its success is due undoubtedly to providing a universally flattering shape amenable to almost any specific wearer. A perfectly democratic, utilitarian, business costume. And we men like it that way. Women's hemlines can go from here to there in a season, and the whole silhouette and stance can change radically from one season to the next. Men's clothing, being much more subtle, changes in quarter inches.
It's not that men are not in the fashion game, but rather that, in business clothes, God is very much more in the details. At the moment, tailored clothing seems to have struck a moderate balance, midway between the wide-bodied, shouldered look and the hanging lines of the sack suit. The suit of the moment has subtle shaping, low but slightly extended shoulders, and some flair in the skirt of the jacket. Trousers are full-cut, but with a slight taper. The details are decidedly British. Side vents and ticket pockets are on both single- and double-breasted coats. Vests often have lapels and flaps over the lower set of pockets, and with either a five- or six-button front, depending on whether a man wants a higher or lower gorge to show more or less necktie.
With a six-button front, the bottom button is usually left undone (the English tailors call it an "idle" button). Supposedly this practice began when the British king Edward VII grew too large a stomach to close the last button, and other gentlemen of his company slavishly followed the example, whether out of courtesy or because Edward was such a style setter they thought it an appealing touch. Whatever the impetus, the fashion caught on quickly, and leaving the bottom button idle is still considered de rigueur for fastidious dressers. In The Road To Wigan Pier (1937), George Orwell, rather sneeringly I'm afraid, reminded his readers of the English class-consciousness of such idiosyncrasies of dress: Comrade X, it so happens, is an old Etonian. He would be ready to die on the barricades, in theory anyway, but you notice that he still leaves his bottom waistcoat button undone.
Aficionados of the three-piece suit point to its dressiness and unifying aesthetic, as well as to the obvious practicality of a vest easily covering a slightly wrinkled shirt, and having an extra number of pockets in which to carry the various accoutrements of a gentleman: cigar cutter, lighter, etc. But the real advantage of the three-piece suit has always been that the additional vest provides added warmth in cooler weather. We all seem to be traveling more and more, and as we hop from Hamburg to Haifa, New York to Naples, crisscrossing time zones and climes in our global neighborhoods, packing proper clothes becomes a serious problem. What better than a light-to-mid-weight worsted three-piece?
If suits have evolved at all in the past 100 years, it's been in the area of comfort. The modern suit found itself initially saddled with the Victorian idea that dignity was somehow antithetical to personal comfort, and consequently suits were stiff, heavy, cumbersome uniforms; all thick, scratchy wool guaranteed to get respect--like an iron maiden is bound to elicit respect from a prospective tenant.
Today's deluxe superfine worsteds, flannels and even tweeds are half the weight they used to be, and,