As this article is written, it’s prom season, and that means suits are on people’s minds. They are digging around their parents’ closets and rushing to rental stores, piecing together their prom outfits. But why are suits the de facto prom clothes anyway? How have suits become what they are today? What makes a suit “dated?”
Let’s start with the word suit. According to an article from the “Gentleman’s Gazette” by Sven Raphael Schneider, it comes from the French word suivre (pronounced swee-vruh), meaning to follow. This means that the jacket follows the pants, being made of the same material and color. The earliest version of the suit we know today came from France during the French revolution. People shied away from wearing the ornamental, embroidered clothes that noblemen wore (due to the fact that people who wore this kind of thing usually lost their heads) and instead opted for a sleeker, trimmed design, created by a designer named Beau Brummel. Suits gained popularity as a more formal item to be worn on special occasions, but also as everyday wear, like lounge suits that are made of thicker material that were popular in England and Scotland due to the cold weather.
When the roaring 20s hit, suits became baggier and flashier, with more ornamentation such as pins and pocket squares. Bagginess went away as WWII brought fabric shortages but quickly came back, this time without extra layers such as a vest or waistcoat. This style dominated for a long time, until we hit the 21st century. Suits became slimmer and more minimalistic. Due to the rise of casual workplace culture, people now only wear suits on formal occasions or because they really want to.
An example of a formal suit is a tuxedo. According to an article from emilypost.com (a website that explains proper etiquette and the history behind it), the tuxedo gets its name from Tuxedo Park. This was the first planned residential housing community in New York, where a man named Griswold Lorillard came up with the idea of wearing a short black jacket without tails. This new fashion spread like wildfire, and visitors went home wanting to wear jackets “like the people in Tuxedo do.” Tuxedos are typically made of satin, which differentiates them from regular suits. According to black tie dress code, tuxedos are to be worn with a bow tie and a cummerbund (a broad waist sash with an unfortunate name) or a low waistcoat or vest (which means it buttons closer to the waist and shows more of the shirt). Tuxedos were originally used as a casual dinner jacket, but are now considered one of the most formal things a person can wear.
In order to get an idea of what suits are popular right now, I reached out to Pamela Burleigh, the owner of Mr. Formal, a formal wear rental store in Portland. Mr. Formal has been in business for 45 years, and was one of the first formal wear companies to offer suit rentals in the Pacific Northwest. Burleigh has been in the business for a long time, so she knows what’s popular now and left in the past. “The slim fit coats are extremely popular right now because that’s what’s in style,” she explains. “1-2 buttons are also the most popular, whereas a decade ago customers would rent up to a 4 button tuxedo, double breasted coats, duster jackets, etc. Styles are always changing.” Burleigh hasn’t noticed a huge difference between what older and what younger people rent when they need a suit. “It really depends on the individual and the event they are going to,” she says.
Mr. Formal also sells used suit pieces. Suits that are rented get retired after certain criteria are met. If the suit has been rented a certain number of times, gone out of style, gets damaged or is altered in an unfixable way, it’s retired. This allows Mr. Formal to have a product line that keeps up with the times and stays in style.
Suits can be more than just a costume for a fancy occasion. They have become a symbol of wealth and power, the chosen fashion of celebrities and tycoons. Luxury suits designed by famous designers have skyrocketed in price, becoming collectors items and representing exorbitant wealth. A suit called “Vanquish Bespoke” designed by Alexander Amosu is sold for $90,953 and is made of “three unique fabrics—one from vicuna, a South American animal that looks like a llama and shears wool every 3 years, wool made from the fur of Arctic muskox (also known as the world’s most expensive wool), as well as pashmina sourced from the eponymous Himalayan goats,” according to Top Ten Most Expensive Suits in the World, from The Lifestyle magazine. The suit is complete with nine 18 karat gold and diamond buttons.
While suits are traditionally seen as a masculine form of clothing, there are many examples throughout history of women making them their own. “The first notable appearance of a woman making a man’s suit her own was in 1870 when actress Sarah Bernhardt began wearing her ‘boy’s clothes’ in public,” says an article called “A Brief History of Women’s Suits” from the Michael Andrews Bespoke website. The article goes on to talk about the women’s suffrage movement and how it brought on the popularity of suffragette suits, a suit tailored for women with a long skirt or trousers. This inspired French fashion designer Coco Chanel to create the iconic Chanel suit in 1914, which greatly popularized the woman’s suit and revolutionized women’s fashion. In more recent years, power suits have become popular among women in the workplace and on the red carpet, allowing women to assert dominance by wearing a striking outfit. This just goes to show how suits can embody power and confidence.
Suits have a long and rich history, and have become the symbol of formality and professionalism. They are ingrained in our very society and traditions all over the world, and the suit industry has become a multibillion dollar industry. Suits have been a part of our society for hundreds of years, and while it’s likely that they’ll look very different, I suspect they’ll be with us for hundreds more.