Ever been bored during a meeting and find yourself looking down at your suit, wondering why buttons are sewn onto the sleeves? Or have you assumed those vents cut into the back of suits help keep you cool? If you have, you're not alone - we've pondered those same puzzlers, too! The seemingly useless suit features (to us at least) arose from historically sensible origins. They may not be intuitive but they're definitely interesting (certainly more interesting than that boring meeting from 4 sentences earlier). So settle in, and let us guide you through a brief history lesson, Sharp Suit style!
This history lesson begins in the 17th century. More specifically, it begins in Charles II’s England, soon after a terrible plague and massive fire ravaged the country. Times were tough in “austerity Britain” so the king ordered his courtiers to dress modestly. Their new wardrobes consisted of simple tunics, shirts and breeches. These elements morphed over time and across cultures, eventually becoming the modern suit we wear today. During its transformation, the suit absorbed elements from jackets worn in numerous parts of European life. The most influential of these wardrobe additions would come from three major fields: the military, medicine, and sports.
You Fight Battles in Your Suit?
The Napoleonic Wars broke out in Europe around the time British tailors were crafting suits out of wool. The wars displaced numerous craftsmen across the continent, and many found their way over to Britain at the same time the suit was gaining prominence. These men had honed their tailoring skills producing uniforms for soldiers, and they started incorporating some of those elements into the suits they crafted. The padded shoulder appears to stem from military epaulettes (shoulder decoration that denotes one’s rank). Military uniforms were cut to look crisp when soldiers stood at attention, and the arm holes were narrow to aid in shooting rifles and saluting superiors. It's hard to recognize today, but these military origins heavily influenced the modern suit men wear today.
You Operate on Patients in Your Suit?
Pop quiz: Before London’s Savile Row became famous for its tailors, what professionals called the district “home”? If you guessed surgeons, you are correct! We're impressed you knew that! Early British doctors wore jackets while operating on patients but wouldn’t remove them during surgery - the jacket set the professional surgeons apart from shirt-wearing laborers. But how did one avoid getting blood all over his surgeon's jacket? Those ingenious surgeons wore ones constructed with buttoned sleeves. The buttons were functional, could be unbuttoned, and the sleeves could be rolled out of the way (of blood) during surgery. Once surgery was finished, doctors would roll their sleeves back down and head home sans visible blood stains. Most modern suits pay tribute to the surgeons' jackets with the decorative buttons sewn onto sleeves. Even the current name of this suit feature reflects its historical origins, being called the surgeon cuff or working cuff. The buttons aren't always decorative though, as wealthy shoppers can purchase suits with those functional sleeves. Since today's surgeons can't get away with cutting a patient open without scrubs, today the surgeon cuffs mainly indicate how much a suit cost the wearer.
You Hunt on Horseback in Your Suit?
The English are sporty people, and men often wore jackets while riding horseback or hunting. Their jackets were designed with vents in the back that allowed the clothing to fall smoothly while riding a horse. These jackets also contained hacking (slanted) pockets, which were cut to make them easier to access while on horseback. And speaking of pockets, some hunting jackets also were constructed with a variety of interior pockets. These pockets could be large enough to hold small pheasants the hunter had bagged. Modern suits also have numerous pockets, but they have been updated to hold more modern tools like wallets and cell phones. Some early twentieth century suits had small front ticket pockets that commuters could place their train tickets in while commuting. This feature is still found on modern jackets, but it mainly serves aesthetic purposes (unless you're taking the train to work).
Since When Do Mercenaries Wear Ties?
Ties are another suit element that originally served a practical purpose. Before the French knew what ties were, they wore silk stock around their necks to complete their suits. However, the French eventually adopted what became the modern tie after seeing its precursor, neckerchiefs, worn by Croat mercenaries. The neckerchiefs spread from France to England and eventually became the modern tie. The colors and patterns on ties used to serve a practical purpose as well. The colors and patterns denoted the university one graduated from or the sporting club one had joined. Today the tie is worn mainly for style, but in Europe the tie is still used to tell others a little bit about oneself.
Did you hear that? The bell just rang and class is over. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Sure, it was history, but at least you learned interesting modern suit details. Now you know more about the modern suit’s practical origins than most of your friends and family. Aren't you special! Go on out there and impress folks with your new suit knowledge, and keep an eye out for these features the next time you slip into your favorite suit.
Did we miss anything? Do you know of other suit elements that historically served practical purposes? Leave us a comment below or tweet us @TheSharpSuit. We’d love to hear your opinion!
Research: "Suitably Dressed" (The Economist)