Style

History of the Suit: From Beau to Don to John (Wick)

Suiting is a form of expression. It’s a rite of passage when you’re finally ready to go from jeans and band T-shirts to a well-fitted ensemble that says, “Hi, I know how to dress and you love it.” We’re not saying you have to ditch the vintage Van Halen tee – RIP Eddie – but a good suit will take you very far in life.

But first, how did it all begin? The history of the suit is rife with innovation and change. What started as cumbersome clothing has morphed over time into fashionable collections of cool. So let’s do it, let’s learn about suits and use that to help us become masters of our wardrobe.

Beau Knows Suits

Beau Brummell didn’t invent the suit but he sure as hell made it cool. He looked at the frock coats, knee breeches, and powdered wigs and said, “Nope”. The 18th century saw suits become functional, wearable, and fitted. Brummel, a friend to royalty, was in the process of developing new military uniforms for one of the English regiments and decided that fit, fabric, and cut should be front and center and men should show off their curves (so to speak).

Sure, suits existed before Brummel, but they really sucked. They were burdensome, uncomfortable, and boring. Think of early suits as turkey sandwiches. Without mustard or mayo, you’re basically eating a slice of dry bird. Brummel added the condiments.

Line Graphic

The 18th century saw suits become functional, wearable, and fitted

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The Common Man Suits Up

Under Brummel’s influence, men across the world began to favor the short jacket suit. The roaring 20s and the Jazz age ushered in suits you could move in. Fits became bigger and celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and Al Capone – not exactly a good dude but still famous – brought wide-legged pants to the mainstream. Even though the Great Depression was taking its toll on everyone, the suit didn’t disappear, it just got a little somber. Darker colors came into play and you’d be hard-pressed to find a man standing in a breadline in anything other than a black or brown suit.

But wait, it gets worse: World War 2. The natural fibers that went into making men’s suits were being used to craft military uniforms. Instead of wools and tweeds, rayon became the go-to material for suits. The good news, even though the world was at war with Nazis we got ourselves some flawless style icons like Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole.

Ma wearing 1920s style suit

The Don/Dawn of a New Era

Don Draper isn’t real but his style sure is. The 50s were all about living in the suburbs while really living on Madison Avenue. Advertising geniuses like the fictional Draper were mad about the classic American suits that Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren brought to the market. Their shirts were as crisp as the martinis they sipped on between (and during) meetings.

Yeah Baby, It’s the Swinging 60s and Leisurely 70s

The early 60s took the Mad Men version of the suit and slimmed it down. Dr. Martin Luther King embodied the functionality of the suit with his politician-meets-preacher vibe, while JFK made sure everyone knew exactly how preppy and rich he was. Oh, the New England of it all! It should be noted that both of these fashionable men were assassinated for trying to change the world for the better, not because of the way they dressed.

The 70s is where it gets weird. Wider lapels, synthetic fabrics, and disco gave way to the leisure suit. We laugh today but at the time, shirt collars that were so wide they’d poke you in the face were on-trend. Think Travolta’s polyester number in Saturday Night Fever or Elvis’ Vegas period. We can’t say for certain but it seems like Quentin Tarantino’s entire career was inspired by the leisure suit.

The Tubbs and Crocket Combo

Miami Vice was more than a TV show. It was a great moment in the history of the suit. Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas wore the suiting equivalent of art deco. Bright whites, ocean blues, and perfect pinks with a hint of new wave thrown in gave us some of the most exciting suits on television since the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show which was like TRL for baby boomers.

A Suit You Can Bond With

Sean Connery was the first actor to step into the role of James Bond in Dr. No. The film’s director, Terrence Young, decided to use his own tailor, Anthony Sinclair, to dress 007. Luckily for Young and Connery, Sinclair had impeccable taste and crafted a look that will cement this British spy character as a style icon. Seven actors have played Bond and we’re finally at a point with the movies where James’ sexist attitudes have been dropped. The man looked good, but wow, was he ever sexist. He’s woke now, so that’s cool.

Also, RIP Connery. Sean Connery.

Man wearing a fancy tuxedo, adjusting cufflinks

Sports! Professional Athletes Suit Up

The history of the suit is all about style and functionality and who better to embrace that than sports stars? After a grueling workout on the court, field, diamond, or ice, players are opting to look great instead of meh.

This is where the history of suit gets fun.

The NBA Rebounds the Suit

NBA players took suiting, turned it on its head, and made it better. Once the ill-fitting draft day suits of the 80s and 90s were laid to rest, the 2000s and 2010s brought in a fresh take on fashion. Suits became statements, Louis Vuitton bags became game day luggage and we all learned how to spell Antetokounmpo.

Suits Touch Down in the NFL

In the early aughts, streetwear and suits became enmeshed with Jay Z, Justin Timberlake wearing tailored numbers, often with sneakers. Football players took notice and by the late aughts, NFL players had become the suit masters, making their post-game press-conferences must-see TV – a trend that continues to this day with the likes of Odell Beckham Jr., Cam Newton, DeAndre Hopkins, and some guy named Tom who has a bunch of Super Bowl rings.

John’s Tactical Suit

In 2014, a movie was released that impacted the history of the suit: John Wick. If you haven’t seen the movie, here it is in a nutshell: assassin meets woman, falls in love, retires, she passes away and leaves him a dog, bad guys hurt the dog, assassin gets revenge whilst wearing some of the greatest suits to hit the screen. There are pencils involved. Theon Greyjoy is in the mix. Lance Reddick is there with Ian McShane and John Leguizamo and everyone is impeccably dressed.

It’s not only John Wick the character that had an impact on men’s fashion, Keanu Reeves also contributed to the cause. The actor has been hitting premieres and interviews clad in a black or navy(ish) suit with brown boots and a black V-neck. This is an easy uniform that any man can adopt if they don’t want to go full-tactical in a suit you can fight bad guys in.

Suiting During the Pandemic

You’re probably thinking, this is great but we’re in the midst of a global pandemic and I don’t need to wear a suit. You’re right. You don’t need to wear a suit but you should. We’re not saying that you have to get dressed every day but it helps restore morale and can even put you in a better mood.

Either way, suit yourself.

Honorable mentions: 15 Men Who Took Suits to Brave New Levels

  • Prince – His Royal Purpleness, the most masculine effeminate man ever
  • Ziggy Stardust – David Bowie’s alien alter-ego
  • Malcolm X – civil rights activist, made glasses cool
  • Pierre Elliot Trudeau – former Prime Minister of Canada, father of current PM of Canada
  • Timothée Chalamet – floppy-haired moppet, kills the red carpet
  • P.K. Subban – skilled NHL player, also skilled at looking great in a suit
  • Gianni Agnelli – former president of Fiat, industrialist, fashionista
  • George Clooney – some guy married to a famous human rights lawyer
  • Yves Saint Laurent – not only did he look good in a suit, he created Le Smoking suit for women
  • Andre 3000 – ½ of Outkast, the Beau Brummell of our time
  • Muhammed Ali – boxing legend, bespoke suiting legend
  • Michael Caine – has been in over 110 movies, probably has over 110 suits in his closet
  • Tom Ford – fashion designer, filmmaker, probably wears black tie to bed
  • Dapper Dan – dressed every hip-hop pioneer in New York in bold bootlegs, now one of the most respected designers in the world
  • LeBron James – current NBA G.O.A.T., future NBA G.O.A.T.

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