This article is a continuation of last week’s fashion column: It’s the Season of Love.

Binns Ltd., Newcastle window display 1960

It is a common misconception that menswear and suits aren’t as fashionably and socially important as womenswear. The development of men’s formal wear through history illustrates that menswear has not only been important for making a physical impression, but has also been a reflection of society at the time.

In 1666, King Charles II stated that English court men were to wear a long coat, a waistcoat, a necktie, a wig and breeches. By the 1680s, this dress was common formal attire for men. However, the French Revolution saw the departure of this style, a strong reflection of the European societal and class reworking at the time. It wasn’t until the early nineteenth-century that looks similar to those worn by Charles II’s court was revisited. Beau Brummell is credited with designing the first modern suit. Brummell designed his suit (a dark tailcoat with pale trousers and waistcoat, a white shirt and tall boots) as a rebellion against the popular foppish look. This new attire and its popularity greatly symbolized society’s shift away from more classical views and fashion, hinting at the great social change to come throughout the next 200 years.

Soon after, the early Victorian era saw Brummel’s look transformed into the frock coat, similar to a modern trench coat, and eventually the morning coat. The morning coat was less formal than the frock coat, with a more open design, originally worn when horseback riding. Like women’s fashion at the time, menswear kept evolving throughout the Victorian era. Many new styles were short-lived in this period, such as the ditto suit, but its creative styles continue to influence fashion today. The lounge suit was designed in the late 1800s and was intended to be worn to sporting events. However, this look took on a more formal meaning and became the business suit. World War I saw the hemlines shorten on lounge suits, and morning coats became the most formal option. In the 1920s, trouser legs became wider, known as oxford bags, and this loose-fitting look expanded through to the 1940s (think classic gangster style). In the 1940s and 1950s, suit looks and fabrics simplified and a flannel grey suit became very common. However, in the disco-era of the 1970s, something that had never been seen before in menswear occurred: suits were worn by ‘reckless’ youths and became common throughout lower classes and at informal events. Like the rest of fashion at the time, these suits were bright, had elaborate fabrics and were funky looking. Again, menswear was reflecting the massive social change occurring, with the younger generation leading the charge. When disco died, suits continued to follow the fashion trends of the day, though they were rarely worn informally.

Women have also worn suits for many centuries. Riding habits in the 17th-century consisted of a skirt, top and jacket. In the late 1800s, the women’s walking suit was designed. This outfit was very much the same as the riding habit, but socially acceptable to wear outside of the stable. The walking suit found most of its popularity amongst urban women. Here, menswear on women was a reflection of the social change beginning (in this case, the struggle for equality and women’s rights). Although the first modern women’s business suit was designed in 1964 by André Courrèges, it did not catch on until the 1970s, as women became more respected in historically male workplaces. Women’s suits are now a very common staple, found all over runways and offices.

Since the 1990s, workplaces have become decreasingly formal. 30 years ago, any professional man (and many professional women) would have worn a business suit to work every day. However, these same workplaces have more lenient clothing expectations. Now, a button-up collared shirt and trousers pass as professional. This change has been enhanced by the introduction of “casual Fridays” in many workplaces. The same changes can be found in wedding attire. Shorter hemlines, the absence of suit jackets and the introduction of patterns or colours illustrate the more easygoing sense found at modern weddings. This season, all of these trends were found on runways and at bridal shows. Statement socks, pops of candy colours, navy blues, mismatch prints, velvets and two-tone shoes are also fashionable ways to make your wedding suit memorable and stand out from your groomsmen.

Society and social development is still revealed through fashion, and menswear stands as an example of this. Styles are more adventurous and suits are less limiting of creativity and personal expression. Florals, prints, pastels, costumes and other expressive styles are becoming more common at formal events, workplaces and weddings. Western culture has become much more open and accepting, and steps made for human rights and freedoms are still being made. When the Supreme Court of the United States struck down the Defense of Marriage Act last week, it not only symbolized steps for western and global LGBTQ rights, but also a growing and developing society.


This piece was written by Rebecca MacDonald, Fashion Columnist at Rhetoric Magazine. Come back for more every Thursday!