It’s no secret that the twentieth century AD saw more changes in the fashion industry than had ever been seen in previous centuries. A number of clothing trends have gone down in history as an emblem of a particular time or decade. Bell-bottoms, for instance, are an eternal symbol of the 1970s, while the 1980s will always be remembered for shoulder pads if nothing else! However, the evolution of men’s suits also betrays a distinct sense of social history – one that’s too strong to be overlooked.
At the turn of the century and through to the 1920s, there was still a distinct disparity between men’s ‘daywear’ and ‘eveningwear’, and men’s suits usually took the form of a tailcoat with a pristine, starched white shirt worn underneath, and perfectly accessorised by a top hat and black leather shoes. But the Wall Street Crash of 1929 had a profound effect on men’s formalwear as there were severe cutbacks in the way clothes were manufactured and less people bought them. Men’s suits in the 1930s were altered in style to make their wearers appear to have wider torsos and squarer shoulders, while the double-breasted suit began to become popular as well.
However, the Zoot Suit was one exception to the rigid fashioning of men’s suits during this decade. With low-waisted, wide-legged and tightly-cuffed trousers and a long coat, Zoot Suits were primarily popularised by young African-Americans and Hispanic Americans, until the War Production Board branded them as “wasteful” in 1942 and banned their further production. The style persisted until the 1950s, however, when men’s suits evolved into something more business-like and men everywhere began to wear narrow trousers with single breasted coats – an authoritative style that reflected the role men were suddenly expected to play in post-war society and was largely influenced by the “demob suit” given to soldiers at the end of the war.
But the course of the late 1950s and the 1960s saw the dawn of a subculture that was to play an undeniable influence in the evolution of men’s suits for years to come – mod culture. Peaking in London in the mid 1960s, those classed as “mods” became known for engineering key cultural and fashion trends in the UK and male mods donned slim-cut Italian suits – a clothing style that soon became a hallmark of the era. As the mod movement continued to change, a new mod suit came into being – which saw three-button suits twinned with shirts, braces and often Dr Marten boots. Indeed, although mod culture began to decline in the 1960s, giving way to the hippie fashion of the anti-war campaigners, the key features of the mod suit continued to endure and still plays a significant role in the development of the suit today.
In the 1970s, bell-bottom suits became a common feature as disco reigned supreme – and women began wearing men’s style suits too! Nevertheless, the 1980s saw a further turning point in the evolution of men’s suits. As a new breed of young professionals began to emerge with large bank balances and an eye for what was trendy, first-rate fashion designers began to cater for the ‘yuppie’ in a way that was never seen before, and the concept of the ‘power suit’ was born.
The 1990s love affair with retro clothing extended to men’s suits as well, though to a lesser degree than with men’s casual wear. Suits began to become available in a wide range of colours and cuts, and this eclectic approach to men’s suits has continued into the new millennium. Today, prevailing men’s suit trends include slim-fitting trousers paired with single-breasted jackets and waistcoats worn with brightly coloured skinny ties – a fashion that largely takes its influences from modern musical trends and is, moreover, emblematic of the way current social movement shape and style the way we look.