Perfection is out of reach – but not the perfect suit.
Edward Tivnan, About men
Uman believes that the evolution of man's formal suit – in aesthetic, functional, and symbolic terms – has by now reached its ultimate stage. Thus, starting from a fundamental understanding of its previous progress and success, uman's suit wants to represent the silhouette's natural “point of arrival”, expressing both its full modernity and its maximum expressive power.
The historical and technical evolution of the masculine tailored suit has been quite linear until the mid twentieth century, when fashion” (1) started to gain power and it began styling all sorts of variations in the lounge suit's silhouette. Often these variations were trendy revivals of past successes, but these earlier evolutionary steps of men's costume cannot just be reintroduced over and over again because they have now become “extinct”. As mere revivals they have been deprived of all their symbolic energy, except as “costume”. In fact, the initiative of a few individual fashion designers cannot alter or accelerate the natural evolution of man's style. This is what “Fashion” – defined as the development of the suit's aesthetics and its symbolic expression of the purpose of the whole masculine community – purports to do.
Therefore, one should expect that future variations of the lounge suit will depend on the continuing evolution of man's lifestyle and his approach to life, rather than on just purely stylistic visions or commercial concerns. However, since the process is one of progressive refining, rather than sudden transformation, the “genealogy” of the tailored suit can be traced back through the small architectural and mechanical details that still remain; almost as the “vestigial organs” of a living body (2).
What is a Suit's Silhouette?
The silhouette is the essential line and proportion of a suit, as a whole and in its individual parts, expressed as “lengths” (both vertical and horizontal), as well as to the ratios among these dimensions. The silhouette is therefore the primary identity of a suit in an aesthetic sense. The silhouette is influenced by the fit, the suit's degree of intimacy with the body (3), the aplomb, the suit's dynamic stability (4) and the drape, a measure of the suit's comfort (5).
Certain stylistic details of a suit (for example, the number and position of its buttons, vents, and flaps), as well as certain elements of its construction (its seams, stitchings, pipings, and pleats), and the materials used (shoulder pads, rolls, inlays); these are all factors that contribute to defining the visual character of the silhouette.
The term lounge suit refers to the classical modern man's tailored suit. It comprises a jacket, trousers, and waistcoat, all made of the same fabric, and can be worn for formal social relations at any time of the day. Today this garment is the standard civil costume in all parts of the world. While its origin is in fact European, the power of the lounge suit is founded on the fact that it does not represent a single or dominant aesthetic current, and it is neither multicultural nor confessional. The lounge suit is primarily the result of an evolutionary process that made it relentlessly modern and so intimately related with Man that it has actually become… immortal (6).
On the unique effectiveness and versatility of the lounge suit, Anne Hollander, a great scholar of men's costume, writes:
…[the lounge suit] offers a complete envelope for the body that is nevertheless made in separate, layered, detached pieces. Arms, legs and trunks are visibly indicated but not tightly fitted, so that large movements do not put an awkward strain on seams or fastenings, and the lumps and bumps of the individual body's surface are harmoniously glossed over, never emphatically modelled. The separate elements of the costume overlap, rather than attaching to each other, so that great physical mobility is possible without creating unbecoming gaps in the composition. The whole costume may thus settle itself naturally when the body stops moving, so that its own poise is effortlessly resumed after a swift dash or sudden struggle. Meanwhile languid sprawling will cause the costume to disarray its easy fit into attractively casual folds which form a fluid set of grace-notes for the relaxed body, and which also obligingly resume a smooth shape if the wearer must quickly get up and stand straight. The costume is thus socially formal and informal at the same time, obedient to the flow of circumstances. Decorative elements are integrated with the overall scheme, so that nothing sticks out, slides off, twists around, gets bruised, goes limp or catches on anything. It is universally flattering, because it does not insist on specific bodily detail. It proposes an ideal of self-perpetuating order, flexible and almost infinitely variable (see note 6).
Thusly, the lounge suit embodies a number of very important messages and attributes that account for its never-ending success: grace, proportion, utility, comfort, masculinity, and authority.
- Grace is the lounge suit's objective ability to unify the related dress components (shirt and necktie), thereby enhancing the importance of the whole and of the details, uniting the components into a unicum, which is thereby identified with the same individual, so much so that the lounge suit can even evoke the fashion of the times without losing its basic identity;
- Proportion refers to the way the lounge suit respects certain harmonic and pleasant proportions among the different parts of the human body, proportions that are naturally embedded;
- Utility is the service the lounge suit provides to the individual by becoming his mantle; and so, united and detached at the same time, it protects him from the environment, completes his look, and also conveys his uniqueness and character;
- Comfort minimizes the weight of the structure, it allows the execution of a man's movements, while caressing the body and supporting its mid-section;
- Masculinity will enhance the typical man's figure, especially the proportions between the shoulders, waist, and hips, making the figure slender and idealistic without ever giving up the virtual vision of the underlying naked body (7);
- Authority is always associated with the exercise of power and the assertion of one's personality and status, with statecraft, foreign affairs and the establishment (8). All these elements harmonize and generate a classical modernity in material design, in politics, and in sexuality (see note 6). Knowing the fascinating “history” of the lounge suit is a must for anyone with intellectual curiosity and a genuine desire to improve his style.
The History of the Lounge Suit
The lounge suit first appeared in England between the 18th and 19th centuries in its basic form, single-breasted with notch lapel and cut-away bottom front. Since then it entered its ultimate evolutionary phase and has remained substantially unchanged, except for some minor “fine-tunings”.
The origins of the lounge suit can be found in the practical riding coat of the British country gentlemen, which was open from the waist down, with full buttoning, and sometimes with a waistcoat. From there it took on many uses, first residential, thus informal and private, and later also urban, and hence social and formal. In the process, the lounge suit lost the tails and closed around the hips, while the buttoning system was simplified and shifted downwards. The version with tails remains the classical dress for riding and horseback hunting, as well as formal ceremonies – the so-called morning and the evening coat – though here with a mostly limited palette of black and grey. These styles have been deliberately frozen in time because their uses are confined to those few circumstances where they act as “uniforms” and so need to comply with a specific custom (9).
On the other hand, the double-breasted style of the classic jacket, with peak lapels and straight bottom, had a different origin. It began as a naval jacket, the so-called “reefer coat” (10), and then became part of a city ensemble, the “frock coat” (11), and, finally, it evolved into a proper variation of the lounge suit. Here too, its length was shortened and the buttoning system streamlined. Most of these changes, however, left their traces in the lounge suit. Thus the development of the lapel is just the spreading of the original high neck, with the notch marking the separation with the chest, while losing its top button; the under-collar tab is a remainder of the extension that served to close the coat around the neck; the buttonholes and buttoning at the bottom of the sleeve is a remainder of the functional use of sleeve cuffs in the past; just like the bottom button in the single-breasted jacket and the extra ones in the double-breasted jacket, which no longer have to be buttoned.
In one case, a new function has been added to the vestiges of the past and created an enchanting masculine ornament. By an ingenious intuition, the buttonhole in the lapel has become the place for the “boutonnière”, of which it is now synonymous (12).
These details of the lounge suit clearly have a visual as well as cultural value and should not be lost, nor should their rationale be upset. Similarly, the integrity of both the single and double-breasted versions should be respected because it is the result of the noble lineage of the best tailoring tradition. Both legendary and contemporary Savile Row tailors have stressed that, “you are dealing with a garment the power of which is its history” (13).
This sense of the lounge suit's historical power is why certain stylistic contrivances almost unconsciously disturb our sense of beauty. These can be as subtle as raising or lowering too much the notch from its natural position, a disproportionate number of buttons on the front of the jacket, or on its sleeves, rounding the bottom of the double-breasted version, or by ignoring the natural waist-point, etc.
The lounge suit's evolutionary process has not always been straightforward. In fact, it has sometimes been rather tortuous and a number of declining styles have survived over time or for a given function, alongside the newer styles. Nevertheless, it is possible to trace a particular “linearity” in the advancement of the lounge suit, allowing uman to highlight the effectiveness of some of its general dynamics in the silhouette.
In practical terms, the general trend of the jacket was obviously for it to become more “fluid”, thus simpler and more practical, as well as more “comfortable”, and so lighter and softer. The jacket also progressively became more like a man's “skin” and less and less his “armour”. To promote this development, the jacket's internal construction was streamlined in the central and lower parts, thus reducing its weight and stiffness, while remaining well structured on the top (shoulder, neck, chest) to satisfy the aesthetic function of harmonizing and idealizing a man's shoulders, torso, and arms. This de-construction process, however, cannot continue indefinitely beyond a certain limit, after which the jacket would lose its formal integrity and turn into a “casual” item. The jacket's external complexity was also reduced, with the removal of useless supplements (tails), circumferences (overlaps), redundancies (cuffs), and gradually reducing the number of buttons; this further lowered the jacket's weight and increased its elasticity. The final limit of this process is set by the need of not revealing too much of the underlying body and of not compromising the visual primacy of the jacket vis-à-vis its complements and accessories.
The jacket's degree of adherence to the body also had to comply with a man's wish for it to feel loose and free, while, however, maintaining the basic emotional feature of the lounge suit, its intimacy with the wearer, of which the jacket becomes an integral part. This duality explains why some buttons have become mostly symbolic even though the jacket can still be fastened fully. The length of the jacket has also tended to decrease, so that it now barely covers the buttocks and expresses a better proportion between the torso and the legs, both from the front and rear perspectives, while making the figure more slender.
The gradual simplification of the jacket is thus a strong, precise, and indeed virtuous development, which should not be confused with a trend towards reducing its formality (14). Nonetheless, the progress of this simplification has a clearly defined limit and endpoint; which can be identified as: the single-breasted style with two buttons and lateral vents. This style strikes the best balance between formality and informality, and offers the wearer the broadest range of options for his accessories.
Finally, it is worth mentioning the impact of the shift from artisanal to industrial manufacturing on another major feature of the jacket, the so-called “sciancratura”. There is no corresponding English word for this concept but it describes the way a suit should fit properly at the waist. Tailors have always taken this feature into account (both in terms of sartorial technique and in the positioning of the functional buttons) and its aesthetic relevance is obvious to the consumer. Today, sciancratura is either neglected in favour of universal wearability aimed at maximising its saleability or, on the other hand, brought to its limits by some fashion designers. Unfortunately, at both extremes, “repairs” will be required, which will severely alter its expression. By design, the uman jacket will have a “true” body on which to build its model – thus representing to some extent a bespoke – and through proper sartorial technique will also try to obtain a visual waist-marking effect.
The Waistcoat and Trousers
In some respects, the waistcoat (also known as gilet or vest) experienced a similar evolution. It was also gradually streamlined: it was reduced to one breast and shortened, while losing the lapels and flaps. This retained the primary function of hugging and ennobling a section of the torso that would otherwise remain uncovered. This innovation also allowed a man to keep the single-breasted jacket unbuttoned while his lounge suit still retained a formal tone.
Although it may be a less important element of the lounge suit, the waistcoat now plays a role as an independent garment (particularly in sportswear), as well as an accessory as such. So we see that it can have its own fabric, colour, and pattern; a notable example of such a different identity can be observed at Royal Ascot. It may be an all but negligible factor, but its presence or absence can significantly alter the expression and degree of formality of the lounge suit. However its style should not be forced, nor should it revert to archaic elements that deprive the jacket of its prominence.
Trousers are certainly the part of the lounge suit that has undergone the most profound changes, and they had to wait until the late 19th century to evolve into their modern version. The French made the first step towards modern trousers. During the Revolution, the sans culottes – or those that wore no breeches and stockings – adopted the typical style of sailors and labourers as their banner for change. Soon after, the middle classes accepted these practical trousers and they introduced them to the nobility, while the breeches faded away, ending up in the servants' wardrobes. The fluctuations between short and long, narrow and wide, high or low-waist have continued until today under the influence of various and sometimes contrasting needs (modesty, look, comfort, practicality). This is not surprising, considering that trousers have a much broader range of uses than tailored jackets, and that they are also common part of a woman's wardrobe, thus more subject to fashion trends; this versatility also explains the multiple choices regarding turn-ups, pleats, pockets, etc. Obviously, too much “tightness” in the trousers is definitely unbecoming, even more so for an imperfectly shaped body. Similarly, in practical terms, the ability to move easily, to sit without constraints, and just to dress more rapidly are all factors of progress that are by now part of our concept of comfort.
However, a lounge suit's trousers do have an ideal silhouette too because they must interact with the shape of the jacket. Their design should help establish an overall proportion, a sense of verticality of the body, and a sex appeal that certain military styles have mastered. But one element of the sartorial trousers should never be lost: the presence of functional buttons in the front fly. This feature alone demonstrates a gentleman's superior dressing culture and his quest for stylistic perfection.
Uman and fashion
In this long process, the lounge suit has been gradually idealized. It has been reduced to its basics, glossing and smoothing the body at the same time, concealing age, always retaining a masculine shape, a practical function, and a recognizable pedigree. These developments explain its conceptual strictness, its refusal to accept “infringements” to the integrity of this sharp and well-balanced picture, and all opposition to its basic rational formula. This emphasis on integrity accounts for the “visual discomfort” caused by over-stressing the fit, with the use of extreme lengths, with the loss of consistency in the shoulders, or with an undetermined silhouette. This discomfort can also be caused by an excess of details or the matching of elements that contrast conceptually, the accumulation of repetitive factors, the enhancement of an accessory, and by the reintroduction of archaic styles. These “innovations” and attitudes are all typical of a trendy or frivolous dressing style.
So we are left with a delicate issue: what is the relation between the lounge suit and fashion and, as a consequence, does uman represent a non-fashion or anti-fashion position (15)?
Without arguing about concepts and terms, suffice it to note that the lounge suit, whose purity of style is celebrated here, is truly the supreme sartorial product of the past seven centuries. However, even if at a point in time the lounge suit achieved some form of objective “perfection”, which found both a rational and unconscious consensus amongst all men, fashion denies it. In reality, when it maintains that the individual designer's imagination is more relevant than the collective wearers' will, fashion has exposed its own intrinsic weakness. If it purports to act in the name of progress, then fashion also contradicted itself because it cannot logically reject the ultimate expression of its own modernity: the lounge suit.
It is just as inaccurate to argue that menswear has been adverse to the developments of fashion. Several experiments with details and accessories have been appreciated and have found a place in men's wardrobe, but this happened through the established architectural structure of the lounge suit. On the other hand, sportswear, active-wear and some other forms of apparel are different; here fashion has always had ample space and purpose in menswear.
Uman's in-depth analysis of the lounge suit is ideally matched to the Modern Rich man. Rather than accepting the scant information and the discouraging set of “rules” offered by the countless how-to handbooks, the true and essential culture of men's costume will provide uman's man with the confidence and direction to dress elegantly. The most important part of this culture concerns the lounge suit itself. Eliminating all the stylistic hubris and the negative propaganda of the past few decades, uman strives to define the tailored suits ideal silhouette (16).
We would like to thank Edward Quinn, © edwardquinn.com for the use of his photograph in this website.
1) Used with a small first letter, the word is understood here as the show-business circuit promoted by professional designers and by the press. According to Roland Barthes, ‘fashion journalism’ as such is the locus where fashion is debated and both the object and the user of fashion are constructed (see Système de la Mode; 1967).
2) ‘Vestigiality’ describes the structures and parts of organisms that are considered to have been better developed and functional in the past, but have now lost most or all of their functionality and some or most of their structure through evolution.
3) According to Webster’s, ‘fit’ is “to be correctly adjusted to or shaped for a wearer”.
4) According to Webster’s, ‘aplomb’ is “the perfect equilibrium required to maintain stability in a movement”.
5) Drape is a concept made famous by the Duke of Windsor who requested it of his Savile Row tailor (Schölte), and later it was associated with the Neapolitan school. It consists in instilling that touch of “slackness” that produces a slight vertical waving of the fabric on the chest, close to the arm-hole; its equivalent on the back of the jacket is called the “blade”. This should not be confused with the ‘drape cut’, where “the fullness of the chest is extended throughout the coat and matched with similarly fuller cut of trouser” (by Sator of the ‘Cutter & Tailor’ forum).
6) See Anne Hollander’s justly famous book: Sex and Suits: the evolution of modern dress (1994).
7) An important strength of the lounge suit is that the modern suit survives partly because it has kept its ability to make that nude suggestion … in its pure form it expresses a confident adult masculinity, unflavored with either violence or passivity (Hollander).
8) Hollander also writes that, Very remarkable and fantastic male modes of dressing are continually adopted chiefly by the powerless.
9) Types of styles known as ‘informal-uniform’ (also including the so-called power suit). This is the … individual combinations of clothes and looks that seek to project an individual and construct the visible signs of a “unique” identity but in fact conform to informal rules and fads that percolate through civil society. (Uniforms exposed: from conformity to transgression, by Jennifer Craik, 2005).
10) The jackets of the sailors in charge of ‘reefing’ the sails in the British and Dutch navy beginning in the mid eighteenth century; the officers also used them in a longer version with brass buttons, known as the bridge coat.
11) The frock coat is a formal city and day style that became successful in the mid nineteenth century and then quickly disappeared in the early twentieth.
12) For a comprehensive history of this accoutrement, see: The Boutonnière: Style in One’s Lapel by Umberto Angeloni et al. (2000).
13) Hardy Amies, The Englishman’s Suit, 1994.
14) Just consider how the classical tuxedo has only one button and the evening tailcoat has none.
15) “Non-fashion” refers to those styles that are not subject to changes, like uniforms or ethnic costumes, whereas “anti-fashion” implies a mental attitude of scorn and rejection of any aesthetic developments.
16) Except for the recurrent stylistic prophecy about the ‘death of the suit’, probably the most captious theory is the one suggested by John Carl Flügel as “the Great Masculine Renunciation”, which claims that, starting in the nineteenth century, man deliberately gave up the pleasures and risks of fashion, seeking refuge in a bubble of mental self-defence and stylistic closure (The Psychology of Clothes; 1930).