29 Apr 2024

Suits You!

The bowler-hatted, suit-wearing and brolly-wielding city gent is a British stereotype, and now the symbol of a bygone era, when respectability and conformity was highly valued. As society has evolved and become more fluid and less status-conscious, dress codes have been adapted and increasingly casual dress, even amongst city workers, has become the norm. We take a look at the history of the iconic British gent and discuss how times have changed.

The Bowler Hat

It is possible to trace the evolution of this practical, hard hat to 1849 when a Norfolk-based landowner, Lord Coke, became frustrated with the impracticality of the top hats worn by his gamekeepers and turned to the hatters Lock & Co, who were based in St James Street, London. The master hat-maker Thomas Bowler devised a rounded, small-brimmed, indestructible prototype, following Lord Coke’s instructions: “It should be close fitting and snug so it won’t be knocked off by branches and won’t fly off in the wind. In addition, it should be sturdy so that if a horse steps on it, it will hold its shape. And, lastly, it should protect the gamekeeper’s head from blows, either accidental or by poacher attacks.”

This immensely practical hard hat soon spread far and wide. It was adopted by working men everywhere, from shipyard workers to train-drivers and, in the 1860s, even graced the head of Prince Albert Edward (the future Edward VII). From this point on, it was seen as an acceptable choice for gentlemen, and was widely adopted by bankers and city workers.

This was an era when a hat was de rigueur for all classes, but after the Second World War, working men began to go hatless and gradually the bowler was discarded by city workers as well, with the fashion fading entirely in the 1970s.

The Suit

The lounge suit evolved from the ubiquitous frock coat in mid-19th century France, where it evolved as the ‘sacque’ coat, which was a simplified garment, cut from two basic pieces – unlike the frock coat which was made from four. It generally had three to four buttonholes (with only the top button worn fastened), was cut loose, and initially was made from linen.

This highly wearable jacket, which initially was paired with non-matching trousers, was widely adopted, especially after it was made in a wider range of wool and tweed fabrics and patterns, with matching trousers and even waistcoats. It soon became the standard uniform for anyone involved in business or the professions. When Montague Burton opened his tailoring business in Chesterfield in 1903, he ushered in a new democratic era; ready-made suits were affordable and available, and Burton’s quiet, conservative style, which eschewed loud patterns and extreme cuts, became the default choice for generations of British men.

Those who could afford to do so turned to the world-famous bespoke tailors of Savile Row, who offered a range of offerings from fully bespoke to custom (a prototype already exists, which can be adapted to the individual’s taste) to ‘bits hand-finished’ (an off-the-peg garment on which the cuffs and buttons have not been finished and can be individually specified).

Over the decades the silhouettes of suits evolved with fashion. In the late 1940s and 50s the dapper men about town of Chelsea and Mayfair sported slim-line, waisted suits that aped the fashions of the Edwardian era and were a marked contrast to the baggy cut of the ‘demob’ suits that were seen everywhere in Britain. These were part of a full set of clothing (a hat, shirts, tie, shoes and raincoat were also provided) that were handed out to British servicemen who were demobilised after the Second World War, many of which were made by none other than Montague Burton. In the 1980s, by contrast, suits were looser and more deconstructed, using lighter fabrics and dropped shoulders to drape the body.

Changing Dress Codes

The homogeneity of office dress was beginning to break down towards the end of the 20th century. Formal city firms introduced the concept of “dress down Fridays” and in media industries, such as publishing, journalism and broadcasting, suits were no longer indispensable. This was simply a reflection of the rise of leisure clothing and the emphasis on non-uniform individualism, which was becoming increasingly ubiquitous. The whole notion of “looking the part”, ie wearing your smartest clothes to indicate authority and competence, was being eroded.

This process, already underway, was rapidly escalated by the Covid pandemic and the working from home revolution. In short order, workers became used to the notion of dressing for comfort, or for their own pleasure, and sweatpants, hoodies, trainers, jeans, shorts and t-shirts proliferated.

Post-pandemic, many people are now participating in hybrid working and splitting their time between home and the office – the division between working life and home life is becoming more porous and dress is reflecting that. While the extreme casualness of home-work dressing (of the sweatshirt and pyjama bottom variety) is still considered inappropriate in all but private circumstances, and that includes video calls, there has been a marked change in expectations.

Unsurprisingly, the men’s suits market in the UK collapsed during the pandemic, dropping from £460 million in annual expenditure in 2017 to £157 million in 2020. While it is beginning to climb back from the Covid depths, most retailers of ready-made suits are focusing on smart separates: jackets, chinos, loafers and open-necked shirts are rapidly becoming the new ‘uniform’ for office workers.

Obviously, there are certain sectors where this is not the case, for example the legal profession, banking, politics. Some retail banks have experimented with a “smart casual” uniform for public-facing staff, but there is some resistance to this sort of experimentation. This would appear to be because many people still associate a smart suit with authority and professionalism – qualities they seek in people who are managing their money or legal affairs, or indeed broadcasting their nightly news. By the same token politicians, who seek a mandate from the voting public and are anxious to be viewed with respect, tend to wear suits when attending the Parliament, or appearing on television interviews. If they want to elicit feelings of friendliness and identification in the general public, they tend to discard their formal suits and opt for casual clothes, which they hope will advertise their ordinariness.

Many men will don a suit to attend an important interview (though it is always wise to check out the company culture first or you might cut an anomalous figure). They will certainly wear suits if called upon to attend a court of law or public hearing, where the wearing of a suit is seen as a mark of respect for the due process. Smart suits are still worn for weddings and funerals and “Lounge suits” may be specified as a dress code for smart, semi-formal social events.

Undoubtedly, suits are still an important part of most men’s wardrobes, but for many men they have ceased to be an item of everyday apparel, worn with clockwork regularity on all but the most casual of occasions. The human tide of bowler-hatted workers that ebbed and flowed in and out of the city on a daily basis has long dried up, leaving a much less predictable, and prescriptive, social landscape.


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