The versatile suit is now 150 years old, and its evolution has been closely linked with the social and economic dynamics of the world through the decades.
Nothing else gives the upper hand during a negotiation like a well-cut suit. It is the dress code of those who determine the politics of business and the business of politics, and the armour of choice for the battlefield of wills, the boardroom.
The suit might be synonymous with business today, but it has been around long before the world was introduced to Fortune 500 and MNCs. It has been witness to the growth of modern business for 150 years now.
The attire took shape initially during the Regency era in England. Long trousers replaced the tight knee-length breeches under the coat, a move credited to the original dandy, Beau Brummel. History says that Brummel was so taken with the long cavalry pantaloons worn by the 10th Light Dragoons in the army that he persuaded his friend and confidante King George IV to adapt it into his wardrobe. His loyal courtiers followed suit.
In the latter half of the 19th century, fashion began to lean towards a more relaxed aesthetic. The fussy frock coat gave way to the morning coat – worn with a waistcoat and trousers – and its nighttime counterpart, the evening dress. The tie made its first appearance in mainstream society at the same time, and it served a greater purpose than mere decoration. It said many things about its wearers, from the schools they attended to the sporting club they favoured.
As decades passed by, fashionable men began to sport the lounge suit, a garment whose popularity was fuelled by the rise of the American business culture. It was topped off with fedoras, which replaced the traditional drainpipe hats favoured by Lincoln. Naveen Pishe, a partner of Bangalore’s PN Rao, established in 1923, says, “Judging by our records, the demand was for suits with accentuated shoulder pads and nipped in waists. Double-breasted jackets with broad profiles were also very popular.”
In the 1940s, when the world was reeling under the impact of the greatest war it had seen till date, the fashion industry was forced to make every thread count. Gone were the days of the double breast and multiple pockets. Now suits were made to hug the body, more out of necessity than narcissism. This decade marked the birth of the ‘Classic Cut’. Says Ashok Vaish, the manager of the 70-year-old Vaish at Rivoli in Delhi, “I have seen many trends change over the years, but one that remains constant is the Classic Cut, as it’s perfectly suited to the dynamics of the boardroom.”
But the flower children of the 60s scoffed at the suit, making it their insult of choice to describe anyone dull and pro-establishment. In retort, suits started sporting brighter colours, and trousers ended with quirky flares. And later, when a young John Travolta danced on a brightly lit dance floor and into the hearts of millions, his close-fitting suit found favour in business circles, but more importantly, it marked the return of the waistcoat.
But the waistcoat had a short second life. When the 80s dawned, it left Travolta’s outfit behind. Suits became loose fitting once more, and power shoulders were what the executives of the day wanted. These suits were accessorised with striking ties and suspenders to personify a go-getter.
This trend continued into the 90s, but when the world stepped into the new millennium, suits became leaner again, and jackets became shorter. Now, suits are all about balancing comfort and practicality with style. They have become lighter, and yes, thin is still in, as the slim-fit look is what the business world wants to wear. Says fashion designer Sunil Mehra, “Straight cuts, and narrow fits are back in vogue now. Linen is the fabric of today, as it’s comfortable, and professional at the same time.”
Industry experts feel that the suit will inevitably change externally with shifting trends in the coming years, but marked transformations will take place in the garment’s interiors. This is the age of connectivity – executives take their world with them wherever they go. With new technology being introduced everyday, the inner pockets of the suit will increase to accommodate them. And judging by the nonchalant versatility exhibited by it over the past 150 years, this too will be a smooth transition.