Where Did Business Suits Come From?

How a British king and a Los Angeles race riot gave rise to modern office wear


Good morning, gentlemen. You look lovely today. Is that a peaked lapel I see?

Yes, Casual Friday is four days away. While you carve another hash mark into the wall of your cubicle, wouldn't you like to know the origin of your wool-flannel slave-suit?

This symbol of the American establishment in fact comes to us courtesy of our colonial oppressors! In fact, the suit's prehistory begins in the evolution of court dress in Britain. Until the mid-17th century, sumptuary laws prevented commoners from wearing certain colors, like the royal purple, fine furs, and elaborate trimmings, including velvet and satin. These were reserved for courtiers of various ranks, and sometimes for the royal family alone.

Frilly sleeves at the court of Charles II, pre-austerity laws. Hieronymus Janssens, 1660

After a nasty outbreak of plague in 1665, the lacy and elaborate court outfits suddenly seemed like a political liability to Charles II, who ordered his nobles to begin dressing -- for a while -- in modest tunics and breeches in your usual office-drab colors (navys, grays, shudder-inducing taupes). This subdued, neutral-looking dress, which made displays of individuality difficult, was a sort of proto-suit. (And so professional!)

From the more tailored garments of the upper-class in the 18th century evolved the morning suit -- an early-19th-century forerunner of the tuxedo, then considered more casual but today used in Britain for royal weddings and other very formal state occasions.

Royal wedding guests on the left did not get the morning suit memo. (Reuters)

Then came the tuxedo itself. When tailors first developed it in the 1800s, the upper-class used it only for the least formal evening occasions. Anything more elaborate than a Tuesday night at home with the missus called for white tie, even into the early 20th century.

Meanwhile! -- our modern suit has a complex lineage. Savile Row tailors had for centuries been designing military garments, like cavalry uniforms. The tailors also made garments for civilians -- including professionals, like surgeons, who asked for detachable cuffs to avoid blood-stains.

Of course, as we all know, the best way to get people to buy more clothes is to make the clothes look slightly different every year, even though, almost no matter what you do to them, they will perform their key function of making you not-naked. And so tailors introduced design elements from military garments into civilian clothes, elements of evening-wear into daywear -- and vice-versa -- and so on.

And this is where the history of the suit becomes confusing. We do not know exactly who had the idea for the first lounge suit (as our modern suit is properly called), or what he designed it for. But the first one did appear in the mid-19th century, and quickly became both a casual garment for the elite and a dress-up item for the working class.

The stuffy tailcoat, despite its associations with the Victorian era, died a slow and silly-looking death among the upper-classes in Britain and the U.S.

Library of Congress

You can still see it on the Allied leaders in this photo from the end of WWI -- except for the Italian Premier Vittorio Orlando, who is looking chic and raffish in his lounge suit.

Eventually, we Americans figured out how to dress ourselves. This newfangled vestment was so darn easy to wear! It appeared on everyone from cab drivers to business executives, and made all appear polished and professional. Hollywood picked the look up and ran with it.

classic film scans/Flickr

And, though you may find it hard to believe, at one point Americans associated the suit with rebellion. In the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943, young blacks and Latinos in Los Angeles brawled with white servicemen on leave from World War II. The riots were so-called because the former wore "zoot suits" with broad, padded shoulders and a double breast on the coat, plus ultra-baggy-legged trousers that tapered at the ankle. The zoot suits had since the 1930s been associated with black jazz culture, and the riots gave it an air of criminality. The sight of zoot-suited youths on a corner came to terrify the urban bourgeoisie.

Charles E. Young Research Library Dept. of Special Collections, UCLA

That's right: you are part of a proud anarchic tradition! Add a little extra height to that desk chair! And remember: The men of previous generations -- with their loincloths, and sackcloth, and frilly, bejeweled, peasant-angering codpieces -- might have envied you.