Once, the very word ‘suit’ was a term of derision. To be called a suit meant being perceived as some grey-clad cog in a corporate machine. Outside of work, men have long worn clothes that were more creative and comfortable than the old, buttoned-up office uniform. Suits, once a sign of professionalism, dependability and, well, money, became visual shorthand for somebody with no imagination. When men’s dress codes collapsed in recent years, the suit seemed to lose its place altogether, weddings and funerals aside – and even that wasn’t for sure.
Now the suit is back – but it’s bolder and (in some cases literally) bigger than ever, embracing new shapes and shades, fabrics and fits. It’s taken its cue from a decade or more of street and sportswear-oriented dressing down and is driving new, more distinctive, less codified ways of dressing up. And, if you believe those in the fashion world, this isn’t just a passing trend before we all go back to dressing like bankers for the 9-to-5. It’s the suit re-defined for the 21st century.
Why The Suit Is Coming Back
For many men, a suit is what was worn to work. It’s about conformity and bureaucracy, so it came to symbolise work, too. These days there are new ideas of smartness in the workplace. So-called white-collar workers can wear hoodies in many businesses and even banks and law firm have softened their old rules around tailoring. The suit looked to be losing its place in society for all but the most formal of occasions, especially as casual dress now favours more streetwear-driven style over tailoring. It may have looked as though the suit was more or less doomed.
“The suit entered this period of mediocrity, of homogeneity that saw it fall from grace,” as John Harrison, creative director of Gieves & Hawkes, explains. “It just didn’t seem to have any reason [to exist], especially with men more free to wear good casual separates or sports-driven pieces even in the workplace”.
Jon Hamm wears a perfectly good suit in 2017, yet the fit, as well as the tie, pocket square and shoes look dated in 2019
But the suit nonetheless survived and it hasn’t just been the spin of the fashion cycle that has seen its return to favour. Instead, isn’t it possible that men have missed that touch of formality, and, perhaps the very masculine codes that the suit embodies? Now, we wear suits outside of work, to socialise in. We choose to wear them, rather than be told to.
This, of course, hasn’t meant that they’ve donned their pinstripe suits for the pub.
“We’ve already seen bolder, stand-out pieces come through in shirting, for example, driven by this desire for individuality, and now the same is happening in tailoring, especially for when we want to make more of a statement, or for a special event,” says Alex Field, menswear design director for Reiss.
“It’s suiting but of the kind you’d wear anything but a shirt and tie with. It’s a super modern, even futuristic kind of suiting you can show your personality through, rather than being a uniform.”
If the suit was once a garment that brought anonymity and closed down self-expression, now it’s the opposite. You stand out in a suit. How much depends onhow far you want to push its design, but the diverse likes of Celine, AMI, Dior, Paul Smith and Raf Simons offer up new fits, billowing trousers, plus materials and colours that Don Draper would cross the street to avoid. In an unexpected reversal of the norms, even streetwear brand Supreme offered a suit last year, in shades of peach or leaf green.
“Look to the runways and you’re seeing suits again but this time they’re looser, more fluid,” says Harrison. “It’s as though cycles in clothing have opened up a new middle ground for those who don’t want the high-tech or logos of sportswear, but don’t want the stiffness that tailoring implies either.”
The New Suit: What Is It?
What might be called the basic blueprint for the suit remains: a jacket with matching trousers; a defined shoulder, a more or less structured chest, lapels. But beyond that formula, there’s a new time of experimentation – in terms of the suit’s use of colour, pattern, to some extent even cut. It’s moving away from that tightly-fitted and crop-trousered Italianate dandy styling and towards something more louche and creative. It’s about retaining shape and definition but not at the expense of ease or comfort.
Look up-close and fabrics are likely to be much more distinctive than the cloths used in more traditional tailoring. They may have been heavily washed or sanded, or garment-dyed; blends – weaving linen or silk into wool, for example – give a more textural and gently creased garment; even some crumpling is now welcome. In fit and form these are the kind of suits to make an old-school tailor wince.
Supreme’s suit from 2018. Notice the relaxed fit and lack of accessories, which give it a contemporary feel
“The challenge now is to make a suit that still looks good, that has a clear form, but which keeps the relaxed feel, and that has to be done through clever cutting,” says Sean Dixon, managing director of Richard James. “It’s harder to do, but it is possible. And it’s necessary. It’s telling that even our serious corporate clients are asking for colour, pattern and softness now.”
The way these suits are being styled is inevitably changing too. “In many ways the interest in tailoring is a natural reaction to the impact of street and sportswear but this time the tailoring has to be new, both in its look and in the typically dressed-down way it’s worn,” says Harrison.
The new suit just doesn’t work with classic brogues and silk ties in quite the same way as their conservative forebears demand. Even shirts are now questionable. You’re more likely to wear trainers and T-shirts, finer gauge knitwear, and eye-catching accessories like scarves and understated jewellery.
The unique wrap-around cut of Michael B Jordan’s Dior SS19 suit removes the usual stuffiness of the double-breasted style
This has been seen before, around the late 1980s and early 1990s, and typically met with a storm of old-guard opposition and tut-tutting. Look to the red carpet though and the exploration of what a suit can be now finds even fuller expression – with prints, embroidery and accessorising. “Eveningwear in particular can challenge many of the established ideas of suiting,” as Harrison puts it.
Print may be a step too far for Dixon, personally, but he concedes that this shift in suiting is not a fashion moment. Rather, it represents a profound shift in the way suiting is being considered. “This is a new era for the suit, one that’s been coming one way or another for a long time,” he says. “Yes, there will always be an appetite for the more conservative suit but the majority will go for the relaxed and interesting. And I’d be amazed if the suit ever went back to its older form.”
How To Wear A Suit In 2019
With Print, Like Timothee Chalamet
Just about the only thing suggesting formality about Timothee Chalamet’s Haider Ackerman suit is that it’s base colour is black. Otherwise the bold, paint splash embroidery – in a high contrast white – signals this suit as the kind that would definitely not work in the setting in which tailoring has historically been worn. Look closer and the suit has a tone-on-tone horizontal stripe through it too. They’re high-shine, but Chamalet’s choice of boots over shoes also keep things casual.
While you may struggle to find such a suit easily, a fresh way to mix up your tailoring is by opting for a jacquard dinner jacket, and wearing it in a more casual way. Keep the palette muted a la Chalamet and pair it with carrot shaped black chinos, a black crew neck knit and sharp, military style work boots.
With Wearable Luggage, Like Chadwick Boseman
Chadwick Boseman is kitted out for an awards ceremony, so wearing a cream suit is a safer choice here than for the real ‘n’ dirty world outside. But, worn as it is – with T-shirt and high-tech brothel creepers – this Louis Vuitton look is proof of how tailoring can be, of all things, sporty. What really underscores this is the holster-style accessory. It’s a lot to wear for the benefit of one phone pocket, perhaps, but it gives this suit – stripped back and light on extraneous detailing – a more futuristic tone.
We’re seeing more and more wearable luggage paired with tailoring, and while not an easy look to pull off, it certainly injects life into the once staid two piece. The key to a sporty take on tailoring is with fabric choice and cut. A holster won’t work over a structured Savile Row suit, but it will over a soft shouldered one cut from jersey or lightweight cotton.
With Knitwear, Like Ryan Gosling
On the face of it, Ryan Gosling’s blue suit is nothing out of the ordinary, even if that more electric shade might not make it work for the office. What sets it apart is what Gosling wears it with. On the face of it, putting a suit over op-art inspired v-neck knitwear shouldn’t work at all – might even be considered a touch nerdy, in fact – especially since there’s no colour co-ordination here either. But doing so clearly dials down the formality of the tailoring (the necklace helps here too). Gosling even rescues the knitwear’s colour by matching it with his black loafers.
If you can’t stretch to buying a new suit – one with a laid back, relaxed cut – then modernise your current one by ditching shirts all together. Wearing knitwear with tailoring is perhaps the simplest way to mix things up, especially when pattern is involved. If opting for a statement knit like Gosling, keep everything else toned down and wear it with a smile.
The New Suit: Why Tailoring Will Never Be The Same Again
It’s back, but not as we know it
Image: Dior AW19