Ask Anna: Suits


Why do we wear business suits?

The modern business suit -- commonly known as the “lounge suit” -- began in Britain as a response to sumptuary laws. In the upper class’s aim to retain their refined, exclusive status, they started wearing more well-cut, tailored garments. Meanwhile, the tailors on Savile Row quickly began to learn the value of changing clothing each year: if you produce different clothing seasonally, people will continue to buy new clothes. (Fashion hasn’t really changed a bit, has it?) The tailors began to mix elements of evening and day wear with military uniforms and other specialty civilian clothes to switch things up and get people to keep buying.

frank-sinatra Out of this melting pot of garb arose the modern lounge suit. It became casual wear for the elite and dress wear for the working class. In America, visibly successful men, like Hollywood figures, picked up the garment due to its ease of wear, and it became a status symbol of a polished, upwardly mobile citizen. The suit has remained a staple of businesswear ever since. Even the way that its collar and cuffs frames the face and hands gives a powerful, professional air to the wearer. It is a fashion item that is highly indicative of our social self-identity.

ysl-le-smokingAs for women? Around the turn of the century, it became acceptable for women to wear trousers while doing industrial work. Pop culture helped normalize the trouser and the suit for women during the 30s and 40s – movie stars like Marlene Dietrich were photographed wearing them, and when designer Elsa Schiapiarelli created the shoulder-pad suit, it quickly became apparent that the suit could be an emblem of feminine power as well as masculine professionalism. A few decades later, in 1966, Yves Saint Laurent released Le Smoking, a long women’s tuxedo, which pioneered the rise of the minimalist, androgynous suit. This coincided nicely with the start of second wave feminism. As women became more ambitious and independent, they expressed this through their fashion: boxy silhouettes, wide legged trousers, vibrant fabrics – “power suits.” Essentially, the suit, like any other fashion zeitgeist, is simply a product of history and changing cultural practices and revolutions.