Classic as well as Utilitarian, the Three-Piece Suit Is Back--But Did It Ever Really Leave?
G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Denzel Washington, Jan/Feb 98
(continued from page 1)
It's not that men are not in the fashion game, but rather that, in business clothes, God is very much more in the details. At the moment, tailored clothing seems to have struck a moderate balance, midway between the wide-bodied, shouldered look and the hanging lines of the sack suit. The suit of the moment has subtle shaping, low but slightly extended shoulders, and some flair in the skirt of the jacket. Trousers are full-cut, but with a slight taper. The details are decidedly British. Side vents and ticket pockets are on both single- and double-breasted coats. Vests often have lapels and flaps over the lower set of pockets, and with either a five- or six-button front, depending on whether a man wants a higher or lower gorge to show more or less necktie.
With a six-button front, the bottom button is usually left undone (the English tailors call it an "idle" button). Supposedly this practice began when the British king Edward VII grew too large a stomach to close the last button, and other gentlemen of his company slavishly followed the example, whether out of courtesy or because Edward was such a style setter they thought it an appealing touch. Whatever the impetus, the fashion caught on quickly, and leaving the bottom button idle is still considered de rigueur for fastidious dressers. In The Road To Wigan Pier (1937), George Orwell, rather sneeringly I'm afraid, reminded his readers of the English class-consciousness of such idiosyncrasies of dress: Comrade X, it so happens, is an old Etonian. He would be ready to die on the barricades, in theory anyway, but you notice that he still leaves his bottom waistcoat button undone.
Aficionados of the three-piece suit point to its dressiness and unifying aesthetic, as well as to the obvious practicality of a vest easily covering a slightly wrinkled shirt, and having an extra number of pockets in which to carry the various accoutrements of a gentleman: cigar cutter, lighter, etc. But the real advantage of the three-piece suit has always been that the additional vest provides added warmth in cooler weather. We all seem to be traveling more and more, and as we hop from Hamburg to Haifa, New York to Naples, crisscrossing time zones and climes in our global neighborhoods, packing proper clothes becomes a serious problem. What better than a light-to-mid-weight worsted three-piece?
If suits have evolved at all in the past 100 years, it's been in the area of comfort. The modern suit found itself initially saddled with the Victorian idea that dignity was somehow antithetical to personal comfort, and consequently suits were stiff, heavy, cumbersome uniforms; all thick, scratchy wool guaranteed to get respect--like an iron maiden is bound to elicit respect from a prospective tenant.
Today's deluxe superfine worsteds, flannels and even tweeds are half the weight they used to be, and, along with thoughtful tailoring, make the three-piece suit lighter and more supple than ever. Even the most-formal striped beauty has an easy self-assurance that its father and grandfather could only dream of. *
A frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado on the subject of fashion, G. Bruce Boyer is the author of Eminently Suitable. Resources for The Three-Piece Suit
Oxxford Clothes Crit Rawlings for Clothes 212 755-7400
Nick Hilton 212 317-0225
Canali Martin Bradshaw 212 759-6868
Isaia Pat Harrington fax 212 245-4072
Alfred Dunhill available at Alfred Dunhill nationwide stores 800 860-8362
Kiton Pat Harrington fax 212 702-9117
Holland & Holland Nina Rumbough212 752-7755
Southwick Rod Smith 212 459-9299
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