Men's Suits: Classics Always Come Back In Style

After Two Decades of Flared, Flowered and Flak, Traditional Styling Is Back in Fashion
| By G. Bruce Boyer | From Chuck Norris, Jul/Aug 98

We've gone through our experimental stage, as I believe the great social philosopher Marv Albert put it. For the past 20 years or so, men seem to have experimented with a variety of approaches to their wardrobes. From the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, the menswear industry and the men it serves investigated a variety of, what's the word? Ah, yes--looks. There was the post-hippie look (flowered shirts and matching ties with velvet jackets), the quasimilitary look (flak jackets, safari jackets, duck-hunting jackets), the Milanese deconstructed look (just buy it two sizes too large), the casual Friday look (wear dirty jeans to the office on Friday, get downsized on Monday), to name only the most blatant. Then came what the fashion media hailed as the sartorial look. We used to call it international business dress--well-made suit, well-made dress shirt, discreet tie, well-made shoes--but never mind. The point was, is, that men seem either to have grown psychologically tired of experimenting with a number of nebulous roles or they've gone broke trying to change their wardrobes every six months in a vain attempt to keep up.

Keeping up has proved to be both enervating and expensive, a game for those to whom God has given too much money and too little wattage. The various forms of flamboyance seem to be on the wane. Style and quality are once again holding forth, and classic American, British and Italian styling are what one sees in the shops.

Have you noticed all the new shops carrying classic fare that are opening recently? Manhattan is chockablock with them: Thomas Pink (British shirts), Turnbull & Asser (very British shirts), Harrison James (classic Italian tailoring), Jay Kos (Anglo-American with dash), ETRO (Italian preppy), Holland & Holland (British field gear), Beretta Gallery (Italian takes on British field gear), Aquascutum of London (new shop on Madison Avenue), Dormeuil (with British custom tailor Timothy Everest as design director) and the Richard James shop at Bergdorf Goodman Men's Store (trad Brit in bold hues), are joining such British style stalwarts as Dunhill.

It all goes hand in hand with those touchstones of the good life that everyone is saying will be important in the coming years: service, customization, quality, value, simplicity, exclusivity, retrochic stylishness.

So it's quite natural that there should, under the circumstances, be a return to the classics. The term designates traditional British and American clothes of quality. The British part comes in the styling: suits have jackets with subtle shaping, smaller shoulders and details (ticket pockets, side vents, tapered sleeves and throat latches); trousers are trimmer, with quarter-top pockets and swelled seams. The American part comes in the construction. We've always liked our comfort. The classic American styling, which emerged in the late 1930s and came to be called Ivy League because it originated on campus, is our model: natural-shouldered and soft-chested coats, trousers with no pleats or cuffs, soft-rolled button-down shirts, loafers. American dress has always had a casual elegance. Look at Fred Astaire, compared with all those cardboard counts he used as foils in his early films: button-down shirts and suede oxfords versus celluloid collars and spats.

Today, men everywhere have rediscovered comfort. It's something, amusingly enough, that we have been taught most recently by the Italians. Armani and company have been insisting for the past two decades that fabrics should be lighter and more fluid, and construction should be softer. Cheap clothes achieved this by using crepe and oversizing. Better clothes called for the new super cloths and for hand-tailoring.

Accomplished men want their clothes soft and sophisticated. Forget the unyielding interlinings and inch-high shoulder pads, the porridge-thick tweed and iron-stiff serge. Soft construction and luxury fabrics are the order of the day. Less is definitely more in this case: it's taking things out of the garment that calls for expertise. Anyone can make a suit that has shape, if he doesn't care about weight and stiffness. And anyone can make a suit that's soft, if shape and line aren't important. The trick is to do both.

One of the great truisms of fashion is that "if it's good, it will come back--although not in quite the same form." As it happens, there has been a renaissance of 1960s styles, although the 1998 versions are interpreted in fabrics that simply weren't around in the '60s. Let's consider the suit.

"I think there's considerable evidence that men are once again dressing up," notes British tailor Timothy Everest, who has his own tailoring shop in London as well as being the design director for Dormeuil Private Tailoring Service (with branches in Paris and Manhattan). "After all this fuss about 'casual Fridays' and that sort of thing, many young men have discovered suits, and all the dressy accessories that go with them. And what's all the talk about 'third wardrobes' except the realization that men are again thinking about dressing for specific occasions?"

Exactly. Dressing for the occasion is, after all, a decidedly Edwardian concept. Those pre-First World War years gave perhaps exaggerated expression to the notion that a man's attire should be determined by the time of day--witness all the morning coats, dinner jackets and evening dresses. "I like the sense of correctness the Edwardians had," opines Everest. "There was a sense of propriety and restraint that stood them in good stead. There was never the fear of not knowing what to wear for the occasion--it was prescribed. The problem, in my view, is that it all lacked a sense of the individual, the specific personality. I think we should try for the propriety without the restraint."

That's why Everest takes the 1960s, with its slimmer silhouette, as a starting point for his creations, but prefers much lighter-weight fabrics and a more general sense of individual comfort in his garments. Closer-fitting jackets with a higher three-button closure, and trimmer, cuffless trousers are all part of the picture of conservative elegance. But more colorful and lightweight super woolens are the current mode: a dark brown nail's head suit with burnt-orange windowpane over check, worn with a pale-orange broadcloth shirt and woven silk tie, perhaps best typifies the particular blend of elegance and excitement seen in the new proprieties. Not quite British dandy, but it does herald a serious return to the suit as a showpiece.

It's James Bond we're thinking about now. Not Pierce Brosnan's Italian New Man, and certainly not Roger Moore's flared look. No, it's Sean Connery's Bond that rings the bell today. Connery's tailor for the Bond films was London's Anthony Sinclair, who pioneered what came to be known as "The Conduit Cut" (after the address of his Mayfair shop): lightweight fabrics and interior construction, narrow but shaped, single-breasted, three-button jackets, and trim trousers without cuffs. It was comfortable and, for the times, minimalist. All the gimmickry came with the Aston Martin DB5. The clothes were truly modern and revolutionary: lightweight, simple, uncluttered, trim. Those are the lines along which men's classic clothing has evolved, and this is the sort of thing that speaks to our postmodern sensibilities.

Suits are now showing this elegant British look and influence: a slimmer shape with narrower shoulders and higher armholes, longer lines that trace the body with some subtle shaping at the waist and a flare at the skirt. Single-breasted jackets have a slightly higher three-button stance, as do the two-to-button double-breasteds; details include Connery-like ticket pockets, side vents, trimmer sleeves and lapels. Jackets and trousers sit a bit closer to the body than they have for more than a decade, but they have been made more comfortable.

"I think that's really what it's all about today," says Everest. "Clothes today have to be luxurious and comfortable, exciting and elegant, conservative but individual. Men are demanding more now. They travel more, see more, are influenced by more. Making a statement and dressing for the occasion are once again fashionable."


G. Bruce Boyer writes about fashion for Cigar Aficionado.