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A suit is not always a symbol of repression

Ain't it funny how the suit is back in fashion as the ultimate style statement for men?

Only twenty years ago, we were, depending on your perspective, either mourning or celebrating its demise. A new era of casual wear had arrived, we were told. Farewell to the constricting contours of the suit. Welcome to Friday dressing, death to the tie, goodbye to the cufflink. And so on.

 

I know because I was one of those who cheered the loudest when the suit seemed to have been consigned to the laundry basket of history. And when I see my son, who is in his 20s, now talk longingly about suits, I recognise how much things have changed between his generation and mine.

 

   It is hard to pick a specific date but if you were to ask me when the decline of the suit began, I would say it was around 1967/8. Till then, everyone who mattered wore a suit. Savile Row was the centre of tailoring and even rock stars like The Beatles wore suits: in their case, they popularised the collarless suits that had been designed for them by Pierre Cardin.

 

   But after the hippie-dippy Summer of Love in 1967 and the birth of the Woodstock generation in 1968, men’s fashion began to change. Jackets became more colourful, trousers flared at the calf, ties were thrown away and the suit was seen as a symbol of everything that was boring and repressed about the world.

 

   Even then, of course, there were the smart guys who had it both ways. The Beatles used Tommy Nutter, a tailor who set up around Savile Row, who made bespoke suits for them but made sure that they were cut fashionably, with flares and all the other trend-signifiers of 1960s fashion. If you look at photos of the Beatles from the late 1960s, (the cover of Abbey Road, for instance) you will notice how smart their clothes always were.

 

   In the polyester-dominated Seventies, the suit became something of a joke, the sort of thing that John Travolta wore in Saturday Night Fever. Recession battered Britain and customers drifted away, from Savile Row. Venerable tailoring houses either merged (Gieves with Hawkes to create Gieves and Hawkes) or closed down.

 

   It was not that people did not want to wear suits --- they still needed them for office --- it was that they regarded them as a uniform. Nobody would spend good money on a Savile Row suit when they could buy something cheap and functional from a department store to wear to work.

 

   I reckon the revival of the suit began in that 1980s when the likes of Giorgio Armani re-invented the traditional jacket and gave it a looser, less-structured fit.  By the end of that decade, such companies as Hugo Boss were making jackets with huge padded shoulders and calling it power dressing. Men were now willing to wear ‘a suit’: it just had to seem different from the traditional suit that they had been expected to wear to work.

 

   By the 1990s, when I started appearing on TV every week and had to wear suits, I abandoned my old reluctance and went out and bought some. But even then, the prejudices of my youth lingered. I would not wear typical ‘office-type’ suits. I looked at Japanese designers such as Issey Miyake, Yohji Yamamoto, Takeo Kikuchi (not much heard of those days) and Hiro Matsuda. That way, I could still persuade myself that I was being different.

 

   By the start of the 21st Century a new kind of suit became a fashion statement. Some of the credit goes to the French designer Hedi Slimane who disregarded the advice of his bosses at Dior to “make a jacket that a man can be comfortable in while driving a car " and created a super-tight, boyish silhouette. It changed the style of men’s tailoring forever especially when the high street (Topman, Zara, etc.) adopted it and men’s magazines began offering idiotic advice: “buy a suit that is one size too small for you." Even Giorgio Armani was forced to change his cut to make it tighter (especially for the younger Emporio line).

 

   The TV show Mad Men was also influential. Set (originally) in the late 1950s, it featured men who wore white shirts, thin ties (with tie bars) and gray suits. The cut was totally American (with neither the curvy comfort of Italian tailoring nor the elegance of Savile Row) but it set off another wave of suit-mania on the high street.

 

 "But bespoke suits seemed too expensive to many customers. So some Savile Row houses have embraced the enemy."

   And then later there was Thom Browne who many people regard as a genius but whose clothes I find strange. Browne's suits look like you put them in the washing machine and they shrunk. The trousers expose inches of ankle, the sleeves end too high. But Browne started a trend.

 

   I think my own Eureka moment for suits came fifteen years ago, when I had a long chat with the British tailor Timothy Everest at his workshop in London’s Spitalfields.

 

   Everest showed me how much work went into the making of a good suit, explained why good tailoring was so expensive and spoke with reverence of Savile Row.

 

   By then, the Row had begun to bounce back. Hardly any of the old tailoring houses remained as they once were. Some had been bought and sold several times over (Kilgour for instance, or Huntsman) many had foreign owners (Gieves and Hawkes is Chinese-owned) and some of the better ones (Anderson and Shepherd, for instance) were not on the Row, but in the general vicinity.

 

   Then, there had been the rise of made-to-measure. This was a distinction I had never grasped till Everest explained it to me. When you are measured for a Savile Row suit (a ‘bespoke suit’), the cutter goes off and cuts a pattern corresponding to the jacket and trousers he or she will make for you. Then, the fabric is cut by hand and always stitched by hand. A good suit requires thousands of stitches, many fittings and lots of man hours.

 

   A made-to-measure suit on the other hand is made very differently. A guy measures you, decides what your size is (say 52) and then adjusts the regular pattern to fit your peculiarities: looser at the waist, shorter sleeves, that sort of thing. And a machine then takes over. That's why it is half the price of bespoke.

 

   Savile Row claimed that made-to-measure was a corruption of its tradition. It hated it when machine made suits were called bespoke and sued to protect the term ‘bespoke’. It lost. And so one side of Savile Row is full of made-to-measure merchants while the other has the real tailors.

 

   But bespoke suits seemed too expensive to many customers. So some Savile Row houses have embraced the enemy. They will not only offer a made-to-measure service but will also sell ready-to-wear clothes. Some of their new stuff is okay but the only reason you really need to go to the Row is for bespoke. Better to buy one classic bespoke suit than to buy two made-to-measure.

 

   The tailors on the Row are artisans. Some have worked there for generations. They won’t make you a Hedi Slimane-style tight suit. Each house has its own style. Anderson has a sloping shoulder. Huntsman has a pronounced silhouette.  And they will rarely deviate from it.

 

   Nor will people stop and stare if you wear a suit from the Row. The point of bespoke tailoring is that it should not draw attention to itself. You wear the suit. The suit does not wear you.

 

   If you want fashion, then Tom Ford is the biggie. He charges more for his made-to-measure than Savile Row charges for bespoke. Nor does he claim his suits are hand-made. But he is a brand in the way that say, Henry Poole will never become. (God forbid!) And so, people who don't understand tailoring will pay his prices.

 

   I can’t really afford more than a few bespoke suits so despite my love for the Row and its traditions, I mostly wear off-the-peg suits, usually by Canali. Italian tailoring is different from British. But Canali has always struck me as the best. For one thing, they don’t machine-fuse their jackets. (But’s that another discussion for another column).

 

   My son, on the other hand, like the tightly youthful Armani cuts and displays an enthusiasm for all suits that my younger self would have found baffling.

 

   When I look at young people in suits today I think back to the cover of Abbey Road and the suits worn by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Even while the rest of us were going hippie-dippy, the masters knew the truth. A suit is not always a symbol of repression. It is how you wear it and what you do with it that matters.

 

   Add that to the long list of things I wish my younger self had known!

 

 

Posted On: 30 Aug 2017 07:37 PM
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