The rise of wool

When wool formally became mainstream in menswear

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Once a fibre worn by peasants, today wool has rightfully cemented its place in menswear fashion.

1920s cricket outfit

19TH CENTURY MENSWEAR

King Charles II of England, in 1666, inadvertently introduced the precursor to the modern day suit when he took to wearing a vest (later known as a waistcoat) beneath his loosely fitted coat and over a pair of breeches. The effect was rather like a three-piece suit. The intention was to encourage restraint and impart a bit of gravity in men’s dressing following 200 years of opulence when men’s clothes were made from luxurious silks (often lavishly embroidered), silk velvets, brocades, fine cottons and linens (and furs).

Wool garments were not popular with the rich because, at this stage, wool fabric was generally coarse in weave, dyed in sombre colours and worn by peasants and labourers. Wool fabric had many qualities that appealed to the lower classes: it was readily available, easily spun and easy to hand sew, and most importantly, it was resilient.

After King Charles died in 1685 and for the next 50 years or so, men’s clothes continued to be made of silk. But, for the first time, ‘great coats’ made from wool came into fashion and were worn by any man who could afford one. These coats fit loosely so that they sat comfortably over a number of layers of clothing.

Throughout the 18th century, men continued to wear a coat, vest and breeches, but a preference for fabric that suited the new, less formal and active man meant wool was far more appropriate than silk. The cut of each element of the ‘suit’ also underwent stylistic changes. Out went the elaborately embroidered silk formal attire and, by the end of the century, in came tailored woollen coats and vests incorporating a more casual style. For the first time there was a distinction between formal wear and everyday wear.

Men had definitely become more conservative in their dress.  Wool clothes perfectly expressed this sobriety and standardization. Wool fabric was finely woven now due to advances in spinning and weaving techniques as well as with dyeing. Fine wool garments for a man in the late 18th century was a nod to his wealth much like luxurious silk was for a man in the last century.

Travelling cape from the 1860s

During the Regency era in England, early in the 19th century, Beau Brummell, an English Dandy, was the arbiter of men’s fashion. His suits, made of fine wool by tailors located in Mayfair in London (bespoke tailoring would later be established in this area on Savile Row), were impeccably tailored to flatter his fine silhouette. Brummel’s knack of looking impossibly fashionable with seemingly little effort influenced men and how they dressed. ‘Casual’ became the new emphasis in men’s attire.

Throughout the Victorian era, men’s fashion evolved continually. The suit coat went from being formal and cut high in the front to show off the white waistcoat beneath to a more casual frock coat that came in a single or double-breasted front with a seamed waist and knee length skirt. The morning coat with a cut-away skirt, originally worn by men pursuing outdoor activities before it became mainstream attire, replaced the frock coat later in the century. Full trousers gradually replaced breeches. Grey and black became the dominant colours with black being used for the jacket and grey for the trousers.

By the late-1860s, the loose, knee-length sack coat was introduced. Unlike earlier coats, the sack coat was worn with matching waistcoats and trousers. Officially, the modern suit was born. Long gone was the use of luxurious silk for men’s suits. Wool was now the staple fabric.

20TH CENTURY MENSWEAR

The 20th century saw the shape of men’s clothes change according to fashions of each decade. The growing middle class (as well as affordable, mass-produced suits) helped influence this change.

Baggy, single-breasted jackets worn with high-waisted and wide-legged trousers were popular in the 20s. The style was coined ‘Oxford Bags’ and was the first fashion craze of the century.

The 30s saw a softer look to suits and was called the ‘London Drape’. Sleeves of the jackets were tapered as were trouser legs. The 30s also introduced the ‘British Look’, bespoke tailoring inspired by suits made by Savile Row tailors. Stores such as Montague Burton (Burton’s still exists) introduced the concept of ‘Multiple Tailors’ and offered made-to-measure suits alongside mass-produced ones. For the first time, rich and poor dressed alike thanks to the availability of well-made suits made from quality fabrics at inexpensive prices.

During World War ll, wartime austerity meant wool and clothes were strictly rationed. ‘Make do and mend’ ensured men’s suits lasted the duration of the war. When new suits were made, ‘minimal’ was the key word. They were devoid of pockets flaps, the number of buttons was kept to a minimum, and trousers had pleats instead of cuffs.

Post-war and for the next 30 years, iconic styles defined the decades. Film and music stars helped fan their popularity including Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and ‘Teddy Boy’ style, Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack immortalizing the ‘Italian Look’ which morphed into the ‘Mod’ look which became synonymous with The Beatles.

Pierre Cardin, early-1960s

The 70s saw wide lapels and low cut trousers, sometimes skin tight with wide flares. Often labelled ‘the decade taste forgot’, suits in the 70s confidently used wool fabrics with bold weaves and colours. Actors such as Jack London in Hawaii-Five O wore them with aplomb.

Paul Smith, Hugo Boss, Ralph Lauren, among other style arbiters, glamourized the suit in the 80s. Their penchant for tailored suits in fine wool fabrics with elegant weaves and textures and expensive looking colours suited the affluent, working man. But, suits were now more than just work wear. They were fashionable.

Today, menswear designers such as Thom Brown and Dolce & Gabbana are playing with the masculine silhouette and even challenging the classic ‘three-piece suit’ philosophy. They are successfully referencing the past and cleverly reinterpreting historical elements to create 21st century classics. Now that menswear is back on the fashion radar, the suit will be reinvented for years to come.

Information for this story was sourced from these books which are also wonderful reference books on men’s fashion:

  • What People Wore, A Visual History of Dress by Douglas Gorsline, Bonanza Books
  • ABC of Men’s Fashion by Hardy Amies, V&A Publications
  • ManStyle/Men+Fashion, National Gallery of Victoria
  • Sharp Suits by Eric Musgrave, Pavilion Books

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