The subcultural evolution of the suit

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We follow the suit on it’s transformative journey through Britain’s style tribes

Throughout its decades of existence, the ever-evolving tailored suit has epitomised key styles and trends in menswear fashion. From the puff-sleeved shirts of the 16th century to the double breasted suit of the 1930s, tailoring and the suited up look, has been at the forefront of menswear throughout the years.

Now, the two-piece dominates the collections and street style of men’s fashion weeks, as today’s upcoming designers modernise the Dandy look.
“Gieves & Hawkes, Richard James and Hardy Amies are the first British names that come to mind when I think of brands that are starting to target more of the younger ‘modern dandy’ client. I think you can really see this within their LC:M presentations and the people that attend.” explained Emily Doran, a menswear designer at COS.

For the original Dandies of the sixteenth-century it was about conforming to social standards and impressing others through the power of dress. Flamboyancy stood for wealth and was regarded as the highest form of masculinity.

Similarly to the sixteenth-century dandies and Edwardians, the Teddy Boys used the power of the suit to exemplify wealth during the 1950s and 60s. As they wore long single-breasted jackets, waistcoats, tapered trousers, brothel creepers and skinny ties, they confronted and forged their social standards through the appropriation of a higher class.

Later on, after an era of anarchy and Punk, a sense of dress-up and individualism hit London’s club scene of the 1980s, as individuals such as Adam Ant, Boy George and David Bowie debuted the New Romantic look. Pussy bow collars, bell sleeves, pirate-inspired jackets, top hats and neckerchiefs were modernised by designers such as Vivienne Westwood and exemplified the uniform of the New Romantics. Styles of the English Romantic period were being reinvented in a never before seen way and flamboyancy was once again masculine.

The conformity of mainstream hyper-masculinity was being broken down and examined as the New Romantic adoption of sixteenth-century dandyism confronted the social norms of menswear.
Clothing had become a medium of political and social communication and has since continued to be. From the relationship between Skinhead and working class sensibilities, to Teddy Boy and New Romantic adaptations of the upper classes, fashion as a means of visual communication has been the foundation of British subcultures and trends over the past decades.

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Grace Wales Bonner. Image courtesy of SSENSE

Today, London’s upcoming fashion designers are returning to politics for inspiration, but this time it’s gender politics.
Since J.W Anderson debuted ruffle shorts and cropped tops for men in 2013, menswear has explored gender fluid styles. Last season, LVMH Prize Winner Grace Wales Bonner, presented suits for men embellished pearls, beads and diamantes, whilst creative director, Demna Gvasalia, brought back the power shoulder to fashion power-house, Balenciaga. The boxy silhouette, epitomised by Grace Jones and Dynasty throughout the 80s, was exaggerated with enlarged shoulder pads, whilst crushed velvet and brocade gave a nod to the opulent dandyism of the sixteenth-century.

As a design classic, the boundaries of the suit are pushed with the addition of details and alterations of shape and silhouette. Today, these revolutionary reinventions of the suit are leading menswear in a modern, extravagant and experimental direction, reflecting the look and ethos of Dandyism.
“I think with tailoring it’s all in the details. Even when designing you experiment most with the details as there’s only a limited amount you can push a suit before it’s no longer a suit. So you play around with buttons, stitches, fabrics, linings.” explains Emily Doran.

Fellow tailor, Charlotte Barber agrees, “You’re already seeing tailoring adapting to accommodate modern technology as well. There are suits that have iPad chargers in them, and I can see the structure of suits changing for other technology, like pockets that balance against other pockets where you have your heavy smartphone. I think, by its nature, tailoring is very adaptable, so it should be perfectly suited to adapt to whatever changes occur in the industry.”

The suit has endured through the various periods of Britain’s subcultures. Youth-led style tribes of the 20th century each reinvented the suit according to their political and stylistic standpoint. Bespoke tailor, Fabio Trambini believes the two-piece to be an identifiable garment throughout the ages of British subculture as well as within today’s society. “You can identify yourself with someone or something you feel connected with, and naturally show that to society. Even if you don’t think about this, you would probably do it unconsciously”, he argues.

As a recurring look, the suit continues to journey through the ages, as millennials are now modernising the two-piece to keep up with current trends and fit their attitude. As the next generation lay their hands on an ever-evolving design classic Trambini believes, “We can update it and change its details but I think its look will and should remain the same. I thinks it’s the industry’s role to keep the suit attractive to all layers of society, young and old. That’s the way to keep it contemporary and interesting for younger people as well.”

Words by Emily Gallagher

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