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How Men’s Suits Evolved

How Men's Suits Evolved

You would think that a grocery store would be the last place to look for a metaphor about how men’s suits evolved into what they are today. But you would be wrong. Allow us to elaborate…Walk into your average Whole Foods and you’ll see food labeled “Organic” and food labeled “Conventional,” as if organic was some newfangled way of growing food. But the truth is, organic is the way human beings have grown food since the dawn of time.

The Tale of the Tasteless Tomato

Most of the so-called “conventional” tomatoes in the market have been manipulated and optimized for shipping and packaging, not taste. So we end up with tomatoes that are all the same size, shape and color that make them ideal for selling in a grocery store but they are missing one key component: flavor.

To create these tomatoes many growers use industrial agriculture farming practices, genetically modified seeds and harsh chemical insecticides. None of these techniques were available 50 or 60 years ago, yet the label “conventional” is applied to these tomatoes. Meanwhile, uglier, oddly shaped, multi-colored tomatoes like the ones people have been eating for centuries that taste fantastic are rarely found on grocery shelves.

How Clothes Evolved Like Crops

So what is this talk about food and how does it relate to suits? When you look at how suits are made you’ll see a lot of similarities to the ways tomatoes are grown. When tailors first developed suits as a more casual alternative to the morning suits and tuxedos that they had been making, the lounge suit was still the domain of the upper classes. But as Savile Row tailors transitioned from making uniforms and military garments, they began to make the suit more accessible to men who weren’t just the upper crust. By the early 20th century the suit had evolved into a garment that even working class men wore. And all along the way, the suit came from your local tailor who created a garment just for you.

How Clothes Evolved Like Crops

Out of this tradition came tailored clothing terms like “bespoke” (a garment that is “spoken for” because it was made using the body of a particular person as the template) and “made-to-measure” (a garment that is built from a template called a pattern that closely matches the intended wearer and is then further customized to fit the body of a particular wearer).
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Dawn of the Ready-Made Suit

Then came the mass production of suits and the advent of the off-the-rack men’s suit. Using lessons learned from the factory floor, clothing companies began making suits to fit as many people as possible with the least amount of tweaking. In the name of progress we marched headlong into an era where the average guy had little choice but to purchase a ready-made suit off the rack and try to alter it to his liking.

Meanwhile, almost all of the decisions about how the suit would look were taken out of the customer’s hands. Color and pattern choices were limited to what was available at the local men’s shop. If your style didn’t align with the aesthetic of the suit makers, tough luck. In an effort to make suits palatable to the widest range of men, individual elements eroded away. Gone were the details like ticket pockets, accent stitching and hacking pockets. Buttonholes that used to be functional were made purely decorative to cut factory costs. The modern off-the-rack suit and its purveyors slowly killed off the traditional choices and details that had let men be active participants in their own style. Like the tomato that is optimized for the seller’s purposes and not the buyer’s enjoyment/nourishment, the suit had been optimized for mass-production. And like the industrial tomato, the mass-produced suit often suffers from a lack of flavor. It’s no wonder why you see guys going around in lackluster suits that don’t fit. Men’s suits have largely been de-fanged. That is not to say that there are not some shining examples of style out there available off-the-rack. There are some, for sure. But, market forces make it nearly impossible to mass-produce a suit that fits well and includes all of the personal touches that used to be available to men back in the days of hand tailored suits at a reasonable price.

Dawn of the Ready-Made Suit

Recently the tide began to turn. And that turn was spurred by an unlikely development. While the march of progress led us down the road to off-the-rack sameness, progress of a different sort might lead us back from the brink and toward more personal style. Made-to-measure suits are enjoying a comeback that has been fueled by the power of the web. Instead of optimizing for the seller’s needs, Internet-based made-to-measure suit makers have begun to optimize for the buyer. By stripping away all of the intermediaries and connecting men directly to the people making their suits, online made-to-measure suit brands have been able to create truly custom suits in the tradition of the tailors of yesteryear. So while off-the-rack suits come off the line like conventional tomatoes, men can now get suits that are truly their own just like the way their forefathers did.

How a Made-to-Measure Suit is Different

When you order a made-to-measure suit from Black Lapel you give your measurements to a master tailor who selects a pattern to start with and then adjusts for your frame by tweaking for things like your back shape, shoulder type, overall body shape, any asymmetry you may have (i.e. one shoulder sitting lower than the other) and, finally, your fit preferences. This process requires hand work to give your suit the individuality you should expect from a made-to-measure suit. These are the kinds of things a man’s tailor used to know about him and account for when making his garments.

How a Made-to-Measure Suit is Different

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3 thoughts on “How Men’s Suits Evolved”

  1. Eric says:

    When I click on the link to look at your suits the link seems to load and then all I see is a white page.

    1. Black Lapel says:

      Yikes, wrong link! Our mistake. Thanks for noticing and here, let me make it up to you: https://blacklapel.com/shop/suits/ 🙂

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