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Do Suits Still Make Practical Sense?

The evolution of the suit

Though probably not a sound business decision, I thought it might be fun to discuss the fact that the suit is an outdated article of clothing that has no practical use in the 21st century. Its features are vestigial remnants of military regalia, equine transport, and the excessive trappings of the upper crust from bygone eras. It’s survived war, famine, depression, beatniks, rock & roll, the nineties, casual Friday, casual Monday through Thursday, and many other potential deathblows. There are several reasons that the suit hasn’t completely vanished.

  • Tradition is probably the most obvious reason. The idea of jeans and a t-shirt in court still seems impossible, even in the era of athleisure. I’m not sure who would even pass down the decree that the courtroom was going casual. (Side note – this scenario always reminds me of the classic contempt of court scene in My Cousin Vinny.) 
  • A nicely tailored suit is a flattering garment. ZZ Top said it best – “every girl’s crazy ‘bout a sharp dressed man”. Definitely not every, but certainly many. 
  • To the younger generations in particular, suits carry a certain mystique and nostalgia for a romanticized past. With an abundance of period-piece shows over the last decade, it’s hard not to admire the wardrobes. Much has been made of the influence that Mad Men had on men’s style in recent years, but shows like Downton Abbey and Boardwalk Empire have also added to the collective yearning for the pomp of yesteryear.

Because the suit has existed for over a century in similar form, most people wouldn’t put much thought into how the design relates to the function. Like the human tailbone, men’s dress clothing has vestigial features that no longer serve a purpose and are merely historical remnants. Let’s take a look at some of them.

 

LAPELS

The majority of suits today have notch lapels, which refers to the notch of fabric that’s missing at the point where the lapel meets the collar.

Notch collar

Prior to the mid-Georgian Era, jacket collars were seldom folded down as they are today. Lapels were sometimes folded over, but were originally designed to close at the top of the jacket.

GEORGE III

Collars are occasionally worn up, or “popped” in the modern era, but are generally intended to be worn folded over and flat. Because the notched-out piece doesn’t usually go all the way to the inner edge of the lapel, if the collar is popped, the lapel also has to be popped. Here’s an example of a jacket designed to allow the collar and lapel to move independently:

Popped collar jacket

This ability is rare for suits and sport coats, but more common in overcoats such as Ulster and Pea coats, where the function of being able close the front of the jacket is ideal for use in cold weather. Here’s an Ulster coat that we made last winter:

Ulster coat

 

LAPEL BUTTONHOLES

Just about everyone seems to know that the function of the lapel buttonhole, adjacent to the notch on the wearer’s left side, is for use with a boutonniere – however, that’s not actually the case. Boutonnieres are attached on the face of the lapel with pins and the buttonhole is not really used in any way. Some men will put a single flower or silk flower through the hole, but that is also not the original purpose of the buttonhole. Ironically, its purpose is in the name – buttonhole. The function is somewhat obscured by the fact that it’s missing its raison d'être, namely, a button, which would normally live on the opposite side of the jacket as the buttonhole. In the past the button was present:

Proto lapel

Because this jacket is technically double-breasted, the button is on the front of the jacket rather than the lapel, as it would be with a single-breasted jacket. From what I can tell, the transition from popped to folded down happened right before the advent of photography, so I couldn’t find any pictures. However, the above painting does serve pretty well to show the evolution of the lapel. By unbuttoning the top button, the wearer has created a proto-lapel.

 

VENT AND BUTTON ETIQUETTE

Most men know that you’re not supposed to close the bottom button on a suit, but few know the reason why. I’ve heard various explanations over the years, including that it makes it easier to draw your sword and that King George IV was not able to close his bottom button on account of his ample girth and everyone else having to follow suit (no pun intended). Neither of those explanations sway me, however. The most likely reason is that leaving the bottom button unfastened allows the front of the jacket to open sufficiently for riding a horse, which is also probably the purpose of the vents in the back of the jacket.

FDR riding a horse

In the above image you can see the vent on the back right side a young Franklin Roosevelt’s jacket hanging over the horse. It’s hard to say whether he has the bottom button undone or whether the jacket just has very high buttons, which was, and still is, commonplace in equestrian clothing. When riding a horse, a high button stance is useful because it allows each half of the front of the jacket to fall to its respective side over the saddle without the necessity of unbuttoning the bottom button.

 

SLEEVE BUTTONS

Almost all men’s suits have buttons on the sleeves and most have faux buttonholes as well. Custom suits generally have functioning buttonholes, where the buttons can be unbuttoned:

Functional buttonholes

Today, working buttonholes serve more as a signal to others that you have a high-end suit, but they don’t have much use value beyond that. In the past, being able to unbutton your sleeves allowed you to pull them up to keep them from getting dirty, which is why they’re sometimes referred to as “surgeon’s sleeves”. (Note: if your surgeon does this today, find a new surgeon, preferably one in a fresh pair of scrubs). It was also briefly trendy in the 1980s to roll-up your sleeves, à la Don Johnson (Miami Vice attire is deserving of a blog post of its own):

rolled up jacket sleeves

You’re unlikely to hit upon a “look” that’s more intimidating to bad guys.

It’s quite possible that this jacket doesn’t have buttonholes at all and the bagginess allowed him to roll up his sleeves, but in almost every other era of men’s clothing, this would not be possible without unbuttoning the sleeves.

 

POCKETS

Most of the pockets on a jacket don’t have a dedicated function, but some jackets have a small pocket above the standard flap pocket on one side, called a ticket pocket:

ticket pocket

Its original function was to give men a pocket reserved specifically for their train tickets to avoid fumbling around looking for their ticket in one of the many other pockets.

No ticket!

Some trousers still have a coin pocket (coins are small metallic disks with monetary value, normally stamped with a dead man’s face on them) located just below the waistband on the right side, as do most blue jeans, sewn inside the standard right hip pocket. Though we still technically use coins, I doubt many men use the coin pockets these days.

Just because something no longer occupies its original function, doesn’t mean it’s useless. Cars still have gloveboxes, even though most people no longer wear driving gloves. I’d even argue that the glovebox is more likely to contain loose change than a coin pocket and that a lawyer is more likely to have surgeon sleeves than a surgeon. And though no longer truly necessary, suits do still serve one very important function – keeping your friendly neighborhood clothier in business.



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