“Suit” in the modern sense of the word was very ambiguous up until the mid-seventeenth century. Though aspects of the suit had existed for many years, there was no clear definition of what constituted one—that is, until the English monarchy was restored following the fall of Oliver Cromwell.
In 1666, Charles II decreed that “in the English Court, men would wear a long coat, a petticoat, a cravat [necktie], a wig, and knee breeches [trousers],” thus finally giving humanity its first modern “suit.”
2. Regency Era (1811-1820)
Influenced by Regency England’s (1811-1820) “arbiter of fashion,” Beau Brummell, suits during this time began to shift away from the extravagant “dandy” styles of the past and into a more subdued style. Instead, suits were well-cut and custom-tailored, generally featured somber colors, and complemented with carefully knotted neckties.
3. Victorian Era (1837-1901)
The Victorian Era advanced the more subdued styling of the previous era, but also made it a bit less formal. At this time, the “modern lounge suit” made its first appearance—still tailored, but with less individual pieces making up the ensemble, and more options for jackets. This is also when the term “black tie” came into formation.
4. Edwardian Era (Early 1900s)
The main shift during the early twentieth century was not that suits became more casual, exactly, but that they were worn so often that to wear one was not much of a statement anymore. Morning coats and “sack suits” (in North America) became standard wear for businessmen and those going about town, and accessories took a backseat to the uniqueness of the suit’s cut.
Delegates meeting at the Treaty of Versailles, seen modeling the shorter suits common of the era.
The time during and between the First and Second World War brought on a number of streamlined changes to suits. While the longer morning coat remained, it was only taken out on very formal occasions; most suits got dramatically shorter. A similar differentiation took place between single- and double-breasted suits—the former became the standard, while the latter were reserved for special occasions.
The post-war era led to some dramatic cuts in the suit industry. Due to rationing of supplies, suit design became even more simplistic and streamlined, with double-breasted suits becoming exceptionally rare. This change influenced virtually all contemporary suits, from the Nehru suit of the ’60s (kindly demonstrated above by Sean Connery) to the one- and two-piece suits of the ’70s, ’80s, and beyond. (There was that whole episode during the disco era when three-piece suits tried to make a come back, but it was quickly squashed by the more conservative general public. Thank goodness.)
The leisure suit had existed since the late-1930s, but never made it outside of the “summer casual-wear for the wealthy” category until the late-1960s. Inexplicably, people thought it was a perfect fit for the culture of the time, and its heyday was the ’70s, when it was viewed as something could be worn in formal settings as well as being fashionable and casual enough to be worn out on the town. Fortunately, people realized that it was horrible soon after, and it died out as soon as we hit the eighties.
The 1980s brought on even further simplification of the suit, with looser-fitting jackets and closely tailored pants taking charge, and a complete retirement of the waistcoat. This decade might also be considered the swan song of the three-piece suit.
These days, the suit has remained relatively unchanged. The three-button, two-piece suit attempted a comeback in the early aughts, but it failed. Tighter trousers and more casual jackets continue to reign supreme. Given the cyclical nature of fashion, though, who knows—maybe we’ll be wearing cumberbuns and puffy neckties again in a couple years.