To bring a bit of irreverent perspective to the suit, let’s begin with Mark Twain, who had his tailor make 14 identical suits out of white serge, a high-quality woven wool, so that he could wear a clean one every day. He called them his “don't give a damn” suits, but obviously the great writer did give a damn, otherwise he would not have gone to so much trouble.
About 100 years later, another author, Tom Wolfe, also embraced the white suit, only this time it was in the service of premeditated dandyhood. What is it about America authors and white suits?
We can’t answer that question, but we can tell you that by the turn of the 20th century, the three-piece suit was common for travel and everyday wear. Men were expected to wear tails for dinner, but jackets, vests, and pants (in other words, a three-piece suit), with a shirt secured by a necktie, were the rule for daywear.
Since a buttoned jacket with lapels has become a staple of semi-formal wear, many have used the terms “suit jacket,” “blazer,” and “sport coat” interchangeably, yet each has its own distinctive characteristics and history. The most formal of the three is the suit jacket, often made from a fine wool or cotton and worn with matching pants of the same material.
In contrast, sport coats were traditionally tweed jackets used when hunting, riding horses, or other land-based sporting activities and weren’t intended to be worn with matching pants. One early style of sport coat was originally called the Norfolk jacket, and included a belt and buckle around the waist to hold it in place. Other versions have included elbow patches to prevent the sleeves from tearing while participating in vigorous outdoor activities.
Blazers also originated as part of an athletic uniform, specifically the “blazing red” jackets worn by the Lady Margaret Boat Club at St John’s College at the University of Cambridge. Rowers adopted the colorful and boldly patterned outerwear—often featuring stripes, contrasting piping, and large embroidered crests—so that fans could easily recognize their team from afar.
Eventually, all variety of loose-fitting, unlined flannel jackets were called blazers, and the look was appropriated for other sports like cricket and rugby. However, as more fun...
Suit jackets in the early 1900s looked a lot like they do today, with a few important differences. Lounge coats, for example, tended to be single-breasted, while jackets for formal wear tended to be double-breasted, after the look of tailcoats.
Styles were largely codified in the 1930s and have remained virtually unchanged to this day. The main types of suits include the single-breasted two-piece suit, which is simply a jacket with side vents (i.e., cuts at the bottom of the jacket to make it easier to sit down in the suit) and a matching pair of pants; the double-breasted, double-vented jacket with matching trousers; and the single-breasted jacket with a matching vest and slacks.
The exception to this uniformity was the zoot suit, which was all the rage in many urban-American communities in the 1930s and ’40s. These suits featured extra-long jackets with crazy-wide lapels and big baggy pants that were pegged tight at the cuffs. Outsized shoulder pads were also a part of the look, as was a white-banded fedora, often crowned by a feather.
Another exception occurred during World War II, when fashions in general and suits in particular became more utilitarian due to a lack of raw materials. For men’s suits, this meant no more pocket flaps, pants cuffs, or vests—no man wanted to look unpatriotic by wearing anything too flashy or material-heavy.
After the war, with the economy flush and materials in good supply, suits returned to their double-breasted ways, but vests never quite regained their earlier appeal.
All the while, before and after the war, tailors plying their trade on London’s Savile Row stuck to their traditions of creating bespoke, or made-to-order, suits for their well-heeled clients. A bespoke suit is not an existing garment—however impeccable its quality might be—customized for a client.
Bespoke means to start from scratch, without even a pattern. Some of the most famous names on Savile Row include Gieves & Hawkes; Henry Poole & Co.; Kilgour, French & Stanbury; and Anderson & Sheppard.
Still, for most people, the off-the-rack inventory of a number of excellent designers provides the next best thing. Suits by Italian designer Giorgio Armani are often made of linen, silk, and other soft fabrics, giving his suits a polished informality. Valentino, Gucci, Brioni, and Zannetti are just a few of the other highly desirable Italian names, while Brooks Brothers, Ralph Lauren, and Calvin Klein are among the most sought-after U.S. favorites.