The men's suit had been evolving ever since the seventeenth century, when men first began wearing a coat over a shirt and vest. By the end of the nineteenth century the basic suit had reached the form that we know today, with trousers, sleeveless vest, and coat made from the same material. While suits could take many forms, including the dressy tuxedo with tails and the self-indulgent lounge suit, a loose-fitting suit with longer tails on the jacket, the least formal and most often worn suit was the sack suit. Simple in cut and conservative in style, the sack suit, or three-piece suit, has been the basic suit of the Western businessman for over one hundred years.
The sack suit was very simple, and it did retain its basic form throughout the twentieth century, but this does not mean that it didn't go through a variety of subtle changes as men sought ways to keep up with fashions. In the first years of the twentieth century the coat was buttoned high on the chest, fastened with four buttons, and had a very small collar and lapels, folds on the front of the coats. After about 1910, however, sack suit coats more commonly had three buttons and larger collar and lapels. The neckline dropped and stayed at mid-chest for the rest of the century. Suit coat pockets, typically appearing at the hip line, could either have a simple slit opening or a flap.
Trousers often showed variation in their fit and detailing. The presence or absence of cuffs and the presence and sharpness of creases and pleats were both areas where fashion made its influence felt. The most dramatic changes came in the fit of the trousers. In the early 1900s trousers were loosely fitted, but the peg-top craze of 1908 through 1914 saw men's trousers get baggy in the hips and very slim at the ankles. After World War I (1914–18) trouser styles straightened out once again. Men could show their personal sense of style most easily with the vest. Vests might be worn in contrasting colors and patterns, with silk piping at the edges and pockets, or with fancy collars.
Men's sack suits were a kind of uniform for men in business, but wealthy or fashion conscious men could make a statement with their suits. They might go to an expensive tailor to have their suit carefully fitted, or they might add stylish details or accessories like a beautiful silk tie or a handkerchief carefully folded into the front pocket. Men's suits became very stylish in the 1930s and 1940s, and in the 1980s men chose expensive suits from well-known designers, called power suits, to display their status.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Keers, Paul. A Gentleman's Wardrobe: Classic Clothes and the Modern Man. New York: Harmony Books, 1987.
Payne, Blanche, Geitel Winakor, and Jane Farrell-Beck. The History of Costume. 2nd ed. New York: HarperCollins, 1992.
Schoeffler, O. E., and William Gale. Esquire's Encyclopedia of 20th Century Men's Fashions. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1973.
[See also Volume 3, Nineteenth Century: Ditto Suits ; Volume 4, 1930–45: Men's Suits ; Volume 5, 1980–2003: Armani Suits ]