Tag Archives: man’s three piece suit brief history

Birth of the Three Piece Suit: October, 1666

How did men go from wearing suits like this:

Petticoat breeches, British, 1660. Victoria and Albert Museum; image from Boucher, 20,000 Years of Fashion.

… to wearing suits like this?

Man’s three piece suit illustrated in Esquire, Autumn, 1933.

Suit with petticoat breeches, from Boucher; 1666. You couldn’t have too many ribbons….

There aren’t many changes in fashion which can be dated to a specific moment, but the change from petticoat breeches to the trio of coat/jacket, matching breeches, and a matching or coordinating vest was inaugurated in England on Monday, October 15, 1666. It is considered to be the birth of the Three Piece Suit.

When Charles II was restored to the throne of England after years of Puritanical rule, the king brought with him the extravagant styles worn in European courts.

English King Charles II with his queen, 1662. Source: Cunnington: Costume in Pictures.

In October, 1666, Charles declared his intention to start a new fashion for men. Diarist Samuel Pepys held an official position in government and was present at the court of King Charles II on that day. When Pepys went home, he wrote in his diary for October 8:

“The King hath yesterday in Council declared his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes, which he will never alter. It will be a vest, I know not well how; but it is to teach the nobility thrift, and will do good.”

NOTE: About the word “vest:” The gulf between British and American English may be more confusing than usual, because clothing vocabulary is very subject to change. (For example, a “bodice,” i.e., the top section of a dress, began as “a pair of bodies,” meaning the two sides of a corset.) In 20th c. England, “vest” came to mean a sleeveless undergarment worn by men, while they called the garment which goes over the shirt but under the coat a “weskit” or “waistcoat.” However, in 1666, even in England, although the vest was worn under a coat, a “vest” was meant to be seen, and through the 18th century, a vest might even have sleeves. Perhaps we should think of Charles II’s “Persian vest” as a “vestment” or “clothing” rather than the waist-length garment the “vest” later became, especially in America.

 After a few years in England (and perhaps in a spirit of competition) Charles decided to break with the distinctly un-thrifty French fashions of Louis XIV’s court. (One way Louis kept his nobles from becoming too powerful was by forcing them to live at court and spend lavishly….) Here is King Louis in his petticoat breeches and cropped top:

King Louis XIV receiving Swiss Ambassadors, 1663 painting by Van Meulen. From Boucher’s 20,000 Years of Fashion.

Why a “Persian vest?” The English writer (and courtier) John Evelyn had returned from travels in the East in 1666, filled with enthusiasm for the men’s clothing he saw there. (See Barton’s Historic Costume for the Stage.)

Once King Charles II had declared his intention of starting a new fashion for men, his courtiers literally tried to “follow suit.” On Saturday, October 13, Pepys visited the Duke of York, who had just returned from hunting and was changing his clothes. “So I stood and saw him dress himself, and try on his vest, which is the King’s new fashion, and will be in it for good and all on Monday next, and the whole Court: it is a fashion, the King says; he will never change.”

On Monday, October 15, Pepys recorded “This day the King begins to put on his vest, and I did see several persons of the House of Lords and Commons too, great courtiers, who are in it; being a long cassocke close to the body, of black cloth, and pinked with white silke under it, and a coat over it, and the legs ruffled with black riband like a pigeon’s leg; and, upon the whole, I wish the King may keep it, for it is a very fine and handsome garment.

A gentleman in knee-length coat, long vest, and breeches, 1670. Source: Cunnington.

Fashion — even by royal decree — doesn’t change instantly, but after about 1670, petticoat breeches and short jackets were being replaced by the knee length coat, less voluminous breeches, and a waistcoat or vest that gradually got shorter — in relation to the coat — over the 18th century.

King Louis XIV and Family, painted in 1711. From Boucher: 20,000 Years of Fashion. The King’s vest matches his brown coat and breeches; the man at right wears a brocade vest with a red coat and matching red breeches.

“Attempts have been made to trace to Persia the origin of the coat which about 1670 ousted the short doublet from fashionable wardrobes. It is true that the first coats closely resembled the contemporary Persian garment, which in its turn had not changed much from the ancient Persian coat …. It is true also that Sir John Evelyn returned from Persia in 1666 enthusiastic about the native costume. (Pepys made an entry about it in that year.) Nevertheless it was four years after that date when the new garment actually replaced the short doublet at both French and English courts…. Be that as it may, here was a coat, and the history of masculine dress from that day to this is largely a record of the changes rung up on that essentially unchanged garment.” — Lucy Barton, Historic Costume for the Stage, page 276.

The progress of the three piece suit introduced by Charles II in 1666 is a gradual evolution. The vest gradually got shorter:

The vest or waistcoat of 1735 was still quite long, although not nearly as long as the coat. Cunnington.

This gentleman’s vest is still thigh length in 1785. (Boucher.)

During the French Revolution and the Directory, vests approached the waist. (Kybalova et al: Encyclopedie illustree du Costume and de la Mode.)

In the drawing above, the coat is cut away to show more of the legs — still in knee breeches. But the radical Revolutionaries were called thesans culottes,” because they didn’t wear breeches. They wore long trousers (pantalons.)

A “sans culotte” revolutionary drawn in 1793. Note his wooden shoes, or “sabots.” Source: Kybalovna, et al.

An actor dressed as a revolutionary, dated 1792 by Kybalova.

The coat is cut away to show just a bit of vest (stopping at the waist) and to expose tight, pale-colored breeches. (Cunnington) This is the ancestor of the modern “White Tie and Tails” formal wear.

After the revolution, when there was once again a French court, a gentleman might wear knee breeches for formal occasions and pantalons for more casual dress.

Two gentlemen, circa 1810 1811, from Kybalova’s Enc. illustree du Costume. The vest/waistcoat at right just reaches the waist. The pantalons are very tight.

In this illustration from 1872, Charles Dickens (left) wears a short frock coat with a waistcoat of different fabric and long trousers. Benjamin Disraeli (right) is wearing a suit of “dittoes:” a three piece suit made from one fabric.

Victorian gentlemen. The “suit” could be all one fabric (right) or two or three different fabrics. 1872. Cunnington.

These suits from 1933 came with matching vests. Esquire magazine.

But, for less formal or country occasions, a contrasting vest could be worn:

Gray suit worn with contrasting vest. Esquire, April 1934.

The King of Denmark also wore a contrasting vest — in 1785. (Styles worn at royal courts tended to be slow to change. Knee breeches were still worn at the British court in the 1900s, as this cigarette card from 1911 shows.

Clothing actually worn by King Frederick of Denmark, 1785. From Boucher. (museum photo, Rosenborg Castle.)

There’s a very good article about King Charles II and the introduction of the “Persian vest” here.

Sources for images in this blog post: 

Francois Boucher: 20,000 Years of Fashion

Phyllis Cunnington: Costume in Pictures

Lucy Barton, Historic Costume for the Stage

Ludmila Kybalova et al, Encyclopedie illustree du Costume et de la Mode (1970)

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Filed under 1700s, 1800s-1830s, 1860s -1870s fashions, 1870s to 1900s fashions, A Costumers' Bookshelf, Costumes for the 17th Century, Costumes for the 18th Century, Costumes for the 19th century, Menswear, Suits for Men

A Gentleman’s Morning Coat, 1930’s Weddings

Groom, bride, guest (in checked trousers) Best man (?) and usher. I think the father of the bride is the beaming man with white hair; the man with the blazer and red carnation is presumable a guest. Esquire, June 1934. Pg. 139.

Formal Wedding Party, Daytime Wedding, Esquire, June 1934. Pg. 139.

The "morning coat", or "cutaway" is the most formal daytime outfit for men. "Morning coat" refers to the entire outfit, which includes striped trousers and a vest, etc. Esquire magazine, April, 1934, p. 126.

The “morning coat”, or “cutaway” is the most formal daytime outfit for men. “Morning coat” refers to the entire outfit, which includes striped trousers and a vest, etc. Esquire magazine, April, 1934, p. 126.

In the Spring and Summer of 1934, Esquire magazine ran several articles about wearing the morning coat. The morning coat, or “cutaway” had long been a correct choice for formal daytime events, but in 1936, by royal decree, it officially replaced the “frock coat” as formal daytime clothing in the English court. (I found this date  in Diana de Marly’s book, Fashion for Men. )

In the early 20th century, in spite of the acceptance of sack suits for most business purposes. . .

What the sack suits looked like by 1934. Double breasted or single breasted, they were standard business clothing. Esquire, Feb. 1934.

What sack suits looked like by 1934. Double breasted or single breasted, they were standard business clothing. Esquire, Feb. 1934.

. . . the frock coat was still correct formal daytime wear for diplomats and other men for whom a casual appearance was not acceptable.

A little background on the frock coat:

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1861. He wears a frock coat, vest and trousers. Photo by Mayall, courtesy of V and A museum.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1861. He wears a frock coat, vest and trousers. Photo by Mayall, courtesy of V and A Museum.

The frock coat — and the man’s three piece suit — can be said to have originated with Charles II of England, who abolished the clothing worn at the French court . . .

A french courtier, 1660, from costumer Nicole Kipar's archives.

A French courtier, 1660, from costumer Nicole Kipar’s archives.

and commanded, in 1666, that the more manly “Persian” suit of clothes be worn in his presence. Eventually, the combination of knee length coat, breeches, and vest evolved into normal business wear for men. The 19th century frock coat really did resemble the full-skirted dresses of the 1820’s and 30s….

Frock coat in French Fashion Plate, 1829. Courtesy of V and A Museum/

Frock coat in French Fashion Plate, 1829. Courtesy of V and A Museum

Frock coats, 1828, Journal des Dames. Thanks to TwoNerdyHistoryGirls for finding this plate.

Frock coats, 1828, Journal des Dames. Thanks to TwoNerdyHistoryGirls for finding this plate.

Young lady with gentleman in Frock coat, London, 1861. Courtesy V & A Museum.

Young lady with gentleman in Frock coat, London, 1861. Courtesy V & A Museum.

The photo below, from the early 20th century, shows the King of England, George V (at left), wearing a frock coat, which he favored for official daytime menswear. It was worn by lawyers, bankers, and other successful men, not just at court. He is with his son, Prince Edward (b. 1894, later the Duke of Windsor), who is wearing a formal black or dark gray cutaway.

Left, King George V in Frock coat; right, Edward Prince of Wales, wearing a cutaway or morning coat. Photo: Flash and Footle .

Left, King George V in frock coat; right, Edward, Prince of Wales, wearing a cutaway or morning coat. Photo: Flash and Footl

During the few months when he was king — before abdicating — Edward, who really preferred to wear a sack suit, abolished the frock coat at court in favor of the cutaway, or morning coat. By the 1930s, the bands of braid on the cutaway had disappeared. (Around the turn of the century a cutaway could be part of a casual three piece suit.)

During the early 1930’s, Esquire treated its readers to at least two articles about the morning coat — timed for the Summer wedding season. (On June 3, 1937, Edward, now the Duke of Windsor, was married — appropriately, in a morning suit.)

This ad from men’s clothier Rogers Peet shows attire for a wedding:

Rogers Peet ad for menswear. Esquire, April 1934.

Rogers Peet ad for menswear. Esquire, April 1934. (The curvature of the page distorts it.)

Esquire, April 1934, p. 126.

Esquire, April 1934, p. 126.

The Floorwalker at a posh department store. He says, --and think of us when you think of panties," while handing an elderly lady her package. Esquire, April 1934, p. 32.

The Floorwalker at a posh department store. While handing an elderly lady her package, he says, “–and think of us when you think of panties.”  Esquire, April 1934, p. 32.

Esquire felt obliged to explain that — even though classy store employees wore them — there really was justification for a gentleman to buy a set of morning clothes.

Reasons to won a morning suit, Esquire, April 1934.

Reasons to own a morning suit, Esquire, April 1934.

The "morning coat", or "cutaway" is the most formal daytime outfit for men. "Morning coat" refers to the entire outfit, which includes striped trousers and a vest, etc. Esquire magazine, April, 1934, p. 126.

“Morning coat” refers to the entire outfit, which includes striped trousers and a vest, etc. Esquire magazine, April, 1934, p. 126. Illustration by Fellows.

Article from Esquire, April 1934. p. 126. It refers to the image at top of this post.

Esquire morning coat article, April 1934.

Esquire morning coat article, April 1934.

vest 1934 april p 126 wedding morning coat clothes formalwear color image fellows illus

In June, Esquire spelled out the groom’s obligations regarding gifts to the ushers, flowers, and how to avoid blunders when dressing for a formal daytime wedding — with many choices of gray, white, or natural linen waistcoat, and a variety of collars and ties.

Wedding Etiquette and Dress Article by Sturart Howe, Esquire, June 1934.

Wedding Etiquette and Dress Article by Stuart Howe, Esquire, June 1934.

Illustration accompanying Esquire's June article on clothes for a formal wedding, p. 139.

Illustration accompanying Esquire’s June article on clothes for a formal wedding, p. 139.

Which man wears wears what at a formal daytim wedding. Article from Esquire, June 1934.

Which man wears wears what at a formal daytime wedding. Article from Esquire, June 1934. Pg. 138.

I believe that the man with a mustache, standing left of the bride, and wearing a white vest and stiff wing-collar shirt, is the groom, partly because his boutonniere is lily of the valley, rather than a white carnation or gardenia.

The groom is responsible for flowers worn by the usher, et al. Esquire, June 1934, pg. 138.

The groom is responsible for flowers worn by the ushers, et al. Esquire, June 1934, pg. 138.

Gifts from the groom to the ushers, et al. Esquire, June 1934, pg. 138.

Gifts from the groom to the ushers, et al. Esquire, June 1934, pg. 138.

Waistcoats/vests to wear to a wedding with your cutaway or morning coat. Esquire, June 1934. p. 138.

Waistcoats/vests to wear to a wedding with your cutaway or morning coat. Esquire, June 1934. p. 138.

Wedding guest in cutway coat and spats. Ad for Talon zippers, Esquire, April, 1934.

Wedding guest in cutway coat,with spats over his shoes. Ad for Talon zippers, Esquire, April, 1934.

The wedding party wears spats, too:

Groom, bride, guest (in checked trousers) Best man (?) and usher. I think the father of the bride is the beaming man with white hair; the man with the blazer and red carnation is presumable a guest. Esquire, June 1934. Pg. 139.

Groom, bride, guest (in checked trousers & shoes with light colored tops). An usher in white-striped trousers. Is that the best man wearing herringbone trousers and a wing-collared shirt? Esquire doesn’t mention him. I think the father of the bride is the beaming man with white hair and two-button cutaway; the man in the blazer, solid gray trousers, and red carnation is presumably a guest, not part of the wedding party. Esquire, June 1934. Pg. 139.

For the man whose social schedule did not include participating in the Easter Parade, attending Royal Ascot or signing treaties, there was another occasion, besides weddings, when a morning coat could be worn:

Cartoon by Hoff, Esquire, June 1924.

Cartoon by Hoff, Esquire, June 1924.

There is an excellent history of the morning coat at the Morning Dress Guide blog, with the added advantage of a European point of view (and photo collection) from its author, Sven Raphael Schneider.

Even in the thirties, when many men owned a tuxedo to wear to dances, nightclubs, dinners, concerts, and the theatre, morning dress was more  likely to be rented than purchased, in spite of Esquire‘s advice.

P.S. What would costumers do without Stacy Adams shoes? This company still sells black shoes with white tops, although they have snaps, rather than buttons…. The Gentleman’s Emporium has a surprisingly wide selection of spats.

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