The Fall and Rise of the Suit—mid-60s to 1970s

“‘The increasingly casual body positions and poses adopted by young people are obliging garment manufacturers to design clothes differently […] certain gestures that violate the code of accepted behavior—like putting one’s hands in the pocket of one’s jacket—mean that finishing touches have to be completely revised.’”

le Journal du textile, 1970[1]

 “‘Is Bob Dylan wearing a tux? That’s it, the sixties are over.’”

— Michael Kinsley, editor, Slate[2]

If it was difficult to characterize the styles of the sixties, then aptly characterizing the seventies is all but impossible impossible. Toward the end of the 1960s, social and economic climates started to lose their sense of optimism, while unemployment and inflation (especially in Britain) continued to rise.[3] And while the years immediately following the “swinging sixties” have been accused of “lacking direction,” “in fact it was this period which paved the way for the stylistic pluralism of the present day. Individuality and self-expression were paramount.”[4] During these few years, the suit as we know it vanished and came back; myriad streetwear styles changes nearly daily, infused by the looks of different cultures and different minority groups. Designers replaced tailors, and seasonal shows set the trends for those who cared or could afford to follow. Finally, nostalgia following the “swinging sixties” brought back the dinner jacket and more in semi-familiar forms.

Designer Fashion and the Disappearance of the Suit

“‘A suit should move when one moves and, when one stops, should fall as though made of wood.’”

— Gilbert Féruch[5]

The growing influence of designers had been noted already by the mid-sixties—and Pierre Cardin was probably the most influential menswear designer of the era. In the early sixties, Cardin was associated with two “revolutions”: first, the renewal and acceptance of ready-made suits thanks to impeccable styling, and second, clothes’ new function as status symbol due to their designer’s label. However, starting in the mid- to late-sixties, Cardin was responsible for another “quiet revolution”: “tailoring concepts behind suits were called into question by traditionally-trained yet experimental tailors. […] systematically changing the stuffy suit while seeking to ‘rethink’ and ‘reconstruct’ it.”[6] Cardin, along with like-minded designers Gilbert Féruch and Michael Schreiber, tried numerous “little revolutions” to bring the suit in line with modern fashion. Probably the most successful (though short-lived) attempt was the Nehru jacket, inspired by Orientalist obsessions. It was a slim, smooth, and rather long jacket often featuring bold graphic patterns and always known by its short, stand-up collar eliminating the need for a tie or other neckwear. [caption id="attachment_192" align="aligncenter" width="293"]Cyrus_small Reza Pahlavi II - late Crown Prince of Iran wearing a Nehru Jacket[/caption]   Designers worked to remove the linings and interlinings of jackets so that these new creations could flow freely. They developed “suits” inspired by work clothing with minimal collars and broadly boasting all that had previously been masked by tailors’ art: metal buttons, piping, double seams, patch pockets, and more. They constructed suits primarily out of jersey—a soft, comfortable, wrinkle-free fabric requiring little (if any) lining. Their suits were bold, daring, ultra-modern. Like-minded Jacques Esterel is “famous for having been the first designer in France to encourage men to dress as women, putting an unexpected twist on the unisex idea”[7]: he created a “skirt-suit” resembling a kilt and opening to reveal a jacket plus Bermuda shorts. Unfortunately, rather than revolutionizing the suit, Esterel and others succeeded instead in destroying its ubiquity:

All these little revolutions, from Nehru jackets to jersey and from visible seams to the elimination of underlinings, ultimately served to undermine the business suit rather than to illustrate its adaptability. For it was no longer just adolescents who were disaffected. A suit was becoming a highly occasional item of dress for many men under the age of forty.[8]

Even for the most mainstream of businessmen, the suit as we know it had become a thing of the past. Similarly, formal attire—even the once semi-formal tuxedo—was nearly unheard of during this period. In addition to designers, fashion was dictated not by the needs of nobles and their affairs but by those of people in the street.[9]

Counter-Culture Street Style

“‘Down with the Ritz, up with the street!’”

— Yves Saint Laurent[10]

Like the swinging sixties, the end of that decade and the entirety of the seventies were marked by a new set of rules: “Men’s fashion had been set by an elite for a long time. But the rules changed in the early 1970s with the rise of youth, the middle classes, and mass consumption.”[11] Even some of the most prominent designers, such as Yves Saint Laurent, quoted above, agreed with the overall sense of societal empowerment. Add to a disaffected populace facing economic crisis the battle cries of minority groups, societal subcultures, the socially oppressed—and you’re in for a riot of fashion that’s almost impossible to characterize (unless you inaccurately, I think, choose to call it merely “anti-fashion”). African-American and Caribbean clothes and styles worked themselves into [or, perhaps, were appropriated by] “Western” dress.[12] Feminists and gay rights activists displayed a rejection of the Establishment, of Western consumerist society,[13] by borrowing, mixing and matching, cobbling together multicultural “hippie” looks from thrift shops and even like-minded boutiques. Finally—like a lingering remnant of the myriad youth subcultures of the sixties—there were the punks: “the final hurrah of the power of subcultural styles to shock.”[14] Both sexes wore tight black trousers; leather jackets meticulously torn, slashed, patched, and embellished with safety pins, zippers, studs, etc.; leather and rubber accessories mirroring fetish gear, including bondage straps and collars.[15] Like earlier subcultures, punks used fashion as a means of expression—though you might say that where mods’ clothing illustrated their meticulous approach to clothes and style, punks’ clothing illustrated their meticulous construction of a “couldn’t-care-less” image. London served as both origin (in the mid-1970s) and magnet for punks across the world, where shops such as those on Carnaby Street specialized in punk fashion. [caption id="attachment_193" align="aligncenter" width="322"]Johnny_Ramone Johnny Ramone, 1977 at the El Mocambo, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, [foto by P.B.Toman][/caption]Though it might seem irrelevant to our purposes, punks have had an enormous impact on designer streetwear and even high fashion, and their influence continues.[16] Perhaps more than any other subculture style, punks perfected the art of expressing everything through their attire, down to the last safety pin or piercing. Even today, when you go through the ritual of picking out that little something extra to complete your formal outfit—that set of cufflinks, those vintage shirt studs—what you’re really doing is deciding what you want your clothes to express about who you are such that you don’t have to say a thing. In doing so, you’re taking a lesson from the punks—though a very decidedly toned-down one!

Late-70s Nostalgia

“‘All modern design is inevitably a sham.’”

— Pierre Fournier, co-founder of Globe; founder of Hemispheres[17]

[caption id="attachment_194" align="alignleft" width="377"]Bee_Gees_Midnight_Special_1973 (1) Bee Gees on The Midnight Special (1973)[/caption]   However, none of the styles of the sixties of early-mid seventies lasted: “flares,” for example, the chief fashion symbol of the period (pants that were tight around the thigh, widening from the knee downward), were replaced by narrow-cut straight pants as early as 1975.[18] And after such a fragmentation of fashion, “The ‘revival rage’ provided a groundswell of sartorial creativity […] based in nostalgia for a golden, pre-industrial age. Movies supplied a wealth of images from the past, from Bonnie and Clyde to Borsalino, from Cabaret to Lacombe Lucien, and from The Great Gatsby to The Sting.[19] Designers’ rekindled passion for “unstructured” clothes—suits sans padding and lining, jackets without a structured waist, etc.—failed, still, to reach expectations: The goal of unstructured garments was to make suits and jackets lighter and more comfortable, putting an end to the sartorial schizophrenia of white-collar professionals. But the removal of linings and padding as preached several years earlier by avant-garde designers remained difficult to put into industrial practice.To an eye accustomed to well-designed clothing, the results were unconvincing…[20] Still, this was a first step toward a new kind of suit—and even more importantly, perhaps, the first step toward the suit’s return to everyday popularity! And despite the poor manufacturing of these unstructured suits, they did “[transform] the silhouette of the man in the street, endowing him with an unfitted jacket with rounder shoulders, looser armholes, lower buttons, longer lapels and shortened tails—a jacket that reflected a general easing-up and letting-go.”[21] Thus, the suit gradually returned—though its true apotheosis would wait until Giorgio Armani’s masterwork in the early nineteen eighties. Similarly, the dinner jacket—or, at least, something relevantly similar—began to be worn once more at formal events. These “dinner jackets” were made of velvet, like the smoking jackets upon which their originals were based, and they were generally worn with more casual pants.[22] Still, the dinner jacket/smoking jacket’s return—as well as the vest’s regained relevance[23] at the end of the seventies—signaled what might be a new beginning for (semi-)formal wear. [1] Quoted in Chenoune 285. [2] Quoted in Gross. [3] Laver, 266. [4] Ibid., 266-7. [5] Quoted in Chenoune, 280. [6] Chenoune, 280. [7] Ibid., 284. [8] Ibid. [9] Laver, 268. [10] Quoted in Chenoune, 285. [11] Chenoune, 285. [12] Laver, 268. [13] Ibid. [14] Blackman, 242. [15] Laver, 270-1. [16] Ibid. [17] From an interview on Dec. 27, 1991; quoted in Chenoune 290. [18] Laver, 269. [19] Chenoune, 287. [20] Ibid., 292. [21] Ibid. [22] RetroWaste, “Fashion in the 1970s” [23] Ibid.