Book review – The Suit: Form, Function and Style

Wednesday, August 3rd 2016
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In the sixteenth century, a man commissioning a suit would largely do so through an agent, who would interact with several parties - of which the tailor was just one.

They would talk to the cloth merchant, the button merchant, and the embroiderer, bringing the necessary supplies to the tailor and overseeing the work with the fashions and style of the day in mind.

[This happens a little more these days, with the ultra-rich arranging their clothing and appointments through an advisor or concierge.]

The tailor's role was not a prestigious one.

A Venetian trade guide of the time suggested that: "Making clothing is nothing more than draping cloth over a person and cutting away the excess and that is how the garment is made. Afterwards anyone can add decoration and therefore tailors always learn from their customers and carry out whatever task they ask for and nothing more."

I don't recommend quoting this to a cutter on the Row.

A client consults the tailor while workers adopt the traditional sewing postures, sitting cross-legged on a bench. Dutch artist Quirijn Gerritsz, 1661

The historical tailoring titbit comes from The Suit: Form, Function and Style by Christopher Breward, which was published by Reaktion Books earlier this year.

My review of it is a little tardy, but I do like to read a book before writing about it (something publishers don't always understand).

Breward goes on to explain that the role of the tailor gradually changed through the 17th and 18th centuries, as they "achieved greater professional independence and commercial clout".

Eventually they even earned the right to buy cloth themselves. Just imagine.

At this point the history of tailoring got more interesting, with the increased circulation of pattern books, and the later introduction of the tape measure - something only seen as useful when measuring and cutting techniques became standardised.

William Fielding painted by Van Dyck, showing the influence of India in male dress, 1633. As Breward points out, this 'paijama' predates Charles II's reform of court dress, and is in some ways a foretaste of the two-piece suit to come

The history of the suit has been told many times before, and The Suit touches on many familiar areas. But Breward fills the book with many original points (as above) as well as bringing an academic rigour to the subject.

Breward is Professor of Cultural History at the University of Edinburgh. I have interviewed him on a couple of occasions in the past, for The Rake and the Financial Times, and his is often a cultural view of the topics of fashion and tailoring.

In The Suit, for instance, he is particularly good at tracking how office wear has become more casual, with the introduction of dress-down Fridays and the 'smart-casual' dress of chinos and polo shirts.

He digs up a rather pithy leader from The Times in the year 2000, which pointed out that such dress-down clothes are just as restrictive as the 'stuffy' suits they aim to replace, despite pretensions of being 'free' and comfortable. "If sartorial snobbery has really been cast aside," it asks, "why is it acceptable for a businessman to wear a polo shirt ... but not a shiny football shirt?"

If I have any criticism of The Suit, it is that Breward can drift into a rather academic style, using five sentences when one would easily do. His contemporary quotations and references often stand out by contrast.

Still, I would still heartily recommend the book to anyone interested in suits or tailoring. We can throw out all but one of the picture histories, full of the same images of zoot suits, bum freezers and Armani, and keep just that book and this.