The History of the Suit - Part 2 - Covering Up One's Knickers

November 29, 2017

Last month part one covered the History of the suit up to the end of the 19th Century. This month, we are looking at the 20th century up to the 1950s.


The early 20th Century brought a rise in wearing morning coats for business and as late as the 1980s it was still the uniform for Coutts Bank. The morning coat has since been somewhat side-lined, coming out mostly for weddings and formal gatherings, including garden parties and the Royal Enclosure at Ascot.


By the time of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the heads of state wore frock coats for formal daytime meetings and morning dress and lounge suits for informal meetings. By the end of the first world war long coats were out of fashion and the lounge suit became de rigueur as business dress, with the sack suit (a very loose, unstructured suit) becoming acceptable in America.


Between the world wars, lounge suits were worn on all but the most formal occasions, with only older, conservative men continuing to wear old school frock coats. The short dinner jacket that we love today began to replace the old fashioned long "full dress" tails. In Britain, black tie became increasingly acceptable for less formal occasions as an alternative to white tie.


During the 1920s, big statements were made with wider trousers (Oxford Bags) and wider peak lapels, these styles were further exaggerated in the early 30s with very baggy trousers and even wider lapels. Oxford bags were first worn to get around Oxford University's ban on wearing ‘knickers’, which were baggy trousers whose legs are gathered at the knees. Because of their size, Oxford Bags could be slid on effortlessly over the knickers. The style was allegedly inspired by the type of trousers that student oarsmen, wore over their shorts.


Oxford bags were usually worn with a pullover and/or a short jacket. They were made of flannel and came in a range of colours. Some colours were more traditional, whilst some were unique and attention-seeking. A combination of their unusual style and colour made Oxford Bags a fashion extreme of the decade, and they came to symbolise the recklessness of youth.


Fashion and styling started to change more frequently, with trends and preferences shifting from year to year. In 1935 the trend moved towards loose fitting jackets and tapered trousers and by 1940 loose fitting waistcoats became fashionable, with men changing their preference to the double-breasted suit coat at this time.


Throughout the 1940s and 1950s the trend was to simplify and modernise the suit as much as possible. Rationing during and after the war meant that the single-breasted suit came into vogue through necessity.


Next time, we will cover modern times from the emerging freedoms of the 1960s to today’s trends.


Read The History of the Suit - Part 1 - Men In Petticoats


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