The antique uniform of business

Men's business suits - a jacket, shirt, tie, trousers, and often a vest - have been around for almost two centuries. Suits haven't changed much.

The modern suit sprang onto the scene in the early 1800s because of two things: the interest in classical form, and the invention of the tape measure. People started to view the male body as having a particular shape: wide at the shoulders, tapered at the waist, slim hips, with proportioned arm and leg lengths. This idea came from looking at ancient Greek drawings and sculptures of idealized male figures.

The invention of the tape measure in 1820 meant that tailors no longer had to keep notched tapes for each customer. The notches marked various measurements.

Now, tailors could mass-produce ready-to-wear suits to fit anybody by following the classical notion of proportion and using a tape measure. Alterations might be needed, but now every man could buy a suit for special occasions.

The suit became a uniform for Western leaders and businessmen about 1900. Today, many women also wear suits - jacket, blouse, skirt, even some kind of tie - to the office.

Lapels have changed in width over the years, but most lapels still have notches cut in them. The notches were so the back of the collar could be flipped up while the rest of the lapel lay flat against the jacket. This was a popular fashion - in the 1700s!

Some suit trousers have cuffs, an innovation credited to British rugby players of the 1860s. The "turn-ups" were so their trouser legs didn't drag in the mud. The Prince of Wales popularized cuffs in the 1920s.

Button-down shirts were also inspired by sportsmen. Polo players added the buttons so their collar points wouldn't flap in the wind.

And the tie? In the 1660s, a regiment of soldiers from Croatia visited France. King Louis XIV liked the brightly colored silk scarves the soldiers had tied around their necks. He created a regiment of Royal Cravattes who wore such neckties, or cravattes, from the word "Croat."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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