Where Did Business Suits Come From?

Posted: Jul 23 2012

by Emily Chertoff
dated: July 23, 2012
SOURCE: The Atlantic 

How a British king and a Los Angeles race riot gave rise to modern office wear


Good morning, gentlemen. You look lovely today. Is that a peaked lapel I see?

Yes, Casual Friday is four days away. While you carve another hash mark into the wall of your cubicle, wouldn't you like to know the origin of your wool-flannel slave-suit?

This symbol of the American establishment in fact comes to us courtesy of our colonial oppressors! In fact, the suit's prehistory begins in the evolution of court dress in Britain. Until the mid-17th century, sumptuary laws prevented commoners from wearing certain colors, like the royal purple, fine furs, and elaborate trimmings, including velvet and satin. These were reserved for courtiers of various ranks, and sometimes for the royal family alone.


After a nasty outbreak of plague in 1665, the lacy and elaborate court outfits suddenly seemed like a political liability to Charles II, who ordered his nobles to begin dressing -- for a while -- in modest tunics and breeches in your usual office-drab colors (navys, grays, shudder-inducing taupes). This subdued, neutral-looking dress, which made displays of individuality difficult, was a sort of proto-suit. (And so professional!)

From the more tailored garments of the upper-class in the 18th century evolved the morning suit -- an early-19th-century forerunner of the tuxedo, then considered more casual but today used in Britain for royal weddings and other very formal state occasions.

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