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  • Words by Ms Lucy Kellaway

The history of what men wear to the office could be summarised in a sentence: 150 years of wearing a suit, followed by a decade of wearing a hoodie. Yet, if you look closer, it turns out to be more complicated than that. The business suit has a long, unexpected history. Its roots lie in late 17th-century England when, in 1666, out of solidarity for victims of the plague, King Charles II banned his courtiers from flouncing around in lace and fur. So everyone wore tunics of grey and navy and beige instead, and even though the courtiers soon reverted to frills, merchants decided to stick with the drab dress, which was more comfortable and practical.

The lounge suit itself, developed on Savile Row approximately 220 years later, had nothing to do with business at all. The padded shoulders were a hangover from military epaulettes. The buttons on the cuffs were designed for surgeons (who occupied Jermyn Street in London before the tailors), allowing them to fold sleeves up to stop them being splattered with blood. And the vents at the back were borrowed from huntsmen (who required them to sit comfortably on a horse).

While its origins were in London, it took Americans at the end of the 19th century to seize on the suit and make it popular, and slowly the rest of the world fell in line, choosing the matching jacket and trousers as the global business uniform. Although outwardly it has looked the same ever since - give or take a few buttons and width of lapel - inside a lot has been going on. Pockets were added to store train tickets when people started to commute. Additional pockets came in for mobiles. Fabrics were made so that you could take the jacket off, ram it into the overhead locker on a plane, and emerge immaculate on landing. And now you can buy suits with a space for an iPad inside - a pocket much the same size as the one that huntsmen had for storing a dead hare. To see the very latest in clothes for the office, click on the carousel below.

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