Shipping to
United States
Words by Mr Colin McDowell

The royal male - be he king or prince - should be very cautious about following fashion. We have only to think of Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales (and nicknamed "Tum-Tum") to see the dangers. He instigated many fashions - not least the Homburg style of hat - only to find them copied in the East End of London, worn by minor clerks, off-duty waiters and assorted likely lads. How regal is that? Even more concerning, Edward Duke of Windsor - the one seduced by Ms Wallis Simpson - was so fashion-conscious he devoted the larger part of a book to the subject. Seduced by the adoration he commanded - at least, before the abdication - he deliberately set out to be a trendsetter; not perhaps the most dignified of occupations for a former monarch.

There is one royal who did have a real effect on men's fashion - and one that is still with us today

But while all this is pretty trivial, there is one royal (a king, indeed) who did have a real effect on men's fashion - and one that is still with us today. I'm thinking of Charles II, popularly known as the "Merrie Monarch" for all the mistresses he had, but probably more accurately described in a poem by the Earl of Rochester as rolling "from whore to whore". Certainly, he had many liaisons, including with prostitutes, the most famous being his long affair with Ms Nell Gwynne, who sold oranges in Covent Garden and caught the monarch's eye. Many historians of a romantic turn have claimed her as his one true love and even believe that on his deathbed his last whispered words actually were "Let not poor Nelly starve". The antidote to such romanticism is again provided by Lord Rochester: "We have a pretty witty king, whose word no man relies on."

King Charles II with English statesman and writer Mr William Temple, by Mr J Parker

So, what did this complex and in many ways rather silly monarch do that is of any value to us today? Literally, he conceived the modern, three-piece suit. Mr Samuel Pepys gives us the tale of the transformation. A diary entry in 1662 reads: "In the afternoon to White Hall? where I saw the king, now out of mourning [for his aunt, the Queen of Bohemia] in a suit laced with gold and silver"; to which he tartly added, "which it was said was out of fashion". Four years later, in 1666, we learn: "The king hath yesterday in Council declared his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes, which he will never alter." Spoken like a true Englishman of the sort who, for centuries, had loathed any change in his fashion for any reason other than sport - pre-eminently hunting, riding and anything involved with killing animals or birds.

The first - and final - declaration of the king's new look is found in an entry in Pepys' diary for 18 October 1666: "This day the king begins to put on his vest? being a long cassocke close to the body? and a coat over it, and the legs ruffed with black riband like a pigeon's leg? It is a very fine, handsome garment." And from that beginning developed a staple of the modern wardrobe: the three-piece suit.

Ms Nell Gwynn persuading the king to build a hospital,
by English School

It had a long way to go, of course. The surcoat (top coat) hung loose over the vest (waistcoat), shorter than the former by six inches, and it became the only fashion - after all, how could it not? And, as we can see from Georgian portraits, it continued as everyday wear with the three-piece suit worn as a woollen or silk coat (or jacket, in today's terminology) with a silk waistcoat, both frequently embroidered, beneath. By then Charles II's innovation had become standard and, although for grand and special occasions the whole outfit was still often made of the finest silks, modern simplicity and wearability were beginning to emerge.

It was the Victorians who gave Charles II's invention its modern look. The vest became shortened and - this was the modernising move - the pantaloons of the 18th century became something very like our modern trousers.

So, that's the sartorial side of Charles II but, even if that is his lasting legacy to today's men, there is rather more to the Merrie Monarch than that. He came to the throne after years of exile in France and other European countries to which he fled when it became clear that his father, Charles I, was to be beheaded. No hope of inheritance there, then. Despite the fact that exile can't be pleasant for anyone - especially one brought up from birth to think that his country is his country - Charles II learnt much about refinement, manners and style from his time in France and we can say that this was one banishment that turned up trumps for us all. The suit has regularised and codified Western male society for a couple of centuries and is still doing so wherever money and power join.