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from lounge suit to tracksuit:

A Century of Men’s Fashion

Has sportswear ever stopped influencing men’s fashion? And what does the future behold? Augustine Hammond compares menswear 100 years ago to the somewhat stagnant menswear of today

January 2019

Looking back 100 years from now, the early twentieth-century marked a time of drastic change in men’s fashion. In particular, the inter-war period saw a total shift in the principles of male dress, disregarding constriction and elevating comfort, a change rather similar to the one menswear, specifically in London, is experiencing today.  As we saw at London Fashion Week Men’s, earlier this month, menswear is saturated with influences from sportswear and designed with ease as a focus. So what has changed?


The years following 1918 witnessed complete social upheaval, the lost generation of post-war Britain became the dominant purveyors of style. Not remembering the war and wanting to detach themselves from the devastation it caused their parents, the lost generation did all they could to counteract the lives of tradition, conformity and patriotism their elders experienced. As rigid social etiquette began to break down and men desired more comfortable garments, a more relaxed attitude towards dress began to evolve, along with a growing interest in contemporary style. 


When thinking about modernity, this is an era we find ourselves constantly referring back to, particularly in regards to men’s fashion. “A lot of drafting manuals we use today are dated back to the 1920s,” expressed a tailor in the Maurice Sedwell shop at number 19 Savile Row last week, “so it seems to be a massive period of change in the way that people are drafting and the way that people are cutting. Tailors are still always looking back to then.” It was a time when many of the proportions we consider “classic” – double-breasted jackets, with broader, sharper lapels, lounge suits and knife-edge creased trousers - were popularized. Since then designers and tailors have tweaked the details but always referenced the styles set out in the early twentieth-century.


At the forefront of this change was the young Prince of Wales, striking in appearance and a romantic figure across the world. Whenever he could, The Duke of Windsor - as he was later known – introduced elements of sportswear and country clothing into his own wardrobe, preferring the ease of knitted sleeveless pullovers to tailored waistcoats beneath his hunting coat, and sporting brightly knitted Fair Isle sweaters with plus fours whilst playing golf at St. Andrews. Most significantly, he made it fashionable to wear a lounge suit, instead of a morning coat or frock coat, in town. London’s Savile Row led the world in men’s fashion and he was their greatest ambassador.


The increasing demand for changes to be made to male dress throughout the 1920s was formalised by the Men’s Dress Reform Party, established in 1929. The Party set the tone for fashion during this period, members wore light opened fronted shirts, jackets-and-shorts suits or breeches made from fine tweed or cashmere, and of course no constricting braces or waistcoats. They aimed t0 convert public opinion and make comfortable dress socially acceptable. The introduction to the Parties’ first report, published in the December 1929 issue of the Sunlight Journal, outlined that, “all change should aim at improvement in appearance, hygiene, comfort and convenience.”


Today men’s fashion is easily relatable - in design philosophy but not in appearance - to that of the Men’s Dress Reform Party and the style of the late Duke of Windsor. The notion of comfort, and primarily sportswear, dictating and influencing fashion has become an increasingly pertinent feature for designers of the past decade or so. At London Fashion Week Men’s this season it was refreshing - and rare - to see collections that didn’t feature at least one or two tracksuits. The shows most highly regarded, from Craig Green and Cottweiler to Liam Hodges and Kiko Kostadinov, were without a doubt referencing sportswear and fashioning loose, ill-fitted silhouettes designed for day-to-day comfort. It seems the lounge suit of the early-twentieth century has in some ways evolved into the tracksuit.


The current desire for comfort is so grave that it has grown to affect, not only mainstream fashion designers, but also classical tailors. The tailor from Maurice Sedwell went on to explain, “now people want a lot more comfort. In their day-to-day lives they are used to wearing stretchy clothing with a lot of elastic in it. People want close fitting garments that are going to move with them and stretch with them. The majority of fabric that comes in that has natural stretch or elastic in it, but is still able to be tailored, is getting more and more popular every year.”


Contemporary menswear is so dominated by influences from sportswear that quality craftsmanship and tailoring is now taking a backseat. Fashion student Joe Thomas outlined, “I don’t think sportswear influencing menswear is necessarily a bad thing, but it has pushed aspects like tailoring aside, making way for big logo t-shirts and trainers.” This combined with the lack of time designers are faced with to produce their collections because of pressing demands for the new, means that now, elaborate concepts trump quality. Sadly, for many menswear designers using sportswear as a basis for designing a collection is done to avoid skilled craftsmanship, simply because they don’t have enough time, or because they were never taught how to tailor.


When speaking to Central Saint Martins second year BA Menswear students – “the new faces of men’s fashion” - they shed light on the fact that since first year they “have had the opportunity to do two tailoring projects.” That is two projects in two years on a course that’s entire focus is menswear. One of the students went on to mention that, “if tailoring is something that is an aspect of your design method then you are given the knowledge to push it.” But surely garment construction and the ability to make clothes fit against the body, should be an aspect of every budding designers process?  So perhaps the faults lie in education, at the very first stage of a designer’s journey, where they are given creative freedom but not taught the sufficient skills to make quality garments.


Despite this, their general outlook on tailoring was positive, one of them explaining that he “definitely thinks that craftsmanship is much more important than innovation,” and the other expressing that he believes tailoring is “what makes menswear different and exciting.” Implying that despite not being taught enough about tailoring, students are still interested and inspired by it. Maybe, like everything in fashion, this sportswear focused, comfort driven “trend” is dying out? And perhaps we can expect to see more of a focus on tailoring on the runway in years to come.  

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