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What killed the '40s suit?

Discussion in 'Suits' started by Marc Chevalier, Jul 2, 2009.

  1. .

    Short answer: the Ivy League silhouette ... and the Italians. Specifically, the House of Brioni.

    Below is an excerpt from an article by G. Bruce Boyer about the Brioni "revolution." Longish, but well worth reading:

    "... In 1945, Nazareno Fonticoli, an innovative master of the fine Italian tradition of custom tailoring, founded the Brioni atelier in Rome with Gaetano Savini, a natural talent for public relations. With a great respect for the classic contribution of Savile Row, but a sure feeling that the English had ignored the new attitudes towards men's clothes, Fonticoli and Savini set about to create their revolution.

    It was a historic moment. By the late 1940s, most men had more leisure time, disposable income and access to consumer goods than their fathers had ever dreamed of.

    In clothing, the English-influenced "drape" look of the prewar period, with its oversized chest and shoulders, had become something of a caricature of itself. Jackets with enormous shoulder pads and inches of extra fabric in the chest and shoulder blade area began to sag and droop under their own weight. Trousers were being cut higher and higher, wider and wider, until they drowned the shoes and covered the torso halfway up the chest. It was a style particularly exaggerated in the United States as far as it could go by Hollywood heroes in the film noir genre and zoot-suited jazz hipsters. Clearly, the idea of drape styling could go no further.

    Fonticoli and Savini began to attack most of the 1930s and 1940s ideas of what a suit should be, to systematically change its very line and expression. They cut away at the heavy silhouette that no longer conformed to the body, drastically reducing the bulk and padding. They seem, in retrospect, to have been among the first to realize that contemporary men, who lived in climate-controlled homes and offices, drove cars, and were slimmer and healthier, didn't want or need yards of heavily stiff and padded clothing.

    The thinking was to reflect a thoroughly modern sensibility. Fonticoli and Savini began, in contemporary parlance, to "deconstruct" and completely redesign the garment, to emphasize lightness and trimness. But this was not merely a revolution of line and form. There was a decided movement away from the drab and somber uniformity of traditional business gray worsted toward a whole new liberating palate of brilliant colors and untraditional fabrics.

    The silhouette they devised eventually came to be thought of in the United States (although not by them) as the Continental Look, and it swept away both the hyperdrapey style that was so prevalent before the war and the sack-cut look of the Ivy League style that was gaining prominence after the war. The result was a pared-down approach to tailoring, with a dash of flamboyant color and texture for good measure. It was indeed a revolution.

    Technically, the Brioni jacket of the 1950s sat closer to the body, shoulders were narrowed and the chest tightened and smoothed. The waist was subtly shaped. The skirt (the part of the jacket from the waist down) sat closer to the hips and was imperceptibly cut away in front in two graceful arcs. Backs were either ventless or had short side vents, sleeves were narrowed, pocket flaps were often eliminated in favor of simple besoms, and a two-button stance was raised slightly to provide a longer line.

    Trouser legs were trimmed, pleats and cuffs abandoned, and quarter-top pockets were often substituted for on-seam ones. In effect, Brioni experimented with the whole silhouette and all the details until everything worked together to produce a new harmony of slimness and spareness of silhouette, played off against more vibrant colors and a sense of texture.

    It was a reaction to the top-heavy, supermuscular look of the past. There was nothing retro or nostalgic about it. The Brioni approach was clothing for a new age. It made a man look slimmer and younger and more vibrant. How could it miss? The shop on the Via Barberini grew from 10 tailors to 50 in its first decade in business. The Brioni look came to define modernism in menswear.

    The vibrancy came from the new look in fabric and color advocated by Brioni. Apart from a few tropical worsteds and summer cottons, most men were still wearing the traditional twills, tweeds and flannels that their fathers and grandfathers had worn, and they were wearing them in the same Victorian suiting shades of dark gray, navy and brown--and in the same weights: even summer suits would weigh in at several pounds. A seersucker sports jacket, blue blazer or tan linen suit were the only exceptions to that somber Anglo-Saxon wardrobe.

    "But why shouldn't men be more colorful?" Savini asked. "Why can't a man be elegant without being either dull or foppish? That's what we're interested in." Why, for example, couldn't a man wear a suit of silk shantung, and why couldn't it be in a flattering pastel shade, or rich tobacco brown? Or perhaps a cream-and-chocolate minicheck-houndstooth business suit in a super-lightweight tropical worsted? Why not? ..."

  2. Creeping Past

    Creeping Past One Too Many


    In Britain, and other bits Europe, fabric and resource shortages changed the fashion scene.
  3. The turn away from elegance as no longer compatible with a manly nature.

    The 1930s really were an anomaly in the history of masculinity. For the first time that century - and maybe the last - men got to define their identities by something other than work and physicality. Because all of a sudden there was a lot less work and a lot more mass media, which encouraged a flow of images and ideas. Men got the idea they could relax older standards of masculinity and maybe even define it in their own ways.

    Being in the military ended that notion for most of us. Your physical body, and your ability to put out as part of a team or organization, were once again the building blocks of your manly nature, and once again it had to be earned, on other men's terms.

    This applies mostly to American culture of course. Italian culture was always more open to male elegance, but Brioni clearly was responding to the needs of the postwar executive class - more and more dominated by America as the culture that controlled most of the world's money and all of the means of making it.

    I always point to Dick Powell as the classic example of how what worked in the 30s wouldn't work in the 40s. No more tenor singing, no more half-baked plot lines built around bevys of legs and bouncy orchestrations, no more light colored belted-backs with waists up to here. Powell went noir, dressed in solid business greys and learned that his best friend was a gun. His persona had to serve a solid, steel-girded story, with (what was then) a man's logic and and a man's basic motives.
  4. Fletch, your posts are a delight to read. Thank you! :eusa_clap

  5. Really great summery of the "continental" look's essence

    I've definitely always been impressed by the light and airy silhouette of the continental look. However, with its lower rises trousers and lack of pleats, I sometimes think it's a look that doesn't really flatter thicker men. What are your thoughts on that?
  6. Hal

    Hal Practically Family

    Shouldn't we celebrate this rather than lament it? It was, essentially, an elimination of clutter, much like the interior decoration of the time. To me, a man in pleated trousers looks as if he's wearing a nappy (diaper in American); Hardy Amies writes in this period that those who need pleats in their trousers should take a pleat in their figures.
    This is provocative, I know, and it's easy for me to say this, as I'm slim and rather tall (70kg, 180cm); those who like the 1930s and 1940s styles may hate my saying this - but it needs to be said. Another recent thread has documented the change of style from about 1952 to 1955 - the middle and later 1950s would be my ideal style, before the exaggerations of the early 1960s; but that may simply say that I like what I saw during my formative years.
  7. Chasseur

    Chasseur Call Me a Cab

    Well... not all men look good in flat front trousers. For the past few years its been hard to find pleated trousers in the US (that's starting to change now), and I can tell you MANY men don't have the body type for flat fronted low-cut trousers that fit like jeans. Unfortunately for a couple of years there that was the bulk of inexpensive trousers sold here...
  8. Dude, I am celebrating it. To me, it was a positive change for the time.

  9. That was the era, tho, when styles changed and unless you were quite up in years, you had to change along. No choice - it was all socially based, and it would have made things awkward socially (and professionally) in many, many, small ways.
  10. thunderw21

    thunderw21 My Mail is Forwarded Here

    Preach it! I despise the boxy, top heavy look of the late '40s, especially in double breasted. I guess it'd be the Bold Look:

    Marc, would you have a pic or illustration of a '50s suit like those described in this thread, the Continental Look? Would this be the predecessor of the 'Mod' look of the '60s?
  11. Very interesting thread, Marc (as always), and a very well-put observation from you, Fletch. I hadn't realised how far back the Continental look's roots went, or even who was responsible for it in the first place.
  12. Viola

    Viola Call Me a Cab

    I think flat-fronted trousers often look better on somewhat thick men than pleated trousers do, because they don't need the extra material to draw more attention to their waists, but that's just my two cents and probably on sale half-off at that.
  13. Plain fronts persisted into the late 40s but I think they were a stodgy style by then. There was a lot of resistance to anything that had been a wartime conservation measure, and plain front pants definitely were one.

    I have 2 suits dated 1950 and '52, both MTM, named and dated, with plain fronts. The cuts of both are a little behind the curve, the 1950 suit a 2B SB peak lapel(!) and the '52 a wide-bladed and shouldered DB reminiscent of the early-mid 40s.

    I also find plain fronts look slightly awkward with the "paneled" ties worn in the mid-late 40s, which don't have a repeated design but just one big splashy picture. You need something a little busier down below to balance the tie - especially if you're not wasp waisted. Double pleats do nicely.
  14. One man's meat...

    Sorry, but I am a dyed-in-the-wool lover of the Bold Look.:eek: Maybe I just had a too-steady diet of post-WWII films when growing up...Having said that, I agree with Hal that mid-to-late-50s "fashion" was the most classic look of the post-WWII era. The jackets, trousers, hats, neckties, even shoes of that brief period generally exhibited balance and moderation, something which went out the window by the early-60s, when minimalism met its match in clothing.
  15. thunderw21

    thunderw21 My Mail is Forwarded Here

    Don't get me wrong, I don't mind the Bold Look. I love SB Bold Look, not a huge fan of DB Bold Look though. That illustration is exaggerated no doubt but captures the spirit of the Bold Look and it just looks 'off' to my eye. Top heavy.

    But you're right about the mid to late-'50s: well balanced, sleek and modern. Echoes of the past moderated with a new spirit of style?
  16. reetpleat

    reetpleat Call Me a Cab

  17. Dr Doran

    Dr Doran My Mail is Forwarded Here

    I have felt that for a long time, but never articulated it. Thank you.

  18. +1 Fletch needs to throw that stick he plays away and get writing full time...put that fantastic classical education to work IMHO.

    Fletch on Fashion - The Post War World... is the first title of the book...

    A point my wife makes about me...cold hearted observant little darling....that she is!
  19. David V

    David V A-List Customer

    I won't take men's style advise from a dress maker.

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