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The Form and Function of a Good Suit

Sin Khan

Familiar Face
Panama City, Florida
I have poured over the forum for days now and have gathered bits and pieces of the most useful information about suits that I have ever seen. But why hasn't anyone posted a thread about all the form and function of suits in one place? I think it is because many of you know so much about them that you forget that many other people don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t know a darn thing. I am going to attempt to go back to basics in this thread and then go from there. I don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t hardly know anything about suits but here is what I have gathered so far. Please, some of you more experienced Joe?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s add your own points.

Here is what a suit is and why.

A suit is a layered set of clothing designed to be for the wearer everything that they would need, all day, everyday, and all year long. Many people forget that. For that reason, it was the general everyday attire for just about everyone in the modern world for a long period of time. A suit is, by design, made to be worn with the following items in the following order.

1. Undergarments (tee shirt and underwear) the underwear is obvious, but the tee shirt served many a purpose. First of all, if you had to do dirty work while you had your suit on, then you took off all the outer layers until you got to your tee shirt, and then you did your work and simply went home afterward to wash-up and change. But mostly, when out and about, whether business or otherwise, you wouldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t need to strip down to do dirty work. But, if you had too, that's partly what the tee-shirt is for. The tee-shirt is also to keep general body soil and sweat from staining other cloths, like your top shirt.

2. Top shirt (the shirt you wear over your tee shirt.) This is the main shirt of your suit. When inside, if you could get away with it, you would take off your outer suit coat to shed some heat, and then spend the day in your top shirt. If you went to work, sometimes even if it was dirty work, you would just roll up the sleeves of your top shirt and go to town. Sweat would be contained by the tee shirt and the over shirt still made you presentable, which is why we put the tie on it.

One of the over shirt's purposes was much like the tee shirts in that it was to hold down the body soil so that it didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t get on your outer jacket. This was because many times you wouldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t take off the outer jacket, even at work. Partly because it fit so well that it was much more difficult to take on and off, but it was also customary to stay fully dressed when in doors except for your hat and overcoat or trench.

The rule of the day was that you sweat. Period. With no air conditioning, and very few fans, people were always sweating. I mean, to wear a suit back in the day meant that you simply sweat. So why wear a suit you may ask? Well, because with no ac you were going to sweat anyway. With a suite on, at least you looked decent and always presentable, no matter how much you sweat. With the tee shirt and the over shirt under your suit jacket there was an internal clothing barrier to keep your body soil from being noticeable. Being that you were always sweating generally, you couldn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t wear dyed cloth against your skin as the sweat would often make the dye in the fabric run or discolor. Today we see that problem with polo shirts and the basic uniform shirts that people wear today.

Wearing a suite was the best practical way to sweat and keep that sweat off the dyed, colored, and expensive fabric of your suite jacket. People today make very light suits because they don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t want to sweat; but back in the day, people wore suits in large part because they sweat so much. Also, don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t discount body odor. With a tee shit, a top shirt, and a suit jacket on, any body odor is much more muted. Sweat was also a reason why the hair was slicked back with grease or some other heavy oil based product. This kept the hair off your forehead and skin to help to keep it from getting soiled. Also, it was a way to hold the hair in a styled manner throughout the day.

Undergarments and over shirts were generally bleached white also because of sweat and body soil. Any dyes in an over shirt could be a problem in that if the sweat ran through your tee shirt it could make your over shirt run and possibly mess up your suit jacket. So, tee shirts and over shirts were generally white and made to be washed routinely. One might have maybe 3 or so top shirts. It was the topshirt and tee shirt that you always want fresh for a new day or new meeting. You wanted all your cloths cleaned, but taking a shower and swaping out your teeshirt, undergarments, and your top shirt was somthing many people did for a few days. It was the end of the week that people would have their suit jacket and such cleaned, not every other day.

From all this you can gather why so many people looked down on you for not wearing a suit. You were simply looked at as being not very presentable because of sweat, smelling of body odor, or (as explained later) not functionally prepared for the day if you didn't have a suit on. Not wearing a suit was a direct reflection upon you as a person. It meant that you didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t care what you looked like. It also generally meant that you didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t care what you smelled like. And (as explained soon) it meant that without the features of a suite, you weren?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t prepared for the day. Overall that showed that you didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t care about other persons either. Today much of the functionality of suits is lost, which is why many suits today seem just like fancy cloths to most people.

3. Suit Jacket, Trousers, and possibly a Suit Vest.

This is where being prepared for the day was part of the design of your suit.

A. The Suit Jacket and Trousers. The suit jacket was made to be worn all day and everywhere. Rain, snow, heat, cold, it was made to be worn in anything. As your outermost wear of clothing, it was the flashy part. This is also what had all the pockets one would need for whatever job that he did. Generally, you bought the toughest cloth that you could stand to wear in the heat. Yeah, you were going to sweat, but that was a given anyway. So, you wanted the most durable fabric you could buy that would make your suit put up with daily wear for the longest amount of time. The pockets were made to be used, not just looked at. Your wallet was one of the things that went in one of your suit pockets, it wasn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t placed around your butt where you sat. Something, in retrospect, I find very odd that we do today. We probably sit on our wallets today directly because we don?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t wear suits much anymore, and we still need our wallets.

The Suit Jacket was also functional in that it was made to weather light things, a fall breeze, some light snow, and even a light shower if need be. Better to have a trench coat, for sure, but the general heavy quality of the suit jacket gave it some water shedding properties. Enough, anyway, to get you to some cover if you were caught in a light drizzle. Having buttons everywhere wasn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t simply to look at either, they were there in case you lost a button. Remember, your suit was everyday wear. You needed more buttons because everything used buttons on your suit. you could not afford to be away on business and lose a button and not have any around. The lining of the jacket enables it to move freely from the undershirt. This is Mainly for comfort, but it also adds a slight cooling effect when moving around by allowing free movement of clothing for venting.

Your suit jacket was also worn all day because, not only did it have pockets, they were better designed than many pockets today. Many pockets on suits had a specific purpose. One for your wallet, one for your watch (pocket watch), one for a pad of paper, and one for your pen. Dont forget letters as well. Back in the day, people had to routinely carry document around. People didn't fold them up like they do today. I can't count how many times i've seen people today fold up a piece of paper and stuff it in a tight pocket on a pair of jeans. People would shake their heads at you for doing that in the old days.

Your suit jacket had all the pockets that you needed to cary around whatever you wanted and have those items not get squashed, broken, wrinckled, or cracked. I am only now learing about the other things that people routinely carried aronud in their sut jacket, like a good hankerchief to wipe the sweat away. And many people don't realize why you left your handerchief hanging outside of one of your pockets. This was to help keep it dry. As you sweat, you used your handkerchief to wipe the sweat away from your face, then you placed it half hanging out of a pocket to let air get to it to help it dry out. You sure as heck never threw your handerchief away either. If ig got dirty you washed it, just like your tee shirt, which is why it was often of the same material as a tee shirt. Many times your handerchief may have even been a cut up old tee shirt.

The suit jacket was kept clean as much as possible. It was often unavoidable to keep clean, but you did your best. Because it was a functiuonal piece of gear, and people knew it, having it spotless was not so demamded by people. They understood that it got dirty. At the same time, they also understood that you would have it routinely cleaned.

Often the reason certain things were schedualed on certain days of the week were because that was when everyone had clean suits. Sunday, for example, was a day when for many social events. For religious reasons, Sunday was a day of rest and worship. That meant that you had all your cloths cleaned on Saturday, so you could rest on sunday and still be ready for work the next week. This is also where you had two suits perhaps, when one got dirty, as was often the case, you brought out your spare until it was cleaned.

The Trousers.
As for trousers, I haven?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t learned much about those, guess that?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢s kind of basic there. But there are a few things of note here. The tailor was not a guy you saw only when you wanted a new suit. If you needed new pants you would go to your tailor and have him make you a new set of pants. he would also sew up your suit and repair it. You didn't just go out and buy a new one if it got ripped up. I see many people sell or hand down great suits simply because they are ripped. People would call you a fool, if you didn't have the sense to go to your tailor and have it sewn up. Trousers were no exception, if they got ripped, you sewed them up. Needing a new pair of trousers, you did not have a new suit made.

B. The Vest. The vest was for those who would generally not wear the suit jacket for most of the day. It still had the pockets one needed, ie, wallet, watch, ext, but was obviously much cooler than the jacket. More expensive in a suit also though. Also, if you could afford the higher cost of a 3 piece suit and generally did not have to sweat so much in your job, IE banker and such, then the vest still was professional, and covered sweat or soil in undergarments. The vest was something you wore in one place as well. if you went out or such you wouldn't leave you jacket at home. The vest was more office work wear than anything else. A vest made real sense, in that if you could aford the higher cost of a suit that was made with one, then repairing or even replacing the vest was cheaper than a new suit jacket. The vest was also something that a tailor could make for you after the fact. If you changed to a new position (not a new job like people do today) then your tailor could simply make a vest for you to add to your suit. Haven?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t learned much more about vests yet either.

One last note
A suit was not something you had many of, generally most people had one or two. A suite was something you had tailor made for you, or looked very closely at before buying ready made. Generally a good deal of money would be spent on this vital piece of wear. Having more than two suits was a luxury. Which is why so many people used ties, handkerchiefs, and other cheaper and simpler items to help give the suit some visual variety during the week, and help you to stand out. No one looked down on you if you had only two suits or even one for that matter. It was common place to see bob, so to speak, and recognize him a mile away simply because of his suit.

Back in the day a suit was such a vital and practical piece of wear that it was rather kind of foolish to buy more than 2 because it must of meant that you didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t buy wisely your other suits. People saw a suit as a functional piece of wear over a fashionable piece of wear. If you only had one and wore it, that was much better looked at then having none at all, and never bothering to get one for the other reasons mentioned previously. Because people only had one or two suits due to cost and such, it was always noticed when you bought a new suit. It was looked at as moving up in the world.

Ever wonder why in some old movies the main character would toss a large coin at someone they didn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t like and say, ?¢‚Ǩ?ìHere, buy yourself a new suit.?¢‚Ǩ? This was an utter insult to the highest degree. It meant that the chum either had a crappy suit, a worn out suit, no suit at all, bad taste, or simply not enough money to get a new suit if he had too. It wasn?¢‚Ǩ‚Ñ¢t to say, you need another suit in your wardrobe. Not at all, it was understood that you would only buy one or two and simply wear them out and then replace it, not buy a different suit for every day of the week.

Matt Deckard

Man of Action
A devout capitalist in Los Angeles CA.
Excellent break down of the suits parts and function. More adaptable to what men wore in the 1800 to the turn of the century

After that to the modern era suits just became more loosely worn I think it is also important to point out that the suit, at least the version we wear today is a bastardized version of what was made for the military to wear.


Call Me a Cab
Somewhere among the owls in Maryland
A suit as working man's clothes

If you study old photographs it becomes obvious how much a suit was an everyday,every-situation item. It's interesting to see photos of laborers wearing suits and even ties while doing dirty work. They are often covered in dust and dirt from head to toe yet the jacket is buttoned and the tie is tight.

Is there anyone out there that is so commited to living and dressing in the way of the "golden era" that they wear a suit to do a dirty job?

I only have bits and pieces of vintage...no complete suit (yet). I probably wouldn't get too much into the feel of the era by doing dirty work in a vintage suit. I do have a job that can be dirty and wear work clothes as close to a 30s-40s look as I can. No tie, but collar buttoned and fedora or 8 panel cap.

The Wingnut

One Too Many
I used to go swing dancing every wednesday night. I worked in a print shop...but I hate to dance while dressed in modern clothes. I'd dress in vintage every Wednesday despite working with large laminators, massive substrate boards and cutting / sanding / finishing tasks. A tie clip kept the tie out of the rollers and I'd remove my jacket when doing labor...by 6:00, however, I'd get cleaned up, brush my teeth, wash my face and rumble away in my patrol car to the club to swing...with exception to my instructor, I was usually the best dressed guy there.

People thought I was a sales rep, the owner, another customer...they never knew I was the back room slave, the guy who swept the floors and cleaned the toilets when things got slow! A sad commentary on our times.

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