The World of Classic Menswear

There are many ways we portray ourselves to the world. Among the many languages of impressions, the biggest non-verbal cue is clothing; how we dress and how we portray ourselves to the world around us. Within clothing, there are many genres of dress, and one of them is generally known as “classic menswear”. In this piece, I shall attempt to curate a brief outline of how classic menswear came about, and how it should continue to remain relevant.

  1. Brief History

Classic menswear is not “classic” in the way Aristotle and Confucius are “classic”. Men did not dress in suits or dark coloured clothing until the late 18th century. Prior to the French Revolution (1789–1799), men dressed in light silks and coloured cloths, often dripping with ornate jewelry, and the suit as we know it today did not exist. It was only after the Industrial Revolution that men started to gradually move away from lighter silks to darker wools, and more sobering styles of dress started to develop.

Part of the reason is that industrialization involved the creation of coal as a fuel, and smog settles better on dark wool as compared to light colored fabric. Historians have generally classified this period as the Great Renunciation, and it is this complex period that heralded the birth of classic menswear as we know it today.

However, with all genres of dress, there are certain nuances in the genre that enthusiasts have come to understand and appreciate. The suit in its current iteration (jacket, waistcoat and trousers) has its genesis in the British naval tradition, and its spread has a lot to do with the rise of Britain as a global naval power in the early 19th century. The shape of the modern single-breasted jacket is very much derived from jackets worn on horseback, and the presence of shoulder paddings and a narrow waist are all informed by the standards of male physiology at that time; broad shoulders and narrow waist.

The British public took this onboard very rapidly for two main reasons; First, the presence of a strong military tradition meant that many military men wanted to dress in a similar style in their civillian life. Second, the modern suit was a direct echo of the more egalitarian time.

Industrialisation indirectly meant that there was the rise of a middle class, and there was a strong desire for men from this rising class to dress in a way that sharp, elegant, without making reference to the aristocratic era before the Great Renunciation. They found this form of expression most amenable in the modern suit.

The number of tailors rose to meet this demand, and over a period of decades, many of them congregated on Savile Row. To this date, the street remains a tailors’ domain, and many of the traditional English houses, such as Huntsman, Anderson and Sheppard, Norton and Sons, and Gieves & Hawkes still ply their trade in its surrounds.

2. Different Styles

Many styles exist within the specific genre of classic menswear. While the English invented the modern suit, there is no one specific English style. Even on Savile Row itself, English style can largely be divided into the structured, drape and the post-modern style.

The structured style is best exemplified by Gieves & Hawkes and Huntsman. The style is very much militaristic, with a focus on having strong shoulder pads, high armholes, and heavy canvassing to help shape the chest. The style is one that is often described as heroic and conveys a sense of strength and masculinity. This is the style that often associate English tailoring with, and is a direct descendant of the British naval tradition. For example, it is worth noting that for years, Gieves & Hawkes were the exclusive tailor of the Royal Navy and that played a major role in the development of its house style.

The drape cut is the house cut of Anderson and Sheppard, and the invention of a certain Frederick Scholte. Scholte was a Dutch tailor who cut his teeth on the Row, and in a bit to make the traditional structured style more comfortable, he reduced the shoulder padding and canvassing in the chest. More importantly, he cut the jacket in a way where the chest area is fuller and more comfortable by allowing the cloth to fall in a way that “drapes” across the body. This is attained by a good deal of ironing and good cutting is essential as if it is cut badly, it will look like one is wearing a shapeless sack. This style retains the broad shoulder and cinched waist look, but without the militaristic slant and corresponding structure. In short, Scholte invented the “civilian suit”.

In the 1970s, two men changed the world’s perception of the Row by reinventing the traditional cut of what a suit should look like. When Tommy Nutter and Edward Sexton started their house, they created a house cut that had leafy lapels, extended shoulders, narrow trousers, something that created a louche vibe and appealed to the pop culture world almost immediately. The world of showbiz took notice, and for the next 15 years, celebrities clamoured to have their measurements taken by Nutter and Sexton. For example, the Beatles wore garments cut by Sexton and Nutter on the cover of Abbey Road!. Today, this style lives on in Edward Sexton and Chittleborough&Morgan.

Moving on across the continent, we have Italy. Italian tailoring is very much like Italian cuisine. It is impossible to say whether Neapolitan tailoring is better than Milanese tailoring, in the same way one cannot define whether Neapolitan pizza is better than pasta from Milan.

Starting from the North, we have the Milanese style. Milanese style is characterised by a sense of structure, where lines are straight are the construction is very much similar to the British traditional structured style. However, there is significantly less canvassing and as with the Italian lifestyle, there is a more relaxed vibe to the jacket, exemplified by an emphasis of roundness as opposed to sharp lines. Examples of prominent Milanese houses are Caraceni and Musella Dembech.

The direct contrast of the more structured Northern style would be the Neapolitan style. Originating from Naples, it is an example of how tailoring has adapted to the climate and lifestyle of the people. Naples is a warm city, both in the way people interact with each other and the Mediterranean climate.

In the 1930s, Vicenzo Attolini, who was the head cutter at the famed Rubinacci house, invented the Neapolitan jacket. He did so by cutting down the insides of the jacket, making it lighter and more suitable for the Neapolitan lifestyle. This was revolutionary as he created a whole new way of constructing a jacket, without compromising the elegance associated with tailoring. The Neapolitan jacket also introduced many nuances that we see in classic menswear today, such as the Con Rollino and Spalla Camica shoulders, the Barchetta (boat shaped) and Pignata (brandy glass) patched pockets, as well as the use of much lighter fabrics to construct garments.

In between the Northern and Southern style, we have the Florentine style. The Florentine style aims to strike a balance between the two contrasts, i.e. while the construction is light, the presence of a fuller chest and open quarters (the front part of the jacket) creates a very unique style. A Florentine jacket can be recognised from the way its lapels angle outwards and its subtle extended shoulders, creating a sense of breadth without the use of shoulder padding that the British and Milanese tailors utilise. One major difference between the Florentine tailors and the tailors in the rest of Italy is that Florentine tailors do not use darts in the front of the jacket to shape the chest. Darts are essentially folds in the cloth between the breast pocket and the pockets along the quarters of the jacket. Instead of a front dart, Florentine tailors typically use a slanted dart along the side of the jacket instead, creating a cleaner front. Key houses include Liverano&Liverano and Sartoria Francesco Guida.

However, with globalisation, the lines between the different tailoring styles are increasingly blurred. For example, we no longer need to visit Naples to actually get a Neapolitan jacket, and there are tailors in Japan, Korea, Singapore or Hong Kong who can replicate the styles to varying degrees. We have also started to see the development of unique styles in Asia, with particular focus on China, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea and Singapore. Stylistically, we can now have Pignata pockets on a jacket made in a Florentine or Milanese style, or having reduced shoulder padding on a traditional formal English jacket.

3. Relevance

What is the relevance of classic menswear today?

A big part of dressing well every day is about portraying the best version of yourself to the world as a sign of respect for those whom you live and work with everyday. From its birth, classic menswear has always been about creating garments that accentuate the male form, whether it is the structured military English style, or the elegant but comfortable Neapolitan style.

We also live in a world where everything is being reduced to the lowest common denominator, where almost everything is about the lowest price, whether is it in the fashion industry, or the quality of what we read and how we treat our fellow human beings. Classic menswear as a genre of dress however, stands against this race to the bottom in this regard.

Tailoring and shoemaking are traditional crafts, with a large focus on handwork and precision, often going beyond what one normally associates with a trade or a business. Within the mind of every craftsman, there is the continuous need to strike technical excellence with artistic merit, and classic menswear as a craft exists on this knife-edge of art and science.

With this introduction, I hope that more men can start to dress better, buy less but buy better, and start to appreciate this as an art form. This is not a post about being a snob about what people wear, nor is it meant to be a post deriding peoples’ attitudes towards dressing in general. It is about raising awareness that there is a world away from what we associate luxury fashion to be (gross profits and massive conglomerates), and there exists a world where men and women work in small workshops dotted across the world to create the best shirts, jackets and shoes for their customers, all at the prices that allows them to pay for their children’s education costs, maintain a business and pass down a craft that has been passed down for generations.

4. Epilogue

As I dwell deeper and deeper, the more I realised that what I know is merely the superficial, and woven among classic menswear are different threads of art, history and cultural nuances that will take decades of experience and research to uncover. In short, it has gone way beyond how a shirt or jacket should fit, but a cultural phenomenon that deserves its own set of studies.

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