Shifting Silhouttes

The past, present and future of the suit


Jay Gatsby wore a “gorgeous pink rag of a suit”. James Bond (of the books rather than the films) alternated between “navy serge” and “battered black and white dogtooth”. Philip Marlowe fastidiously matched his “powder-blue” tailoring with a “dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them”. Patrick Bateman was always describing the pleats in his trousers and the designer labels in the backs of his double-breasted jackets.

Suits, if we are to believe the literature, make the man. The uniform of playboys, spies, princes, detectives, mafia members, CEOs, office workers the world over, and the occasional Wall Street serial killer, it’s hard to imagine any other garment more imbued with the mythos of masculinity.

For a long time, the reference points were relatively unchanging. Mentions of classic suiting came with images of Cary Grant and Paul Newman. Later, Jon Hamm as Don Draper. The same film stills and black-and-white pictures were rolled out. Polished or rugged, angular or smooth, they suggested something similar: a certain put-togethered-ness; an understanding not only of dress codes but the precision, the male vigour, the authority embodied in a perfectly tailored garment.

Of course, there were still subtle shifts and transformations to observe. The suit’s history officially begins with Regency dandy Beau Brummell – a man who single-mindedly cut through fashion’s whimsy in search of austere lines and sombre colours – before solidifying in the Victorian era. However, suits as we now picture them are more 20th century in origin. Like hemlines, the silhouettes fluctuated over the decades. Shoulders widened and narrowed. Ankles tapered and billowed. You could expect a more dramatic shape and fabric choice from a ’30s heartthrob than a ’40s musician beholden to the strictures of war-induced rationing. Counterculture seeped through in the pastel colours of the ’60s and razzmatazz flares of ’70s disco. Corporate interests too: Picture Bateman and his fellow well-clad yuppies – emblems of ’80s machismo, typifying a moment where ego and the economy were close bedfellows.

Blazer and trousers GUCCI

In the last few years, the suit has undergone a sea change. Although the idea of classic suiting is still alive and thriving, the parameters have expanded hugely. Bold stripes, zany patterns, jewelled accessories, draped cuts: When it comes to both the red carpet and the catwalk, it’s no longer one long stuffy array of black, grey and navy. The silhouettes and fabrics have become bolder. When Kim Jones took the helm at Dior Men in 2018, he introduced a new cut. ‘The Tailleur Oblique’ featured soft, fluid lines, the button placed so far over on the waist that it seemed to envelop the wearer. It was a homage, he said, to Christian Dior’s love of asymmetric silhouettes. Other designers have revamped their menswear in similar fashion. At Gucci, there are floral jacquards and purple brocades with sparkling, Liberace-esque touches. At Alexander McQueen, classic suits come covered in zips or crystal embellishments. At Balenciaga the blazers can get so big that it looks like a child has dressed up in his dad’s wardrobe.

If one were to track the changes in suits over the course of recent memory (in fashion, that memory is always short term), there seem to be two distinct factors at play. Both, in their own way, have something to say about masculinity. Menswear has done some soul-searching of late, and found that it wants to be looser, freer, more, well, feminine. You see it in the rise of co-ed shows and agender collections, in the mainstreaming of accessories like pearl necklaces. You see it in the colours available at all ends of the style spectrum, from designer labels to fast fashion outlets: soft pinks, cool lavenders, minty greens. You see it in a new generation of designers challenging convention, with brands like Harris Reed and SS Daley putting their own subversive spin on tailoring. This sense of irreverence and decorative pleasure is anchored in more recent social shifts. After all, we’re at a point in which the parameters and expectations of gender are being closely questioned – and perhaps fundamentally altered.

Jacket and trousers META CAMPANIA COLLECTIVE Roll neck SUNSPEL

But for every peacock, there’s also a bird who doesn’t want to ruffle too many feathers. The pandemic, we were told, was going to be the end of the suit. No matter how much we might want to take our cues from the red carpet, the most widespread use and application of the suit comes in professional settings. But with huge swathes of the workforce confined to their homes, able to sit on Zoom calls in blazers and pyjamas trousers, would the suit disappear forever? The reasonable answer is, of course, no. There are always going to be industries that impose dress codes on their workers, and enough people wedded to the pleasure and power, not to mention the craftsmanship of tailoring, to spell any kind of closure.

That’s not to say it hasn’t had an impact though. Take the recent vogue for styling blazers over hoodies. This hybrid approach, melding leisurewear with polish, encapsulates this time perfectly. Established suiting brands like Paul Smith and Zegna have responded cleverly to our uncertain moment too, retaining their traditional tailoring whilst offering manipulated versions of house styles that bridge similar lines between laid-back and formal. Sharp trousers accompany boxy jackets. Sportier, more streamlined silhouettes abound. Labels like Meta Campania Collective blend tailoring and workwear.

Blazer and trousers CANALI T-shirt SUNSPEL

These kinds of changes have been observed in the made-to-measure and bespoke sector too. As Taj Phull, managing director of Huntsman tells me, “We’ve seen a sizable shift in clients looking to diversify their wardrobe with separate jackets and trousers. Either to complement existing suiting, or instead of. Clients are becoming more creative… Versatility is key here, both in design and choice of cloth. We work with mills that offer luxury technical fabrics: perfect for a professional wardrobe, especially since a working day is rarely 9–5.” He also notes that there’s a changing clientele. “It’s the rise in women’s tailors which is not only refreshing to Huntsman but in part helping to rejuvenate the whole of Savile Row.” Huntsman appointed a dedicated head ladieswear cutter in 2019, while newer ateliers like Kathryn Sargent and Caroline Andrew are ensuring that women’s tailoring is treated with the same care, rigour and technical expertise as men’s suiting always has been.

None of these changes are entirely new. Katharine Hepburn and Marlene Dietrich were getting their tailoring done on Savile Row many decades ago. Flamboyant suits have had plenty of moments in the sun before. Just think of Cecil Beaton and his Bright Young Thing acolytes in the ’20s with their louche linens and their neckties, or Mick Jagger in the ’70s wearing confectionary-coloured suits from Tommy Nutter. The difference now is that this seems to extend beyond exceptional individuals and those going against the mainstream grain into something wider. A good suit is a wonderful thing; it’s versatile, and ideally, made to last a lifetime. Now there are just many more ways to wear it.

Photography Paul Phung

Styling Lune Kuipers

Grooming Yoshitaka Miyazaki using Bumble and bumble

Model Cherif at Premier

Casting Marqee

This article is taken from Port issue 30. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here

Jump Cut: Tiger of Sweden

Creative director Christoffer Lundman speaks to Port about cinema, the unique creative heritage of Sweden and what tailoring can mean today

Entrepreneur and cultural magnate Harry Schein dreamt up the Swedish film reforms of the 1960s as a way to fuel the country’s creative industries and preserve the its cinematic heritage. Laying the foundation for the Swedish Film Institute, which opened in 1963 and funded the careers of those like director Ingmar Bergman, Schein’s reforms gave birth to one of the most creative periods in Swedish cinema.

The pioneering program led to the Filmhuset being built in Stockholm in 1970. Designed by Peter Celsing, the imposing building – filled with cinemas, production companies, costume rooms, a library and studios – was a haven for the art of filmmaking, and stands as a testimony to Sweden’s socially engaged government-funded film culture.

For fashion brand Tiger of Sweden, looking to the Filmhuset and such a rich era of creativity for their Autumn/Winter 18 collection not only served as inspiration but also marked a greater emphasis on the tradition and national heritage of the brand. It’s a focus that comes courtesy of Tiger’s new creative director Christoffer Lundman, the former design director at Burberry. Here he talks to Port about cinema, Swedish design and the future of tailoring.

The 155 metre-long Filmhuset in Stockholm

What attracted you to Tiger of Sweden?

I had an opportunity to tell a story – I wanted to be able to influence everything surrounding Tiger, not just the collections but how we communicate. It was a chance to speak about something bigger than clothes.

With this first collection I wanted to start talking about tailoring in a serious way again, and to also start communicating the idea of us as a heritage brand. We’ve been around for 115 years and I wanted the first collection to feel really effortless, that this is how it always looked and how it should look.

What were the initial references and ideas that you brought in?  

We started with an incredibly wide scope because I wanted to say so many things about Sweden, but we filtered it down to centre on Swedish filmmaking in the 60s. I call it a backdrop, it’s a space we spend time in within the seasons which informs not just the designs but all the elements of how we communicate.

Then through that we wove in references to Swedish film, principally through these three icons: Harry Schein, who founded the Swedish film institute, Peter Celsing the architect that designed the Filmhuset – this amazing building in Stockholm which is full of cinemas and studios, and where we shot our campaign – and Ingmar Bergman, in a loose sense. There was this element of drama, this sort of loose story of film making, in the backdrop.

How would you characterise Swedish design?

What I find inspiring being back in Sweden is to look and see what we have accomplished as a society. It’s a place that’s undertaken this incredible journey from being a poor farming country to being an industrial, modern, wealthy country. But what is special is that this was driven by a political will, by the people, to make a form of model society.

For a period of time it created this amazing foundation and platform for politics, art, culture, society to intermingle. And it resulted in these buildings, like the film institute in Stockholm, which is an incredible monument both to culture and to Sweden, for building this institute, where 10% of all profits went back to into creating film – not just blockbusters, but creating niche film and making space for ideas.

But I do think there’s this attitude to clothes here. We’re not a society with a big class divide. There’s no proper way to dress. It’s not like in England where there’s a right way to do the knot in your tie or the right way to do your pocket square. I think there’s a democratic attitude to design here, where it’s not for the elite necessarily.  

The Swedish element in the collection is there in this kind of carefree attitude. We’re not trying to lecture people in the right way to wear a suit, we’re just saying you could wear it like this. I’m hoping that it’s communicating something that’s polished and clean, but not restrictive or restrained – I hope it comes across as playful.

You’ve said before in interviews that Tiger of Sweden is first and foremost a tailoring brand. From a British perspective, fewer and fewer people are wearing suits – what does it mean to be a tailoring brand today?

I think tailoring for me is an attitude, a way of looking at things. If we specifically talk about men, and if you look at what a suit has represented to men, it makes the individual feel part of something – it’s been the way you dress when you go to work, to know that you fit in, and that’s obviously being challenged. But I think you can still be a relevant tailoring brand by having a tailored attitude – it doesn’t mean someone needs to wear a full suit, it’s more about enabling them to feel confident and secure in themselves.

I see it as an amazing challenge, and a fun one. I don’t see it as a problem if the customer stops wearing suits, I see it as a bigger scope for me and my team to create exciting products for them. It makes us grow, and it makes us explore new things, new fabrics, new shapes. 

I don’t want us to get stuck in any way. I think it’s my role to push the team and to develop the role in unexpected ways. This first collection was our opportunity, both as a team and as a company, to say this is what we’re about; we’re a tailoring brand, we have this amazing rich heritage. And there is no sort of straight road ahead – I think we need to continue to challenge ourselves and challenge customers.

Tiger of Sweden

Fit for Purpose

Canali’s global communications director and third-generation descendant of the Italian fashion house’s founders, Elisabetta Canali, considers the status of tailoring in the 21st century

Obviously fashions change, silhouettes evolve and tastes shift, but one of the biggest trends we’ve noticed in tailoring recently is the influence of technology. We are now able to develop new fabrics that are lighter and more performance focused, stretch naturally and are crease and stain resistant. These materials offer something that better reflects the lifestyle and needs of the people wearing Canali. It’s why we try to offer a wide range of fit and finishing options as well.

In the modern era, the distinctions between different regional styles of suit-making have become less marked than in the past – style is now a global consideration. Yet, despite this, it is still possible to recognise approaches that are typical of certain traditions.

British tailoring is influenced by military costume and generally characterised by a more formal look: highly structured shoulders, heavy full-canvas construction and a slim silhouette. The American suit tends to be less structured, soft shoulders, looser fitting, with a more generous cut and often a single back vent and a more relaxed trouser. We Italians, on other hand, want to combine style with wearability, so our suits tend to be less structured, with softer shoulders, but remain streamlined and graceful; the trousers are a slimmer fit.

And, of course, it still comes down to the tailors, whose skills will never change. They have an unparalleled knowledge of their craft and perfectly understand the principals of human anatomy and garment construction; this goes without saying. But they must also be a good listener. The key to ensuring a satisfied client is understanding his needs, and catering to them, sometimes before he himself knows what it is he wants.

10,000 hours: Philip Parker

Illustration Dan Williams
Illustration Dan Williams

Master tailor Phillip Parker writes for PORT and explains how he perfected his craft

As MD and Head Cutter of the Savile Row house who invented the Tuxedo jacket, put Churchill in chalk stripe, and set the sartorial standard for generations of the rich, the royal, and the respectable, Philip Parker has the weight of tradition on his neatly-padded shoulders. He’s cut Rex Harrison’s cloths for ‘My Fair Lady’ and re-created Emperor Hirohito’s costume for Madame Tussaud’s, and here he explains how he stitched his way to success.

“The first time I picked up a needle and thread, I wasn’t thinking of a career – it was the early 1960s and I was just a teenager messing around, trying to make my jeans fit tighter. But when my father asked me what I intended to do when I left school, I told him I wanted to be a tailor. A week later he’d got me an interview at the Federation of Merchant Tailors on Savile Row. The man I met there was very tall and incredibly elegant, and I was so intimidated I barely spoke, but he mentioned that there was a position going at Sullivan, Woolley & Co on Conduit Street and I was taken on as an apprentice coat maker.

On my first day, I arrived in the workshop, which was like something out of Dickens, and my master asked me if I knew how to sew. I said I did, so he watched me for about ten seconds and just said ‘stop’. Then he showed me how to do it properly – how to hold the cloth, how to position the needle, how to make a stitch – and that was all I did for the rest of the day. There are some tailors who are complete naturals and seem to have the knowledge inside them; and there are others who have to learn it – I was one of those. But right from day one, I never doubted that I was destined to be here.

Normally, the side of the business you go in on is where you stay, but I’d been at Sullivan’s for four years when one of the cutters left and, although I wasn’t thinking much beyond the end of the week, they must have sensed that I’d do alright in the front shop, so they moved me up and started me off as an undercutter. In those days, the senior cutters on Savile Row were absolutely terrifying – they seemed to sit just below God and I’d cross the road if I saw one coming out of his shop. But if you showed dedication, they’d teach you everything, not just about the job, but about life, too.

Over the next five years, I got to know every aspect of the trade, from meeting the customer and taking measurements, to figuration and creating the paper pattern, to chalking the cloth and cutting out by hand so the trimmer can add the linings and buttons. At the beginning, you’re only cutting trousers, as they were deemed easier than the jacket, though my view of that changed over the years: if you get into trouble with trousers it is far more difficult to correct. One of the first suits I cut from start to finish was the one I wore on my wedding day. It was dark blue mohair: the jacket had narrow lapels and side vents, and the trousers were slightly flared leg… well, it was 1970.

By the time Sullivan’s was taken over by Henry Poole & Co in 1981, I’d worked my way up to be head cutter and that’s what I am here today, though the business has evolved a lot in recent years and you never stop learning. With each new suit, you’re working from a blank canvas to create something that fits the customer perfectly. The Savile Row style is very distinctive, but we’re offering a bespoke tailoring to an individual and, as our owner Mr Cundey always says, ‘a customer isn’t a customer until he’s ordered twice’. During my career, I’ve cut thousands of garments, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s livery for court, a tuxedo for Joanna Lumley, a business suit for an ordinary man off the street, the best part of the job is always the same. It’s the moment during the final fitting when everything looks immaculate and I can say to myself: ‘Yes, that’s it: I’ve done my job. Just try picking holes in that.’”

This story was taken from issue 7 of PORT. To subscribe or buy a back issue, click here