The three-piece suit (a jacket, trousers and waistcoat) was first introduced to Britain by King Charles II in 1666. Men had long worn variations of trousers and jackets, but the ‘Merry Monarch’, as the king was known, introduced a third element—the vest—to boost the English wool trade and force noblemen to abandon French fashion. Samuel Pepys, a politician who kept a detailed diary from 1660 until 1669, wrote on 8 October, 1666: “The King hath yesterday in Council declared his resolution of setting a fashion for clothes, which he will never alter. It will be a vest, I know not well how, but it is to teach the nobility thrift, and will do good.”
The new vest was a tight-fit, knee-length garment that followed the line of the coat and was worn underneath it. Made from plain, cheap material, it was supposed to discourage the costly use of lace and muslins, which had previously been worn under men’s jackets. Nine days later, Pepys remarked that “the court is all full of vests” and scheduled an appointment with his own tailor. Ever the rival, French King Louis XIV ordered his footmen to adopt the vest as a way to debase the new English style.
Although King Charles II favoured plain black velvet vests, some men wore lavishly embroidered varieties. French courtiers quickly adopted the new style as well, in particular silk waistcoats with rich trims and embroidery. By 1700, the silhouette of the waistcoat was shortened and simplified—skirts reached above the knee and the garment no longer featured collars or sleeves. Over the course of the next century, the waistcoat became an increasingly decorative, flamboyant and varied component of the three-piece suit.
The rise of the dandy
The three-piece suit was transformed in the 19th century by dandies such as Beau Brummell, a middle-class captain who befriended the Prince of Wales. Brummell rejected the ornate (and expensive) style of breeches and stockings in favour of understated, but perfectly tailored bespoke trousers, white waistcoats and a dark jacket with tails.
By the end of the 19th century, the men’s three-piece suit had become even more sober, representing seriousness and rationality as opposed to the exuberant women’s versions, which were deemed frivolous and irrational. At the start of the century, waistcoats were made out of a different fabric and colour than the coat, but over time it became fashionable to have a suit cut from the same fabric.
From the mid-20th century onwards, the three-piece suit was slowly phased out in favour of the more casual lounge suit (a jacket and trousers). The waistcoat, which had been used to house a pocket watch, no longer served a functional purpose when men began wearing wristwatches. By the end of the second world war, the three-piece suit had become more of a novelty fashion statement than the norm for working men. However, it remained de rigueur for formal occasions.
Waistcoats for women
No longer worn by the mainstream, the three-piece suit was free to be adopted by the Teddy Boys, or Teds, in Britain in the 1950s. A subculture of mainly wealthy young men, the Teds embraced American rock’n’roll and neo-Edwardian Savile Row three-piece suits. The Teddy Boy uniform was a drape jacket, similar to the 1940s Zoot suits (high-waist drainpipe trousers and a brocade waistcoat). Teddy Girls also embraced the look, waistcoat included. However, Hollywood actress Marlene Dietrich was the true trend-setter, rising to fame 20 years before the Teds in the 1920 film, Morocco – in part thanks to her tuxedo-wearing character.
In 1966, Yves Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking tuxedo suit shocked the establishment by popularising two and three-piece suits for women. Where Dietrich had been forced to tailor men’s suits to fit her, YSL designed his suits specifically for the female body. And while Dietrich’s suit created waves when it appeared onscreen, the style was not democratised among women at the time. Saint Laurent’s Le Smoking, however, helped women—first the elite and then the middle class—become comfortable wearing a style traditionally seen as menswear.
A brief disco interlude followed in the 1970s: see the classic image of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, wearing a white suit over a black shirt. Colourful three-piece suits soon became the go-to look for the disco crowd. By the 1980s, the trouser suit silhouette defined the working woman, too. Although some wore waistcoats or vests with their suits, most preferred the two-piece paired with a blouse.
Today, the three-piece suit has been fully embraced by womenswear designers; Thom Browne has popularised a version featuring his distinctive silhouette; and Maria Grazia Chiuri’s autumn/winter 2019 collection for Dior paid homage to the feminine androgyny of the Teddy Girls.