Suit yourself

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Suit yourself

Late one evening in a mildly lit corner of Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel a group of spiffily dressed men are comparing notes. It’s not cigar sizes or the velvety smoothness of single malts that they’re discussing. Rather, the sujet du jour this particular evening happens to be a far more serious one: a discussion of who makes India’s best suits.
The strengths of olde-worlde tailors are debated with equal fervour as those of crisp cutters such as Narendra Kumar Ahmed in a conversation whose fervour is rarely matched.

For more than a century – 150 years to be as precise as possible, whether donned as business battledress or as a ringing fashion statement, the lounge suit has animated, excited and quietly thrilled those wearing it. Although it is often roundly dismissed as boring – and rejected by the likes of Steve Jobs and other Silicon Valley gods held in high esteem here in Bangalore – there’s nevertheless something about a suit that can change the way a man is perceived: it can confer anonymity or set its wearer apart.

Hrithik RoshanSuits evolved into their present form around the middle of the 19th century, the result of a confluence between post-Enlightenment narcissism, Napoleonic style, English Regency dandies and an increasing need for informality.

Over the years since Charles II ordered his courtiers to dress in simple tunics, shirts and breeches around the middle of the 17th century, men’s garments evolved into the suit in incremental steps. 

The jacket’s padded shoulders bear the hallmark of military epaulettes, and shorter lengths and vents came in to aid horseback riding. From Brummel came tightly fitted trousers and coats, an attempt to emulate Greek statues of naked men.

And the now-useless cuff buttons were supposedly created by Napoleon, who was fed up of seeing his soldiers’ dirty coat sleeves, these being where they wiped their faces after eating. By introducing buttons, soldiers could clean up on their shirts, leaving their coats looking sharp. When French tailors moved to Savile Row in the 19th century, they found these sleeves demanded by surgeons, who could attend patients spouting blood without removing their coats, an important distinction that set them apart from shirt-sleeved tradesmen.

But the final acceptance of the suit came from across the Atlantic, with the rise of American business culture towards the turn of the 19th century, when the American office worker opted for a modern, informal set of clothes.

Over the next 50 years, the suit evolved further, and by the post-Second World War period, double-breasted suits had come into vogue, favoured as evening wear, while waistlines went north, as seen in the Zoot Suit. By the seventies, the business suit was narrower, closer fitting and much more brightly coloured, a visible nod to the psychedelic decades. Ten years and Miami Vice later, jeans had become the rule with everything and odd coats were increasingly paired with denim.

In recent years, we have seen the suit go further, with superior fabrics, a wide variety of prints and blends, and functional attributes. The art and science of designing a suit crossed new frontiers and walked down ramps in the fashion capitals of the world.

And of course, India has its own contribution to the trends, embracing the mandarin collar and truncating the traditional sherwani to spawn the Nehru jacket. Created in the 1940s as the Band Gale Ka Coat, it has been popular ever since, crossing over into the West in the mid-60s, when it was embraced and popularised by bands such as the Monkees and the Beatles.

Whether the suit survives in its present form or adapts into something else will depend on what its wearers want from it. Australian suit makers, for instance, are creating jackets that can be folded and stored on aeroplanes. Italian designer Giorgio Armani believes he has plenty of room to grow before he has achieved the perfect suit.
 
However, whatever shape it takes, for now, like single malts and cigars, it seems unlikely that the suit is going anywhere. Like Armani has said many times before, “The most important element is that the wearer feels confident and comfortable.”

After all, with the right fit and proportion, a man in a suit can stand taller and appear more confident. And as any corporate warrior knows, that’s half the battle won.

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