Why Did People Stop Wearing Suits? | by Alexander Yung | May, 2022

The decline of American formal dress throughout the decades

A Street in New York in 1911 Colorized. Source: Youtube

IfIf you ever looked at photos from the early 1900s, you’ll see that practically everyone is wearing a suit in public. But if you look at photos today, almost nobody is wearing a suit. So why did people stop wearing suits? To find out, we’ll first have to analyze the suit’s evolution.

Before WWI, having a black or grey three-piece suit, striped trousers, a tie, and a bowler hat was essential for a man’s dress. After WWI, the style remained, as it symbolized a secure, nice life that so many soldiers daydreamed about during the war:

Suit with Bowler Hat. Source: Pinterest

After WWII, millions of returning soldiers wore the “demob” clothing, which consisted of the following: underwear, jacket, trousers, shirt, overcoat, hat, socks, and shoes:

Demob Suits. 1945. Source: Reddit.

Generally, these suits were very high quality, made from Scotch tweed suits. These suits also coincided with the post-war era’s culture of conservatism, with many working men wearing two-piece suits daily in cities and towns.

This conservative look radically changed during the 1960s. The 1960’s counter-culture saw the “peacock” revolution, which gave designers many ways to experiment with suits’ colors, textures, and patterns:

The Peacock Revolution. Source: Google Images.

These colorful suits appear to signal the end of formal dress in western countries. But this isn’t necessarily the case. Western men began dressing “casually” years ago, dating back to the 1910s. The 1910s saw the introduction of the Norfolk suit, a distinctive coat with deep pleats front and back:

Norfolk Jacket. Source: Gentlemen Gazette

The suit was designed for sports, and began the gradual acceptance of sportswear within American culture. In the late 1920s, American men also began wearing sports coats, instead of traditional suits to college. Eventually, people began wearing sports coats with other clothes like sweaters, leading to a more casual look:

Babe Ruth Wears a Navy Blazer with White Trousers, Two-Tone Shoes. Source: Vintage Dancer

Another step towards casual dressing was the introduction of shorts in the late 1920s. Due to bicycling’s ever-increasing popularity during the 1920s, both men and women began wearing shorts while bicycling:

Men Bicycling in Shorts. The 1880s-1920s. Source: Google Images

Thirty years later, Americans wore exposed to more “unisexing” of clothes, the rise of suburban department stores, and the increase of television and magazines. And this further led to more casual dressing for men and women.

When the 60s came along, women wore t-shirts, jeans, and button-down collared shirts, and it was fashionable for men to have long hair — causing both sexes to have very similar clothing styles. By the time the 90s came around, western clothing standards were very casual, and the suit became even more casual-looking. The 90s saw the arrival of the boy band Boyzone, whose members wore clean, white suits:

Boyzone’s White Suits. Source: Google Images.

This led to a shift in western male clothing standards, as it became acceptable to wear a business suit without a tie. And this loosening of clothing standards became what’s now called, “casual business wear,” which would include polo shirts, blazers, and chinos.

The “suit” has never stopped being worn entirely, but has instead changed and evolved throughout the years. Now, the “suit” has become casual-looking and has taken a back seat to more causal clothing styles like t-shirts and jeans. With globalization, American clothing standards have caused many other countries to emulate the same causal dressing styles, causing a decline in the “traditional” suit’s use in daily life.

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Clemente, D., & Square, Z. P. (2015, August 5). Fashion: Why and when did Americans begin to dress so casually? Time. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from https://time.com/3984690/american-casual-dressing/

Green, D. (2015, September 10). There’s a startlingly simple reason that Americans dress so casually, according to a historian. Business Insider. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from https://www.businessinsider.com/theres-a-startlingly-simple-reason-why-americans-dress-so-casually-according-to-a-historian-2015-9

Ferdman, R. A. (2021, November 25). Why Americans dress so casually. The Washington Post. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/09/08/why-americans-dress-so-casually/

Wikimedia Foundation. (2022, April 11). Demob suit. Wikipedia. Retrieved May 22, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demob_suit

Weeks, L. (2015, April 7). When wearing shorts was taboo. NPR. Retrieved May 25, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/sections/npr-history-dept/2015/04/07/397804245/when-wearing-shorts-was-taboo

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