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.
Thus the birth of the three-piece suit on 7 October 1666 is recorded with a mixture of solemnity and fanfare in the diary of Samuel Pepys. The adoption of this new fashion ended a long era of the doublet and hose in male fashion. Its introduction by Charles II in the tumultuous seventeenth century was, however, more of a political than fashion statement. The conspicuous fashion consumption of the Tudor-Stuart nobility earlier in the century was seen to threaten the country’s moral, economic and political well-being by feminising the ruling elite. By introducing this new, permanent fashion of coat, vest and breeches, Charles intended to put an end to the constant alteration of styles in noble fashions. It simultaneously attempted to teach the nobility thrift whilst stabilising royal power in the wake of the monarchy’s restoration in 1660. Manly thrift now displayed elite status in England.
Over the course of the eighteenth century the three-piece suit evolved in shape and style. In the first half of the century men’s clothing mirrored that of women’s, using the same types of materials, colouring and patterns. While ladies fashions retained their colour and vibrancy there was a move in men’s clothing towards a more sober, masculine approach. At the beginning of the century the coat and waistcoat both reached the bottom of the breeches, completely covering the thighs.
The vast length of these garments gradually retreated and by the 1780s the waistcoat, in a form more recognisable to us today, was cut horizontally at the hips. Similarly, the male silhouette changed from a rather stumpy, triangular shape in the mid-eighteenth century into a more streamlined, slimmer, straighter silhouette by the 1780s as flared coats fell out of fashion.
Charles II believed he had found the epitome of fashionable male wear when he instigated the use of a vest – a fashion that would never change. And despite alterations to the three-piece suit’s shape and style, he was largely right. It remains a mainstay of fashionable male wear to this day.