A History of Men’s Fashion in America Part I: The Early Years

A History of Men's Fashion in America Part I The Early Years featured image Art Lewin Bespoke

The history of fashion is a long, deeply fascinating story. The story begins all the way back in Neolithic times when humans first started dawning clothes. Back then, we can reasonably speculate that style was largely determined by practicality and availability of resources, and secondarily by ritual or social-hierarchical factors.

Men’s fashion stayed relatively stable for hundreds of thousands of years when humans were primarily nomadic. It was only with the rise of agriculturalism and animal husbandry that settler communities were able to reliably produce wool and other materials for clothes. During these ancient days, anthropological and archaeological evidence suggests that the primary function of fashion was to distinguish one’s social role and wealth. We can easily tell the difference between a peasant and a rich man by the presence of materials like gold and fine linens.

The first indisputable society where we can say that fashion overtook the fundamental functional purposes of clothing was Ancient Egypt. Before we dive into that, however, let us first mention where Art Lewin fits in this story. With our custom-made, bespoke suits, we aim to uphold the long tradition of artisan craftsmanship that this history will speak of. If you are in Los Angeles and are looking for a suit that is paradoxically both deeply traditional as well as extremely stylish, check out our Private Label suits. Contact us today for more information.

Alright, now back to Ancient Egypt.

Men’s Fashion in the Ancient World

The first uniforms appeared during the time of the Pharaohs. These were created for soldiers and officers. Fashion during this time remained a way to distinguish oneself as having high social status, with the common adornment of precious materials signifying royalty and wealth. What really distinguishes Ancient Egypt from other relatively civilized societies is that it had a very different attitude from most other civilized societies regarding nudity. As societies become more civilized, the general trend is to see nakedness being increasingly associated with low status. In Ancient Egypt, however, pretty much everyone went around in some degree of nudity, with only adornments or loincloths (for men called a shendyt). Both men and women wore the bare minimum of clothing. Why this is important is that what appeared then was almost pure fashion, as when someone did wear clothes it didn’t have much to do about any practical purpose, as nudity was considered the natural state of things. The fashion for upper class men during this time generally just meant a nicer loincloth and more jewelry. Of course, the pharaoh would wear all sorts of animal skins, mostly leopard and lion, to denote their status.

Why are we talking about Ancient Egyptian fashion in a history of American fashion? It all comes down to style.

Style, coming from the latin stilus, originally designated the nib of a quill and was subsequently expanded to refer to the characteristic manner of a genre, era, or individual. Style comes down to being a function of its epoch, cultural region, language, etc., intersecting the dynamics of art history and aesthetics. “Style is the man himself,” to quote Buffon. Extending that in his Ecrits, Lacan added “[Style is] the man one is speaking to.” The crucial historical break that sets the stage for the rapidly transforming stage of fashion that American culture experiences can be argued to have only become a possibility with the negative move of nudity of the Ancient Egyptians — for it was the Egyptians who finally broke away from millennia of pure practicality and established the possibility of fashion as we understand it today.

American Men’s Fashion: The Early Years

Jumping way ahead now, we turn to American men’s fashion. At the beginning of the 18th century, the wealthy man’s outfit entailed a coat, waistcoat, and breeches for formal occasions. The everyday working man’s costume, on the other hand, generally entailed a durable jacket and breeches made of deer- or buck-skin. There was also variation among the settlers according to religious affiliation, such as how the Puritans would wear loose jackets made of cotton and fastened with hooks and eyes. One of the most important events to influence men’s fashion occurred in the mid-1800s: the Industrial Revolution. The birth of all sorts of new industries created more diversity and wider availability of fashion to more than just the upper classes.

Upper class men at this time in American history generally wanted to appear as serious and solemn as possible. Casual attire was reserved exclusively for home, while in public they were expected to dress formally. The tailcoat, basically a fancier waistcoat, was expected to be worn by status-conscious men during most social occasions as a sign of respect and proper etiquette. However, a new revolution was about to occur in men’s fashion. In the late 1800s, the modern lounge suit came into fashion.

Suits in America

Upper-class men began regularly wearing the lounge suit in the late 1800s. With the invention of the train, the automobile, and the steamship came greater ease of travel. Influenced by English style, Americans began to wear suits. The dinner jacket, tuxedo, and the double-breasted suits would quickly follow, though the tailcoat and morning coat remained more popular for traditionalists. However, for the younger generation, the modern suit as we know it was being born. That tailored suit would soon play a bigger role in American fashion than arguably any other outfit. From the roarin’ 20s to becoming the universal men’s formal-wear, the suit has dominated men’s fashion since the beginning of the 20th century.

That’s why, in part II of this series on the history of men’s fashion in America, we will be focusing on the history of the suit in America during the 20th century.

If you are considering being part of this long tradition, consider getting a bespoke suit; a custom-tailored suit that fits your proportions correctly. If you are in Los Angeles and want a suit of the highest quality that fits you well, check out Art Lewin’s Private Label suits. There is no substitute for a suit made just for you, so contact us today to learn more about our suit options!

Every Art Lewin Bespoke product is created with enormous attention to detail and designed just for you. We do everything — design, stitching, ironing testing, and more. Our standards are such that every thread must be placed perfectly. Contact us for a fitting today, and get a suit that is truly unique.

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