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Taking a break from the news in Afghanistan, I have noted with dismay the news that Marks & Spencer will no longer be stocking men’s suits.

The famous British department store chain is now selling elastated trousers but said that it still has suits to buy online for those who cannot find them in their local store. What man would want to do that?

On August 29, the Times reported (emphases mine):

M&S said it still had a large collection of suits available online and either delivered or collected from 700 locations. Almost all of its clothing stores still sell shirts and ties.

That’s good to know (sarc off).

Customers returning to normality after coronavirus restrictions do not care much for M&S’s new normal:

One customer, Steve Jackson, who appeared to have moved back from abroad, wrote on Twitter: “The local Marks & Spencer no longer sells suits. How long was I away?!”

Another customer, Lisa Shaw, was disappointed after visiting a branch in Bristol, saying: “We went to Marks & Spencer today to buy my husband a suit. They have no suits! Smart trousers but no jackets.”

Katie Saint tweeted: “We’ve been to several of your shops around Leeds and Bradford and none seem to stock many/any of your range of suits.”

How unfortunate.

The American habit of casual dress for the office has taken root in the UK over the past 20+ years. What used to be ‘dress down Friday’ here has become a daily norm. Working from home over the past year and a half has put a nail in the coffin of sartorial elegance.

A Kantar study showed that suit sales have slumped:

British shoppers bought two million men’s suits in the year up to last month, compared with 4.3 million five years ago and five million a decade ago, according to new research from the analysts Kantar.

Women’s wear is moving in the same direction:

Sales of women’s suits have fallen less sharply from 600,000 a year in 2017 to 500,000 today. M&S said that in the year to April, sales of formal wear were down by 15 per cent online and 72 per cent in stores compared with a year earlier. During the same period, sales of casualwear were up 61 per cent online.

If it were just M&S dropping suits, that would be fine. However, men’s clothiers were suffering even before lockdown:

The suit chain TM Lewin shut all 66 of its UK shops last year, while Moss Bros reported pre-tax losses of £7.4 million for the year to January 2020 and was delisted from the London Stock Exchange last year after a drawn-out takeover process.

Any man wanting an M&S suit and cannot find one in his local shop will have to go online where he can receive a consultation, says Wes Taylor, director of M&S menswear:

we still want to be the go-to for a great suit whatever the occasion. Lots of men want help buying a suit from an expert so during the pandemic we also launched online video consultations.

How sad that a male rite of passage has died out. M&S first produced suits in 1939, initially out of woolen flannel.

Harry Mount, a journalist and author, feels at home in a suit. He wrote about M&S’s decision for the Daily Mail and noted that fewer than half of the company’s stores now stock them:

it emerged this weekend only 110 of its 254 clothing stores still stock suits — that’s well under half of them.

Very much an Englishman, Mount regrets the demise of the suit:

Workers returning to the office are opting for what the fashion world has recently termed the ‘broken suit’ — in old parlance a jacket and trousers.

GQ magazine recently ran an article about the ‘broken suit’ talking about combinations which suggest effort and care, as well as a touch of ‘studied carelessness’.

Sounds very like smart-casual to me. And just as confusing. Care and carelessness at the same time? Smart and casual?

In 2019, Goldman Sachs, the huge American bank, announced a move to a ‘flexible dress code’; JP Morgan, another American bank, now asks its workers to wear ‘business-casual’ — another indefinable mystery for the petrified man dressing in the morning.

These banks, I suppose, are emulating the scruffy dress code of the big tech companies, exemplified by Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook chief who’s almost permanently in a T-shirt or hoodie and jeans, and the late Steve Jobs, the Apple supremo, clad in black turtleneck and jeans.

Zuckerberg says he wears his grey T-shirt every day because he believes that thinking about clothes is ‘silly’ and ‘frivolous’.

But, surely, he’s the silly one. The great joy about the suit is that men don’t have to think.

It removes the question of what you should wear each day — apart from your choice of shirt — and equips you with the most stylish outfit known to man.

Mount gives us a history of the modern suit:

Here was not just affordable tailoring for the masses, but history made cloth.

The M&S suit is a descendant of the 18th-century British riding coat, which mutated into the morning coat (similar to what you might wear at a wedding) in the 19th century.

In around 1900, that long coat morphed into the Deeside coat, which was still pretty long — it had four buttons down the front.

The British dropped the fourth button just before World War I, and the modern suit was born. The Americans copied us after World War I, going for three buttons. Then, after World War II, the Americans introduced the two-button suit.

For a century, then, from World War I until now, the British suit has ruled the world.

True, there have been changes over the years. Suit trousers and lapels became very thin during the Mod years in the 1960s.

They became regrettably flared and wide in the 1970s. Suits turned boxy and shaped in the 1980s before reverting to their classic form in the 1990s, where they have hovered ever since.

Materials changed, too. M&S branched out of that original 1939 flannel suit into tweed, wool, linen and — God forbid — polyester.

But, still, at heart, the suit’s DNA stayed essentially the same: matching trousers and jacket with lapel, cuffs, a breast pocket and two side pockets.

British rock ‘n’ roll stars popularised the suit for new generations of young men. The Beatles wore them in their early years, as did the Rolling Stones. Throughout his life, their drummer, the late Charlie Watts, bought bespoke suits in Savile Row, at Huntsman:

Watts’s suits remained timelessly cool.

At one time, Bryan Ferry was the face of M&S suits. And who can forget David Bowie in his?

Mount tells us that the word for suit in Japanese is the pronunciation of Savile Row: ‘Saburo’.

He says:

British suits are literally synonymous with formal wear across the globe. How sad, then, that we are now waving goodbye to one of our greatest inventions.

I couldn’t agree more.

Will the great British suit ever make a comeback? Only if our rock ‘n’ rollers start wearing them again.


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