The restoration of the English monarchy in 1660 was a tricky affair politically. Although parliament proposed bringing back Charles from exile and putting him on the throne, the French splendour (and fashions) with which he was associated were not popular. He had spent part of his exile in France with Louis XIV (the Sun King) who lived in great opulence, and any obvious associations with this in Charles’s dress would not have gone down well.
His reaction effectively invented the three-piece suit.
I knew this story already, but it was wonderfully described and elaborated on in an episode of the BBC Radio 4 series ‘Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s Men of Fashion’, currently airing. Those in the UK can catch up with some of it at www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer.
From the moment Charles landed in England he wore few foppish clothes – neutral, classical dress without the big wigs and red high heels popular on the continent. He is depicted in painting nearly always in plain clothes or armour. And he made a point of deliberately mixing with the people as he walked up and down the Mall, as well as playing tennis – sweating and puffing around the court in a special outfit – in public view.
He looked, as one historian put it on the programme “like an ordinary bloke”.
But his court was still profligate and renowned for the extravagant tastes of its courtiers. The reaction against this and the court’s French dress was intensified by three disastrous events in the middle of the decade – war in 1664, the Plague in 1665 and the Great Fire in 1666. The Fire, in particular, was blamed on papists and the French.
So on October 7 1666 Charles issued a declaration that his court would no longer wear ‘French fashions’. Instead, it would adopt what was known at the time as the Persian vest. A long waistcoat to be worn with a knee-length coat and similar-length shirt, it was made of English wool, not French silk. The emphasis was on cloth and cut, not ruffles and accessories.
Indeed, you could argue that the English suiting tradition began here – concentrating on silhouette and quality of wool rather than colour or decoration – systematised by the plain propriety of Beau Brummel a century later.
The outfit was finished off with a sash, stockings and buckled shoes. Over time the waistcoat became shorter and shorter, until by around 1790 it reached the length we recognise today. It had been sleeveless since the 1750s.
The first version was modelled by the King himself outside Westminster Hall and, as described by diarist Samuel Pepys, was “of black cloth and pinked with white silk under it”.
Over time it became an excuse for extravagance, with some in the 18th century wearing them with up to 20 buttons and in patterns of spots, stripes and flora. But the version worn by Beau, in white or black is the one known to us today as part of a three-piece suit.