A Day in the Life of the Pinstripe Suit

And you thought it was business as usual, right? Wrong. It's a brand-new day for the pinstripe suit. From morning till night, here's how the new masters of the universe are putting it together.

"The dark ages are over," says Derrill Osborn, the highly respected director of men's clothing at Neiman Marcus. "We're seeing a definite trend to brighter colors and suitings with a much more pronounced stripe—a red stripe with a red lining, a turquoise stripe with a turquoise lining—lifting the whole thing up." And so goes the latest chapter in the evolution of a classic: After years of predictability, a new adventurous edge is transforming the pinstripe's staid reputation.

"There's a confidence in fashion right now," agrees Steven Willis, design director at Dormeuil fabrics company. "Though pinstripes have never been out of fashion, now you can see the colors returning to them. There's more daring in width and color, more interest in fabrics with a luxurious hand."

Look at the development of the pinstripe suit and you'll find a great deal of social history. Take the vest, introduced to England, legend has it, by King Charles II and described by diarist Samuel Pepys in 1666 as "a cassocke close to the body, of black cloth and a coat over it." Consider the trouser cuff made popular 200 years later by Edward, Prince of Wales, who—as the story goes—turned up his pants' bottoms the "wrong" way (by accident) in the course of a muddy day's hunting. Or the jacket, a modern version of the coat worn in the 18th century by workers and young boys and adopted by the Prince of Wales in the 1850s. Later the prince began having his jackets designed in rich fabrics for men-only events and the informal dinner jacket was born. (It would become known as the "tuxedo," in honor of Tuxedo Park, a dapper social enclave just north of Manhattan.)

Despite its increasing sophistication, the jacket never did lose sight of its outdoor origins. The sleeve, for instance, is still designed to sit high under the armpit to allow a rider's rein-holding arm to stay comfortably forward. Lapels reference the way the high neck of the 18th-century riding coat would flop down on both sides when unbuttoned. Even the vents at the jacket's back, now purely for show, were once strictly functional. Originally at the sides, to provide access to a sword and for comfort while riding, they migrated to the rear via the Norfolk jacket, which was designed for freedom of movement while shooting.

How all these disparate elements came together into the mid-19th-century lounge suit, and from that into the modern business suit, is fairly well understood. But no one seems to know for certain the origin of the pinstripe. Hugh Holland, managing director of Kilgour French Stanbury on London's Savile Row, believes it's bound up in the history of uniforms. "At the time when striped trousers were worn with a morning coat in the City," he says, "banks identified themselves with different stripes—or so I've been told."

Steven Willis also thinks that the stripe was a sartorial declaration of reliability and probity, "an echo of the columns in an accountant's ledgers." But Susan North, the deputy curator of textiles and dress in London's Victoria and Albert Museum, profoundly disagrees.

"When the striped suit arrived on the scene," North says, "it wasn't staid or respectable at all—it was flashy!" The pinstripe was a fashion of the 1920s, when there was a lot more variety in both fabrics and patterns—Fair Isle sweaters, hound's-tooth checks, Oxford bags—and North believes it was inspired by the boating suit of the 1890s, which had a thin, dark stripe on a white or cream background.

"It was in sporting gear like the boating suit that there'd always been the most opportunity for self-expression in men at a time when their formalwear was very dark and somber," she says, gesturing toward photographs of Clark Gable and Fred Astaire in pinstripes. "Just look at those suits. Double-breasted, with wide lapels—they're obviously for show!"

The pinstripe itself, which is usually woven into worsted cloth, is made up of pinhead-sized dots of yarn—silk, mercerized cotton, or sometimes man-made materials—which form a stripe, though not a continuous one. It is closely related to several other kinds of stripes, which are often called by the same name.

The lace-line stripe has two or more pinheads side by side, encouraging bold effects. London bespoke tailor Richard James, for example, has strong, brightly colored lace lines in a silver stripe with lavender and bright greens.

With the chalk stripe, which is thicker and usually on flannel, the stripe material and the ground become slightly mixed in the milling, creating a somewhat smudgy or out-of-focus look. It can also be made on a material with a clear finish, where it looks like a wider and more defined pinstripe.

Then there's the rope stripe, most often seen on worsted wool. It has a weave to it, creating a diagonal, or spiral, stripe effect. The rope stripe is broader than a pinstripe; in fact, when made in flannel, it's hard to distinguish at a distance from a chalk stripe.

"The point, though, about all these different effects," says Paul Maskell of Savile Row's Huntsman, "is that where stripes used to be in gray or white or navy blue, they are now brighter—in browns and burgundies, for example." Men's tailor and designer Ozwald Boateng has a fine example of this in an orange pinstripe on a brown background.

Everyone speaks of the sheer exuberance of the contemporary stripe. "Younger men are now getting into suits," says Wilkes Bashford, proprietor of celebrated stores in San Francisco and Palo Alto. "They're taking up the classics, but in enhanced, more colorful versions—classics with a twist to them, what I call a kicker, things that look new rather than out of a closet." And thanks to technical developments at the mill level, these looks can now be rendered in lighter, fresher fabrics.

It's the same story from weavers to fabric designers to bespoke tailors. Hugh Holland of Kilgour French Stanbury (which once made pinstripe suits for Cary Grant) tells me of the fabrics being woven for him now: gray flannels, one with a purple stripe, the other with a deep fern green—as well as two other materials with a novelty-spaced pinstripe, with quite a distance between the dots.

Rosemarie Boon, the sales coordinator of Fox Brothers, a nearly 230-year-old, top-of-the-line weaving mill in Wellington, England, describes pink and bright-red stripes on purples and navies.

Then Boon tells me of a fabric inspired by the Fox archives from the 1920s—a very sporty ecru flannel with a royal-blue stripe. And it's this that finally persuades me that dress historian Susan North has to be right: The stripe must have arrived in the lounge (or business) suit from the sporting field. For all its later reputation as the drab uniform of the establishment, it must have originally been what it is fast becoming again today: dandyish and declarative, the opposite of self-effacing. The expression, in short, of total self-confidence.

So today the pinstripe and its cousins are simply returning to their roots. And as we enter a new period of dandyism (the inevitable result of a prolonged period of prosperity) the striped garment is the perfect foil on which to write any number of novel descants of self-expression. After all, as Rosemarie Boon, whose company invented the famous West of England flannel, says, stripes can vary greatly in width. "They can be from less than half a centimeter to an inch and a half apart; and there are all sorts of extraordinary color effects that can be produced using our traditional warp and weft system." Tradition made new by a sense of adventure—this, it seems to me, is the key.

Equally crucial is the use of the very best fabrics, the kind made by short-run, artisanal mills like Fox Brothers and Taylor & Lodge, which aims to supply, as its managing director Gordon Kaye puts it, "the top half-percentage of the world's population."

"The time when stripes were made with fancy elasticated fabrics or even metals is over," explains Holland. "We've gone back to a strong feeling for texture, for the soft hand of a material, the exquisite finish of a mill cloth like flannel."

There will no doubt come a time when stores will catch up with all the possibilities of pinstripes and will flood the market with inferior imitations. But Steven Willis of Dormeuil isn't bothered. Trained as a designer, he works closely with the mills, developing elegant and unusual new fabrics. He sees the current pinstripe story as "the chance to have now what the fashion will be in two or three years."

Holland agrees. "It's a question of wearing tomorrow's fashion today." Then he adds gravely, "That, after all, is precisely what bespoke clothing is for."

"This new trend in men's clothing," Neiman Marcus' Derrill Osborn says quietly, "is about taking a more romantic approach to gentlemen's dress, coupled with a sense of adventure. And the adventurous should remember that the suit's lapel buttonhole is left open: It can be filled with a flower. Already we're seeing this—young people simply stopping, picking a flower, and fixing it in the buttonhole—catching, as the new suitings do, the spirit of the moment, of life on the wing."

Jo Durden-Smith wrote about the history of Brioni in the March/April issue of Departures.