A brief history of tailoring

The history of men’s tailoring is steeped in history, indeed rummaging down through the component parts of a suit can be likened to an archaeological dig, each layer revealing a fascinating glimpse into the past.

While males have been wearing elaborate outfits made from a single fabric throughout history, suits really took on the form we recognise today in the late 1800s when Henry Poole & Co, a tailoring company on the now infamous Savile Row in London, changed the course of men’s fashion by creating the first modern dinner jacket – an item designed specifically for the high political class and military elite.

Henry Poole & Co’s designs can be directly traced back to the age of widespread military action, and were created to make soldiers’ lives easier on the battlefield. Opening for business in 1806 and specialising in military tailoring, Poole & Co fitted out soldiers for war during the Battle of Waterloo, where the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon Bonaparte’s La Grande Armée in 1815. And it is easy to see the influences that Napoleon’s all-conquering cavalry officers, with their open single-breasted blue and white overcoat with white waistcoat over white trousers, had on these early British suits.


British tailoring focused largely on heavy, durable cloth which had the double benefit of lasting a long time and also providing warmth during changeable weather conditions, especially if soldiers were out on patrol for days at a time. However, with manmade fabrics like nylon not created until the 1930s, those early suits were heavy and natural fabrics such as wool didn’t offer much stretch, meaning functionality and flexibility had to be designed into the garments.

Arm holes

The armholes on a British suit, literally where the fabric for the sleeves slots into the body of the outfit, are cut high up, right underneath the armpit. The reason for this is simple: when a soldier is holding a rifle, he wants to be able to freely move his arms in any direction, and tighter fitting armholes, free of excess fabric, allow him to do this unhindered. By contrast, the American suit, which originates from New York in the “Roaring Twenties” when suits were highly sought after by the burgeoning business class, has a much looser fit with lower armholes and no shoulder padding.

Surgeon’s cuff

The surgeon’s cuff, a buttoned slit at the bottom of the suit sleeve, allowed military doctors to easily roll up their sleeves during emergency surgery. It is now a staple of all British suits, in contrast to American or Italian versions that have straight, buttonless sleeves.

Action back

The action back comes in various forms but it is essentially a pleat in the back of the jacket that means the fabric will flex with the wearer, especially when twisting or lifting their arms above their shoulders. While it was perfect for military men, it was co-opted for use in increasingly popular 18th-century outdoor activities like game shooting.


The first dress shoe became a necessity during the Napoleonic Wars. It is said that Prussian general Gebhard Leberecht von Blucher observed his soldiers having trouble getting their boots on and off. To solve the problem, he asked a shoemaker to design a half-boot with two leather flaps across the front held together by laces, thus giving the world the Blucher dress shoe.


Epaulettes are purely decoratively in men’s jackets and shirts today but in the Napoleonic Wars, epaulettes were used as a way to distinguish a soldier’s regiment.