Does the grey flannel suit deserve a place in every man's wardrobe? G. Bruce Boyer certainly thinks so.
As everyone knows, the word flannel comes from the Old Welsh gwlanen, and was used for a thousand years for a variety of underclothing because of its abilities to keep the wearer warm while wicking perspiration away. By the 18th century the cloth became popular for dressing gowns, and by the middle of the 19th for casual trousers and sports jackets. At the century’s end flannel had become stylish for lounge suits.
It’s the blithe casualness and laid-back comfort that’s always characterized flannel’s modern appeal. At first it was wealthy gentlemen who adopted white flannels and navy blazers for sports such as rowing, golf, tennis, and cricket in the second half of the 19th century. But as more and more middle class men had acquired the time and money to enjoy these leisure pastimes by the turn into the 20th century, stores were selling ready-made trousers, sports jackets, and suits in plain, striped, and even checked flannel. When the Great War ended in 1918, social conventions relaxed, there was further economic improvement, and the weekend habit of casual attire filtered through almost all classes. Flannel suits, and trousers with tweed jackets became the Great Sartorial Levellers in the first half of the 20th century.
By the 1950s, the grey flannel suit had become in the States a symbol for both Ivy League campus dress and the sartorial symbol for the Eastern Establishment Corporate Look [EECL] among men who were interested not in signalling a flamboyant or overt power, but rather showing an understated, democratic deshabille more in tune with a new world order. So much for the short history.
The great charm of flannel today is that it makes the connection between the city suit and the comfort of casual wear. Like its warm-weather brother, linen, flannel eschews the sharp, shiny, crisp look of hard-finished worsteds. It tends to rather reflect a friendly charm, a gesture of ease and low-keyed chic that so effortlessly brushes aside the painstaking effort of mainstream elegance, and replaces it with an understated insouciance.
For myself, and if memory serves, I don’t think I’ve ever been without a grey flannel suit since I was 18. You never forget your first. That one was a plain medium grey 14oz cloth, single-breasted, three-button styling, and plain front trousers. It was my going-off-to-college suit. I’ve never been without a grey flannel suit in my wardrobe since. I’ve had both double-breasteds and single-breasteds, with and without waistcoats, in everything from dove grey to charcoal, with a few chalk-stripes thrown in for good measure. At the moment I’ve got a DB and three-piece SB, both in a foggy medium grey. They’re my default outfits whenever I want to resonate with those little graces of ease and charm, tradition and simple refinement. You know, the sort of outfit that suggests you’re going someplace more interesting later.