For a long time, I had a theory that the shrunken suit thing was a joke—that Thom Browne had started a movement the same way that L. Ron Hubbard allegedly started Scientology: on a bet to see how many followers he could collect. History tells us that really radical ideas have the power to stick. Coming out of the 1990s, suits had such excess shoulder padding, wide lapels, and excess room in the leg that one could almost cut two Thom Browne suits with all that fabric. The shrunken suit was such a radically different statement that it was almost a hyper-rebellious “fuck you” to suiting as we knew it in the decade prior.
Men’s fashion is like a pendulum that swings to a decade-long metronome. In the 1950s, suits were quite roomy, almost ’90s-like. The 1960s saw slimmer fits, narrow lapels and skinny ties. In the 1970s, we took a walk on the wide side with giant shirt collars, big jacket lapels, flared pants and ties that almost looked like bibs. By the year 2000, time was ripe for another pendulum swing.
When Thom sent the original cast of Brownettes down the runway in his first collection of shrunken suits in 2001, the world took notice. As with all radical ideas that get real traction, the more radical it is, the more it pulls the middle in its direction. The overall effect was a much-needed slimming of normal, non-fashionista suits, even with more traditionally conservative suit makers like Brooks Brothers and Paul Stuart. A perfect example is J.Crew’s Ludlow Suit, an extremely popular suit with markedly different widths and lengths from what we saw in the 1990s. (J.Crew even pushes that exposed ankle look real hard.)
The fringe effect was a legion of men who continue to take Browne’s bold and brilliant statement literally, squeezing into tiny jackets and pants that make grown men look like twelve-year-old boys still trying to fit into their First Communion suits.
If the past is the best predictor of the future, all of this will change. Again. Personally, I can’t see a return to hefty shoulder padding and wide trouser legs, but the Thom Browne Effect significantly pulled us down to a saner perspective with more focused tailoring.
Signs of another shift are already popping up. In recent photographs, Tom Ford is wearing jackets with six inch lapels and pants that could arguably be considered flared. A preview from an influencer on what’s to come? Maybe. I’ll do you one better: Thom Browne himself recently announced in Women’s Wear Daily that even he will be making more traditionally fitting suits with sleeves that cover the wrists and pants that touch the shoe.
Will pleated pants come back? As a 43 year old man who’s been personally conscious of fashion trends for 30 years and keenly observed looks on stylish icons in photos and movies that span six decades, I would argue that flat front trousers are more flattering (and honest) on the male shape. As for their return to runways, stores and streets, I suspect they’ll pop up on fashion victims who are hungry for something different merely because it’s different.
As I invest in my own wardrobe, I try to keep things in a trend-proof middle ground as much as possible. I look for two-button jackets with 2 1/2 to 3 inch lapels, minimal shoulder padding and a length that just covers my ass. With pants, I prefer a slim fit, a medium rise, a subtle taper and a small break that kisses the top of my shoe. Will my suits ever look silly? We’ll see.
One thing is certain: the pendulum will swing again.