Manufactured during the period now known as La Belle Époque (1871 – 1914), this suit from La Belle Jardinière is an example of the more affordable, ready-to-wear suiting options available to Parisian men.
Established in 1824, La Belle Jardinière was the first department store in Paris to consolidate all aspects of its operations – employee housing, workshops and sales floors – into one structure. This efficient use of resources allowed the company to provide ready-to-wear clothes at a modest price to those unable to afford a custom suit of unique design.
The suits made by La Belle Jardinière were of a high quality and were a welcome addition to the middle-class wardrobe, but they were not a comparable option for those able to afford more expensive suiting. In Sex and Suits, Anne Hollander commented that ready-to-wear suiting played a particular role in society. “What we now call suits existed, but they were emphatically informal, or else noticeably lower-class. The gentlemen’s ‘lounge-suit,’ all parts made of a singular fabric, had originally been intended for leisured country life and very private city use, to be worn only at home and among intimates…. A gentlemen might travel in his comfortable lounge-suit; but it was certainly not acceptable at the bank or the firm, nor at church, nor at highly formal social events in the day-time, nor for anything at all in the evenings” (109).
Later in the same chapter, Hollander explains the elitism of the upper-class, and the strong reaction to the increased availability of suiting for the middle-class merchants. “It was during this period, when similar suits began to suit everybody, that ferocious sneering about ready-made suits began to seep into snobbish rhetoric. In life as well as literature, ‘ill-fitting’ and similar terms would describe the modest suits of persons with the wrong moral qualities, to signal their emotional maladroitness and instability, even their unscrupulousness, and automatically consign them to lower levels of being. ‘Off-the-rack’ itself became a term of deep opprobrium. As we know, ready-to-wear suits can fit perfectly and be made of beautiful stuff; but the rhetoric persists, even now” (110).
So, as ready-to-wear suiting became popular, the wealthiest class cast a discerning eye upon the fit, fabric, and source of these affordable waistcoats, slacks and jackets. They continued their search until they found something to disdain.
Quotes from: Hollander, Anne. Sex and Suits. New York: Kodansha International, 1994, pages 65 – 67.