/ Money, Shopping

Cost of a suit – what’s changed since the Mad Men era?

The new series of Mad Men is returning to our screens, along with its image of a universally well-dressed, well-suited, workplace. But a good suit needed deep pockets back in the 1960s…

While the pennies (and shillings) in the pockets of Mad Men’s characters aren’t the TV show’s focus, the archives of Which? show what’s changed in 50 years, and how expensive it would have been to get an interview with Don Draper.

The suit was de rigueur in the 1965 workplace, so Which? sent out a strapping model with mismatched legs (all the better for testing) to a range of tailors to have a suit made.

Cheap suits – from swinging Carnaby to austerity Britain

So, how much was a suit back in 1965? Well, our research found that a Savile Row suit took four fittings and four men around seven to nine weeks to make, and would cost up to £91 (£1,300 today).

A price that might be expected for Savile Row, but what about a cheaper option? Well we found one of those too – the cheapest suit we found in 1965 was £17, or £250 in today’s money. It only took one fitting and four to seven weeks to complete.

Wow – £250 for a cheap suit! This was when the average salary was about £12,000 in today’s money, compared to £23,000 now.

And nowadays you can buy an Asda suit for just £29! Of course, it’s made of the purest polyester (an option unavailable in the 60s) rather than pure wool. If you do want the traditional option, you can pick up a wool suit in the sales from about £100, or order a bespoke one for about £250.

But if you feel like splashing out you can still go to the 1965 winner, Savile Row’s H Huntsman, though the cost of  one of their bespoke suits has risen somewhat to £3,995.

Essential workplace wear for the job you’ve always dreamed of

When we published our report in 1965, the suit was essential in the office and especially during your interview. You really had no choice. No wonder Which? said at the time that you just had to ‘grit your teeth and buy a mid-range suit’.

As for today, there generally isn’t a dresscode in most offices, though a suit is still seen as essential for interviews. It is, however, much cheaper to pick up a decent suit for such occasions. And, you can always get help from a charity.

So while the cost of a suit has changed, one thing hasn’t – how to wear it well. That’s where our 1965 guide on how best to wear a suit comes in (click on the image to enlarge). After all, if you’ve spent so much on it, you’ll want to wear it right.

Does our advice still stand? Or would you like to see a 21st Century version – perhaps on the best way to wear beltless baggy trousers, or skinny jeans in Shoreditch.

How much have you shelled out on workwear for an interview, even if it wasn’t with Don Draper?

Comments
Member

I haven’t worn a suit for years. I never found wearing one made the equipment I had to work with go any faster. So many negative examples of suit wearing people these days. I wonder if politicians, bankers, lawyers etc. would be viewed on in a better light if they stopped wearing suits? And what do you call a man in a suit ? The accused.

Member

I remember that article in Which? magazine – it was the month I started work in an office. My parents had bought me a rather boring grey suit – off the peg, not tailor-made, for interviews and formal ocasions. I wore it for a short time until I realised that at my age and level in the organisation did not justify wearing a suit every day so I soon bought a decent jacket and a couple of pairs of dark trousers. As soon as I could afford to, however, I bought a rather natty two-piece made-to-measure suit in one of the high street tailors but I cannot now remember how much I paid for it. There were over a dozen tailors and outfitters in our north London shopping centre and most of them did ready-made and tailored suits, the latter requiring a long session for initial measuring and cloth selection – including discussions about how the trousers should fit and how many buttons to put on – followed fortnightly intervals by a preliminary fitting and then a final fitting. I remember the post-card that arrived saying “We thank you for your esteemed instructions and respectfully beg to inform you that your tailor-made suit is now in your local branch. We should be pleased if you would kindly arrange to attend for a fitting at your earliest convenience. Assuring you of our best attention at all times we present our compliments and trust that our service will meet with your entire satisfaction”. The only high street tailor’s name from those days surviving now is Burton but not as we knew it. Most male office staff wore a suit, sometimes the worse for wear and shinier than it was designed to be, and managerial staff wore a three-piece suit, sometimes having a wardrobe of two or three. Most areas had gentlemen’s tailors who would make made-to-measure suits on the premises [this was a fitted suit in a limited range of suitings to a standardised style] and would also make bespoke suits that were truly tailored to the individual form with every detail specifically chosen by the customer. I wore suits throughout my career and even though now retired, because I like wearing them and they are so comfortable, I still often wear a suit having about half a dozen in the wardrobe, the latest being a blue one bought in John Lewis’s recent sale. I can really only consider ready-made suits nowadays and unfortunately these are mainly made for business wear so they all tend to be in dark colours and formal. There was a time when most department stores and other outfitters had ‘casual’ suits in lighter shades and checks – if someone wore one to the office we called it “weekend wear”. By the seventies it became acceptable to wear this kind of garment on a Friday or if one had to go in on a Saturday. For London office workers, stuck in a suit all week, it was usual on a Friday night and over the weekend to change into sports jacket and ‘flannels’ [although Sunday lunchtimes in the pub had its own curious dress code involving turtle-neck sweaters and cavalry-twill trousers], whereas in midland and northern towns, where most people worked in factories or mills, it was the habit to wear a very smart suit on Friday and Saturday nights. Incidentally, if you ever get a chance to see an old episode of the Morecambe & Wise show just look at the superb quality and fit of their suits – probably the best in show-business. I am not bothered that people prefer to dress casually for all occasions nowadays but I do believe that nothing looks better on a man in the evenings than a decent suit worn with a smart tie and polished shoes. When we go to the theatre or to a restaurant it surprises us that ladies no longer expect such a compliment because they invariably go to some lengths to ensure they look attractive and well turned-out only to be accompanied by someone with their unbuttoned shirt hanging out over their cargo pants. Mind you, the modern male smells nicer than the 1965 version as smoking was prevalent, coal fires were everywhere, baths were a weekly ceremony, and dry-cleaning was expensive, so suits were satutrated with all the vapours and aromas of the city, albeit they were occasionally liberated by a damp pressing in the kitchen on a Sunday afternoon.

Member

Interesting stuff John, particularly the bit about the smells. I think most independent High Street tailors died out by the 1990s – the one in my home town went on till then, largely due to evening hire and Sandhurst and army uniforms (which still has to be tailored), then closed when the owners retired

You still get a hint of the range of tailors there was was if you go to charity shops and see some of the labels. Ties seem to be going the same way, particularly among politicians and others trying to do what William suggests in the comment above and get ‘down with the kids’ try and be viewed in a better light.

There is still demand for tailoring – however it’s on holiday to Asia that most people get tailored suits.

Member
Member

Not only are suits expensive but the cost of dry cleaning is expensive. As far as I know, dry cleaning remains a rather environmentally unfriendly process, though it is better than it used to be. Those who wear suits either have to pay big bills or wear grubby clothes.

I value honesty, integrity, courteousness and professional behaviour far more than seeing a smartly dressed man (or woman).

Member

Completely agree, wavechange – I think that professionalism is about so much more than the clothes someone is wearing. Although it’s nice to dress smartly every once in a while (I usually only do it for job interviews, important meetings, weddings, etc) it’s much more important to be comfortable in what you’re wearing and good at your job.

One of the most interesting things about the article, I think, is that it only looks at men’s suits – the world was a different place in the sixties! It’s now inspired me to have a dig in some of the old Which? archives and see what other things might be hidden there.

Member

I think you will find some interesting and quaint information in Which? from the 60s, Nikki. My uncle was a subscriber and a great enthusiast for the magazine.

Member

Yes, Nikki is right, only men’s workclothes were reviewed – women got the little black dress review in 1965 (winner – the ‘cheap’ one at £6 6s [£90 today]) and bras (winner the Maidenform Underline lo-bak at £4 15s [£71]). Men also had undies reviewed – apparently string vests are not worth the investment.

But going back to your original point wavechange, yes, owning is a suit is no excuse for lacking values.

Member
Gerard Phelan says:
27 March 2012

I have always worn a suit to work, BUT I strongly dislike the traditional “colours” of Black, Dark Grey and Blue. That has meant that over the years I have had to buy expensive ready to wear makes like Daks and Magee who still offer suits in mixtures of greens and fawns – probably from their country collections. The cheaper M&S, Next and Moss Bros NEVER sell such “non standard” colour-ways.

Thus my reaction to the article is to lament the complete absence of choice in almost all menswear retailers. Whenever I see complaints about the lack of customers, my retort is that for me they have an empty shop, for how can I buy what they do not sell.
My local menswear retailer: Lester Bowden of Epsom is an Oasis of sanity and choice.

Member

I still wear the made to measure suit I bought in Burtons in about 1975 – can’t remember the cost but around £20 – good as new!

Mind you I still wear a shirt I bought in 1947 – the first one without coupons for seven and six. It is an ideal gardening or dog washing shirt with it’s original buttons – in glorious tartan ..

Member

A part-solution is to either shop off-the-peg at TK Maxx (if you know what to look for, 80% of the clothes there are poor ‘consumer’ designer, rather than ‘real’ designer, as it were), Slaters Menswear, or the usually good quality M&S, invest in an M&S top of the range suit (I think it is the “Sartorial” purple label currently APR 2012), Then take it to a seamstress or tailor to alter it closer to you “made to measure” (A step down from Bespoke).

Quick tips for general indicators of quality:

Cross stitched buttons, half-linings in the jacket (linings can hide sloppy stitch-work and seams) working cuff buttons, slanted (“hacking” pockets), differently lined sleeves from the body, many pockets inside, real buttonhole on the lapel…

Finally, with jacket cuffs, four buttons is just right, less looks too few, more than four looks fussy and too many.