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Apr 1, 2013

UNSOLVED MYSTERIES: The 1970's Men's Suit Pattern Explosion!



Readers, there are so many mysteries in the universe: Do dogs go to heaven?  What really happened to Jimmy Hoffa?  Will we ever see a sequel to Imitation of Life?

But perhaps the biggest mystery of them all is why, in the early Seventies, American sewing pattern companies decided that what the home sewing market was really clamoring for were men's suit patterns.  That's right folks, in the period of free love, Woodstock, and LSD, it was like, Time to stitch up suits for the menfolk!

I'm not talking just coordinating blazer and slacks, I'm talking actual suits, many even with vests.













Perhaps even more mysterious, however, is that this unexplained trend lasted throughout the Eighties and Nineties and there are still a few suit patterns in print (though most look like they were designed no later than the early Aughts).





You can even make a home-sewn tuxedo!



A little background:  in the Nineteen-forties and Fifties there were a few men's sports jacket patterns out there, along with a handful (four?  five?) of men's dress pants patterns.  These were few and far between partly because men's styles hardly ever changed, and women -- the vast majority of home sewers out there -- were sewing mainly for themselves and their children.







Back when most men wore suits as a matter of course, especially those who worked in white collar jobs, men purchased their suits either ready-to-wear or had them custom-made by a tailor.  Sewing a men's suit required tailoring skills that the average home sewer was unlikely to have, a lot of different supplies were needed, and the results had to look professional -- a men's suit was not a house dress.

Then in the mid- to late-Sixties, more men's commercial blazer patterns begin to appear, and then suddenly -- BOOM -- the suit pattern explosion.

Here are a few things which may have contributed to this boom, but I'm really grasping at straws here:

a) The development of polyester and other synthetics made sewing a suit at home a little easier.  Also fusible interfacing and double knits.

b) New "funky" men's style trends that made men more interested in wearing the latest fashions, like loud plaids, bell bottom pants, and wide lapels.  Think Shaft.



Today, these vintage men's suit patterns are so ubiquitous on eBay and Etsy, usually at such low prices (less than $10), and they're so often uncut, that I wonder how many people ever actually used them.  Did you or anyone you know?

Readers, I ask you:

1) Were you aware of the 1970's Men's Suit Pattern Explosion (or MSPE)?

2) How do you explain it?

3) Will we ever see a return to loud plaids?

Happy April, everybody!



46 comments:

  1. Heck yeah! My mom made my dad a couple of leisure suits back in the '70s. They were so groovy! One was light blue . . .

    And OMG - is that Tom Selleck on Simplicity 7943?

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  2. My thought is that prior to the 70's when home sewers made suits for their men that they drafted the pattern themselves using one of the many tailoring rubrics out there ( is that the right word for the system they use?). Considering the labor involved in sewing the darn thing drafting the pattern was just a small extra step.

    The laziness and fusible interfacings came along hand in hand and a patterns came into play.

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  3. I'm always thinking "Shaft".

    Any other Richard Roundtree fans out there?

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  4. The intro of synthetics brought a lot of Kwik Sew and other manufacturers offering classes in men's wear. I remember taking one, and then deciding my man deserved better (think natural fibers)!

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  5. Now having spent a fair amount of time looking at the men's patterns available on Ebay and Etsy, I also wondered about the proliferation of
    suit and jacket patterns from the 70's onwards. I haven't the energy to
    give this too much consideration while my mind goes wild with plot alternatives for the Imitation of Life sequel. I think you have it right.
    Many of those suit patterns scream double knit, and fusible interfacing made tailoring less challenging. Still given the number of those patterns available, I wonder how many home sewists took it upon themselves to run something up for the little man. Bold patterns
    will hopefully remain gone and forgotten. Looking at those pattern packages reminds me how painfully and universally ugly the fashions 70's and the 80's really were.

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  6. I spend more time than I care to admit trolling for old patterns so, yes, I had noticed that the number of men's suit patterns took off in the Seventies, although I wouldn't say I'd formulated any concrete ideas about it. Since I'd never really thought about it, I don't have an answer for why I think it happened, either, although I think your reasoning is as good as any.

    I don't know about plaids. I'm going to say "yes" simply because I think everything comes back at some point. I'm not a fan of big plaid suits myself, and I'm especially not a fan of pants in large plaids, but I'm sure they'll come back eventually.

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  7. That first vintage 40's/50's Simplicity screams Bing Crosby.

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  8. I remember the wife of one of the teachers in our department at school (university) made many of his clothes -- lots of polyester leisure suits! I think she eventually found something better to do with her time. This was late 70s-early 80s.

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  9. I love this post! the Simplicity 7943 is awesome and the illustration looks like Sean Connery in Butterick 2125.

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  10. They are all so amazing, but I love the Bill Blass ones the most! I had always thought people went to the tailors and suits were out of the domain of the seamstress at home. Way too complicated and important!

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  11. I really think the rise in pattern offerings corresponds with the emergence of the leisure suit. Polyester was cheaper than suiting and unlined leisure suits were easier to sew. I remember those in every color of the rainbow. Oh, the horror!

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  12. I remember a high school boyfriend (1970's) telling me about the friend of a friend of a friend whose girlfriend loved him so much that she MADE him a custom suit jacket. And then, the question was - did I love him that much? I bought the patterns. Made men's caftan shirts, briefs, western shirts. Never a suit. But that urban legend girlfriend was always out there somewhere loving her man more than the rest of us were!

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  13. 2916-- Anyone else remember Herb Tarlek from WKRP? I remember someone compared his plaid suits to seat covers from a Volkswagon.

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  14. I sewed a number of men's shirts for my brother in the early 70s. I think the burst of patterns may have to do with the synthetic fabrics. At that time, marketing efforts put forth that synthetics were the greatest and far superior to natural fibers in terms of wrinkling and wear. (Pretty much all outer garments had to be ironed before going out in public.) I think the synthetics made the idea of making a suit more accessable. I know of several people who made suits, but the results were less than satisfactory. I think some people bought those patterns thinking they were going to make a suit and realized it was still out of their league. For me, fusable interfacing and tailoring methods were not available at that time. I could turn out a pretty good shirt, but not a suit.

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  15. May I be contrary and respond to a) and b) instead of your questions?
    a) Polyester and double knits were not easier to sew than a good quality wool, but they certainly were cheaper. Just in case you mess up.
    b) Funky styles need not be taken too seriously, so unintended results need not make a garment unwearable. Just in case you mess up.

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  16. Some of those jackets are very attractive. I detested loud plaids then, but was delighted to see a very young man, strolling along a bike/pedestrian path, wearing a loud plaid jacket, with a lot of red. He was tall, confident-looking, and more of an individual. Eating an apple and musing. You have to be able to pull it off. I'm sure his jacket was a thrift find, or from a relative. VERY good quality. Cathie, in Quebec.

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  17. To answer:
    Did I notice? Yes
    Explaination: LSD
    Returning? Can't hear you, your suit's too loud.
    Xxoo

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  18. My boyfriend at that time wanted me to make him one. He said if I really loved him,I would. He knew that I could sew, I made a shirt for him. I decided that I didn't love him that much, and to get a new boyfriend. One who wasn't so bossy.

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  19. I LOVE LOUD PLAIDS! I do hope they bring them back for men - but in the mean time- I'll definitely be rocking some in my somewhat androgynous 'lady' wear. I wasn't aware of this pattern trend but I do think it makes sense considering the fashion changes for men. I have unearthed several pairs of homemade pants that belonged to my father that are key examples-- brown stretch velvet flares and some bright purple corduroy wide leg. Now if only I can find the photographs of him wearing them....

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  20. Hmmm... I'm very tempted to make a black 100% cotton suit. I won't use wool because I'm vegan and polyester would shine if over pressed.

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  21. I made my ex-husband a navy blue doubleknit polyester suit in the 70s. He had to speak at the annual (very small) hospital board meeting and we had very little money. Up to that time I had sewn almost exclusively cotton-type (think quilting) materials so this was a big project. I got it done, he addressed the board, and I was very proud of myself. Never again!

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  22. I USED to think 70s fashion was ugly and tasteless but that was BEFORE visible bum cracks and enormous pants with arses hanging to the knees, oversized T-shirts, "board shorts", and backward baseball caps. Now, I think those 70s fashions look positively DAPPER and tasteful! Even the "Herb Tarlek' and leisure suits!! They were actually quite attractive in their way; it was just that AWFUL polyester material they were made out of!

    Come now: just LOOK at what sort of suits men are actually paying BIG BUCKS for nowadays: how about those idiotic suits made to look like they got wet and went through the dryer on 'high"? Do people actually think that men look "better" in those, than in "leisure suits? I sure don't!

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    1. I don't like leisure suits but I can't stand the shrunken pants look either. I think it proves that every era has its own ugly styles.

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  23. I remember my mom taking a sewing for men class in the 1970s and making my dad a polyester green plaid suit jacket. I still have the Sewing for Men and Boys book(let) she used for the class and I refer to it when I have a tailoring question. It's really a pretty good book. I think the glut of men's suit patterns was partially a response to the make-it-yourself craze that swept the country during the 70's. Remember macrame? I wore a lot of macrame belts after mom took that class.

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  24. I think it is because suits became a casual option, not just a business one. Men wore suits made of denim and plaid and double knit, to dinner parties, church, the theatre, key parties no doubt! So, no longer just about tailoring. And constructionwise, I reckon you're onto something - new products made them easier to sew and these are generally not constructed in the same way as a Jermyn St suit would be.
    Well, it's a theory! :)

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  25. I have a Vogue Sewing Book from the 1970's that goes into some detail about how easy it is to sew up a suit for a man and specifically suggests, multiple times, that velvet would be the perfect fabric to use if one were not inclined to go the poly double-knit route. The idea of the velvet suit makes a large plaid seem somehow less obnoxious to me.

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  26. Maybe it had something to do with the demise of the high end department stores outside NY and LA. No more personal tailors who could pull a fabric selection out and tailor a suit for you.

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  27. I love plaid suits. The German label "Herr von Eden" makes amazing (and totally crazy) suits. Certainly not for everyone, but some guys can really rock that style. And their quality is amazing. My dad had many plaid jackets in the 80's. He still moans, that my mom threw them away. So I guess plaid is either for those with an amazing and courageous sense of style or for those with no sense of style...

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  28. I believe dogs do, indeed, go to heaven.

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  29. Umm, I might be that girlfriend who made her boyfriend a sport coat in the late 1970’s...
    He had this vision of a wool tweed sport coat. We went fabric shopping together, and I had a blast making it, and he loved hearing about my progress. We were long distance sweethearts, so I only fitted it on him once before finishing it (though I'm not sure i would have done it more than once, anyway- I was more into speed than quality then). Then when I did the big reveal, he thought the sleeves were too something, and it should do something different at the back, etc. etc., and I lost all interest in sewing it any more. He took it to a tailor, and that sport coat was kind of a sore spot between us. We broke up later. So, if you are feeling guilty about not showing enough love by not taking on a sewing project, don't...you probably saved the relationship;-)

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  30. The 70s were one big recession if you ask me, and making a suit especially a casual one might have been a thrifty idea. My husband wore a uniform in the 70s and you don't sew those yourself!!

    Dogs might or might not go to heaven, but I know a cat who is up there. And if he isn't, I ain't going.

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  31. I made a suit for my then-husband in the early 70s. It was very pale yellow seersucker, and looked great with his blond-blue-eyed coloring. I think he took it to the thrift store after our divorce :(. I have sewn things for other men in my life, but that project was the most ambitious.

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    1. :(

      You should have traded that suit for cash on Etsy!

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  32. In the early 70s I made a western sport coat for my dh from rust colored double knit that he picked out. Around here there were sewing factories making mens'pants and jackets so it was nearly freebie stuff that you could buy from their leftovers they would sell. It was a harmless venture that I learned a lot from doing. Many people sewed tux like jackets and shirts for weddings in all sorts of horrid colors for groomsmen. Maybe that is one reason for so many as there weren't all those rental places back then and it was a lot of money to buy a fashion jacket for one wear. I have to say in our area there were a lot more seamstresses then than now who were excellent at tailoring and fitting suit jackets for men and women. Some of the one's I knew thought fusible interfacing was lazy and inferior and wanted pad stitching in coats and also beautifully flat felled every seam in the men's shirts. Now people who don't sew can't even get a decent hem turned. Maybe looking at people now one thinks very few are up to the task of tailoring but it was not difficult to find a very skilled seamstress for hire in our area in the 70s and 80s. I think the reason there were few patterns in the earlier decades is that changes for a long period were subtle and a good seamstress could make those adjustments to the same old same old coat. Maybe it was different in other areas but while there were lots of sewing factories going there were many skilled seamstresses here.Some only did one task in sewing but all the factories had sample makers that sewed entire garments for the buyers to view.When the factories left they often sewed for the public.It wasn't that they couldn't do menswear well it's just men seem to keep a suit forever unless they outgrow it or wear one every day to work. Of course the 70s and on those baby blue jackets(yuk) and satin tux shirts with the bow ties for weddings kept a lot of them busy. I must confess to helping sew the tux jacket pattern and shirt for one of the groomsmen in a wedding once. As for the polyester it was harder to sew to me than natural fabric but the attraction to the 70s people was skipping the dry cleaners and little or no ironing and also the fabric itself was cheap or free as factory leftovers.

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  33. Yes, my boyfriend was only a size 36 at the time and he couldn't find clothes to fit. I made lots of suit jackets and pants for him, although it was the glam rock days and they were in satin and velvet.

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  34. If dogs don't get in to heaven, then nobody should.

    Jimmy Hoffa has been sighted more than once--wearing a loud plaid jacket.

    As to the men's patterns: Hmmmm...I wonder if the appearance of sergers for the home sewist had anything to do with convincing even novice sewist that they too could turn out shiney orange/yellow/lime green leasure suits for the men in their lives.

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  35. I don't know if animals go to heaven, but I can tell you this for a fact: Animals REINCARNATE. This happened with my beloved cat. I knew when she arrived in my life "back' that the "new' cat was "her" come back to me for a myriad of reasons, not just because I "wanted to believe"! It's an amazing story that has given me a whole new perspective on "life after death", "certainty, not faith, in life" , and the consciousness of the continuity of existence.

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  36. Just as a matter of interest, is it the same people that a few days ago admired your flowery jacket who are now expressing horror at men wearing velvet, double knit, plaid and bright colours? Why should men always dress as if they've just emerged from the day school (shorts, t-shirts), the prison (droopy drawers) or the funeral parlor (grey, grey, grey....)? The idea that one period's clothes are "ugly" while the present period's are beautiful is ignorant. Our esthetic (taste) is always formed in relation to our environment and cultural factors. Meanwhile, let men wear velvet pants and bright colours. The world will be a more beautiful place.

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  37. Perhaps everything is relative. I thought we had a dearth now, not a plethora then...

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  38. If a new Doctor wears plaid on Doctor Who, we may totally see the plaids back.
    I'm trying to say, I have no idea why the boom happened, but it thankfully happened in a time when men's suits actually looked cool, Woodstock and stuff aside. (Not so much the later ones, admittedly...) The 70s have some great men's clothing, some of which is on classic Doctor Who. Sometimes the great suits happened in awful materials, yes, but that does not show in a preserved pattern from the era! That's my haphazard thinking. :D

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  39. Oh, and I believe dogs and cats and others do go to heaven... in some way. It's about as muddy as my previous comment, but my thinking goes like this: "if Heaven is a new earth, then surely it's not just humans, because earth is not just humans".

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  40. Yes, the pattern manufacturers currently make men's suit patterns. Few stores actually stock them. Three years ago my teenage string bass player needed a 38 extra long black jacket. He couldn't use a larger jacket because he needed shoulder mobility. It had to be a 38 but he was 6'2" so it had to be long. There were none to be found anywhere at any price. I needed to sew a suit jacket and couldn't find a pattern. I ended up buying a 42 extra long at the thrift store and taking 1-inch deep tucks from front hem through shoulder seam, over, and down to back hem. It looked awful but worked for the stage. He called it the "Franken-tux". Wish I'd had a vintage pattern stash!

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  41. I wish there was a similar explosion for men's peacoat patterns! I have scoured the interwebs looking for a good peacoat pattern to make my husband a jacket with. After all of my searching I found one perfect pattern (Butterick 4475) and two meh patterns that I would settle for in a pinch that are also completely unavailable anywhere. Sigh. Maybe I should make him a suit instead!

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  42. I'm thinking some movies might have something to do with it, Thomas Crown Affair, The Sting, The Great Gatsby, maybe?

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