The return of the three-piece suit

The three-piece suit – a favourite of artists, musicians and film stars – has made a return, says Kate Finnigan

Ralph Lauren wool jacket, £1,700, silk jacquard waistcoat, £1,000, cotton shirts, £830, wool/silk trousers, £1,700, and velvet bow-tie, £155
Ralph Lauren wool jacket, £1,700, silk jacquard waistcoat, £1,000, cotton shirts, £830, wool/silk trousers, £1,700, and velvet bow-tie, £155 | Image: Ralph Lauren

“I’m in a three-piece mood,” wrote the jewellery designer Sabine Getty on an Instagram post in June. Standing on a balcony, wearing an ivory Yves Saint Laurent trouser suit with a pearl-buttoned waistcoat, she exuded 1970s film-star glamour. That’s because she bought the matching set from actress Catherine Deneuve’s personal collection of the French designer’s couture, auctioned off by Christie’s Paris in January.

Dolce & Gabbana jacquard coat, £2,550, jacket, £2,350, waistcoat, £675, and trilby, £335
Dolce & Gabbana jacquard coat, £2,550, jacket, £2,350, waistcoat, £675, and trilby, £335

The suit was a find. Not only does it capture a moment in history between a fashion legend and his star muse, but it comes at a time when designers are also embracing the “three-piece mood”. After the two-piece trouser suit experienced a wave of popularity in 2016, during and following Hillary Clinton’s pant-suited presidential campaign, tailoring is now being boosted by an extra element – upping the tempo and adding in a hint of costume with the addition of a waistcoat. 

Advertisement

This return was announced most assuredly back in February, when Dolce & Gabbana sent no fewer than 13 three-piece suits down the catwalk as part of the brand’s autumn/winter 2019 collection. The models, dressed in single- or double-breasted jackets with cropped tailored trousers, waistcoats and ties or bow-ties, summoned up visions of Marlene Dietrich playing dress-up in the closet of some southern Italian gent.  

Clockwise from top left: Sabine Getty in a vintage Yves Saint Laurent three-piece suit. Oscar de la Renta wool blazer, £2,070, crepe satin top, £1,520, and wool trousers, £1,790. Alexander Wang mohair blazer with integrated leather waistcoat, $1,495, and mohair trousers, $650. Dandified chic in Vogue, 1936
Clockwise from top left: Sabine Getty in a vintage Yves Saint Laurent three-piece suit. Oscar de la Renta wool blazer, £2,070, crepe satin top, £1,520, and wool trousers, £1,790. Alexander Wang mohair blazer with integrated leather waistcoat, $1,495, and mohair trousers, $650. Dandified chic in Vogue, 1936 | Image: Darren Gerrish/Wire Images/Getty Images. Dan Lecca. Lusha Nelson/Condé Nast Collection/Getty Images

Think of a woman in a three-piece suit and you think of a woman with attitude; one who’s playing a part, cocking a snook, throwing a wink at conventional ideas of dress. Women whose names are often preceded by the word “icon” have, many times, opted to wear a three‑piece. Dietrich, of course, and Diane Keaton. Artists Frida Kahlo and Niki de Saint Phalle, who liked a three-piece pinstriped Yves Saint Laurent number. Twiggy was photographed by Helmut Newton for British Vogue, September 1967, wearing a Prince of Wales check suit made for her own label. Throughout her career, Madonna posed and danced in three-pieces made from 1930s-feel heritage checks or straight-up black and white pinstripes. It’s a look for women who enjoy fashion and have the confidence to be playful with it; those who have riffed on ideas of androgyny, such as actress Tilda Swinton and, more recently, singer Janelle Monáe, who has made the sharply tailored trouser suit her signature look, often worn with the coordinating waistcoat. 

From left: Burberry wool jacket with wool waistcoat, £1,690, and skirt, £750. Gucci drill jacket, £1,400, and waistcoat, £670. Model Billie Blair in a Bill Blass skirt suit, 1975
From left: Burberry wool jacket with wool waistcoat, £1,690, and skirt, £750. Gucci drill jacket, £1,400, and waistcoat, £670. Model Billie Blair in a Bill Blass skirt suit, 1975 | Image: Gucci. Bernard Gotfryd/Granger Shutterstock

The three-piece has continued to slink its way into designers’ collections this season. Ralph Lauren’s art deco-inspired show was filled with traditional evening suiting, including a black cropped jacket, silk vest and high-waisted trousers that could have come straight from Dietrich’s wardrobe. Michael Kors Collection offers a slate and blue plaid wool blazer with cuffed trousers, waistcoat and matching newsboy cap. “When you put something on that’s tailored, you have this presence and this bravado and force,” Kors says. “I think we could all use a little extra confidence in today’s world.” He also offers an alternative take on the trend in the form of cocoa-coloured herringbone trousers, vest – as Americans know the waistcoat – and a swinging tailored coat in lieu of a jacket.

From left: Michael Kors Collection wool blazer, £1,450, waistcoat, £870, trousers, £650, and cap, £510. Twiggy in 1970, wearing a three-piece suit in velvet and satin by Tommy Nutter. Temperley London wool/mohair jacket, £595, matching waistcoat, £295, and matching trousers, £350
From left: Michael Kors Collection wool blazer, £1,450, waistcoat, £870, trousers, £650, and cap, £510. Twiggy in 1970, wearing a three-piece suit in velvet and satin by Tommy Nutter. Temperley London wool/mohair jacket, £595, matching waistcoat, £295, and matching trousers, £350 | Image: Michael Kors Collection. Justin de Villeneuve/Condé Nast Collection/Getty Images

Elizabeth von der Goltz, Net-a-Porter’s global buying director, is particularly interested in those designers who have taken the three-piece beyond the realms of a jacket, waistcoat and trousers. “We saw great ones from Gucci,” she says, “and Peter Do, who actually created a four-piece suit with a skirt styled over the top of the pants. I also loved Totême’s tonal two-piece with a matching coat.” At Akris, an electric-blue silk velvet three-piece consisted of a blazer, slouchy trousers and a coordinating blouse, a look mirrored at Oscar de la Renta, where a cumin-coloured suit was styled with a matching satin halter top. Riccardo Tisci has been playing with the three-piece suit since his debut at Burberry; this season he interpreted the idea into a tailored jacket with a built-in waistcoat, paired with a matching skirt. Alexander Wang’s three‑piece involves a sober grey trouser suit with a black leather vest attached to the outside of the jacket, which tucks through to fasten underneath.

Advertisement

For those who want to take the three-piece more literally, there’s no short supply of classic versions. Independent womenswear label Giuliva Heritage Collection, where designs are often inspired by legendary suit-wearers such as Bianca Jagger and Anjelica Huston, has done a traditional three-piece in pinstriped wool for winter. “The three-piece can feel a bit like a costume to wear, but portrays such a strong personality,” says CEO Margherita Cardelli. “The whole look can be transformed by making simple changes with accessories, shoes and jewellery.”

British designer Alice Temperley of Temperley London is also an advocate of the three-piece, having made it an essential part of her look while she was a student at Central Saint Martins. “I often wore a men’s vintage three-piece pinstriped suit with Converse, which made me feel a bit tomboyish, and I guess kind of cool,” she recalls of her take on the look. Several years ago, wanting to capture that feeling again, she made herself a three-piece suit for every day of the week, each with a different twist: “a beautiful wide-legged cropped blue checked suit, a black high-waisted tailored tuxedo, and a white version in a soft crepe with a cross-back waistcoat”. For her label’s collections, she’s created versions from velvet or jacquard, often playing with shape and volume. She’s also launching a heritage tailoring collection, using classic cloths from her archive, including a three-piece made from a lightweight grey-blue wool/mohair windowpane check with silk contrasts. 

Similar thinking led Daisy Knatchbull, a former PR at Savile Row tailor Huntsman, to launch a made-to-measure tailoring brand called The Deck. Knatchbull was the first woman to wear a dandy three-piece morning suit (made by Huntsman) to the Royal Enclosure at Ascot, making a splash in newspaper coverage of the event in 2016. The response to her own three-piece, along with the growing popularity of suits on catwalks and on the high street, led her to believe that a high-end tailoring company with Savile Row values – but exclusively for women – might serve a need right now. Her King’s Road atelier currently offers four different styles of suit, all with the option of a single or double-breasted waistcoat. 

“It emphasises our house silhouette, which is strong shoulders and a nipped-in waist, and just projects strength,” Knatchbull says. “The fabulous thing about a three-piece is that, yes, you can wear it all together, but you can also wear it as a two-piece with nothing underneath. Or you can wear the waistcoat over a beautiful blouse without the jacket. It gives you more versatility.” More versatility and more personality? The new three-piece mood is contagious.

See also

Advertisement
Loading