Sharp as a Pin


There is no definitive answer as to the question of the origin of the Pinstripe. What is certain, however, is that for as long as there have been looms, stripes of one sort or another have been woven into cloth. For the purposes of this article, I will start with the Victorians. You can see images from the 1880s showing gents wearing sack suits (the forerunner of the lounge suit), cut in striped fabrics. The tradition of wearing cashmere striped 'sponge bag' trousers with morning dress also started around this time. The name came from the similarity to the fabric used to make schoolboy wash-bags. This practice continued until the late 1960s, continued by city bankers and executives who had discarded the morning/frock coats, instead favouring a short black jacket.

Stripes were often woven into other fabrics such as herringbone and checks, as well as plain weaves. They featured a lot in tweeds and other sporting cloths, both in vibrant colours and muted tones. As we move into the 1900s and the Edwardian era, the stripes begin to get narrower and more formal, resembling much closer what we would now think of as a pinstripe. The term has come to mean any striped fabric, although technically it means a woven line made up of fine 'pin dots' that look solid from a distance. There are also 'rope stripes' (a diagonal weave that makes the stripe look like cable or rope) and 'chalk stripes' (a stripe that looks as if it has been smudged). Within these divisions we also get double, triple and 'fancy' stripes.

The pinstripe suit as we know it first started gaining popularity in the 1920s. It was at this time that some of the younger bankers and lawyers stopped wearing the black coat, waistcoat and striped trousers of their forebears, favouring instead the modern pinstriped look. The American gangsters of Chicago and New York, who had money to burn and reputations to uphold, would visit the best tailors and dress in the finest fabrics. They would get kitted out in the armour of the executive. Wearing pinstripes legitimised them as proper businessmen. They wished to show their wealth, which led them to eschew the traditional conservative look, instead favouring flashier cloths and styles of cut. They were not afraid of experimenting with stripes of all colours. The background would be kept at the darker end of the spectrum, with brown probably being the lightest colour. They would often match the lining in their coat to the colour of the stripes.

The style was pounced upon by costume designers in the fledgling film industry, who would dress the stars in the 'Gangster look'. This in turn led to the viewing public wanting to ape the style of their anti-heroes. Tailors would balk at dressing their customers as thieves and murderers, so they coined the term the 'Broadway' suit.

The British counterpart to the American gangster was the Spiv; they were often portrayed as the 'friendly face' of racketeering. Although reviled by the population, they were accepted as providing a public service. For the same reasons as the gangsters, they wished to have a legitimate image. Being heavily influence by the stars they would see at the pictures, they wore the pinstripe suit and big hat favoured by their American cousins. The end result was that they would appear as a caricature of the image the wanted to present, much as the American pimps in the 1970s were.

The last 10 years has seen the cloth houses reinstating the wealth of stripes that were prevalent in the golden age of gangsters, with houses like Dormeuil and Scabal carrying literally hundreds if not thousands of different stripes. Scabal actually offer a service called 'Private Lines', which allows the customer to have a word, letter or phrase of their choice woven as the stripe. At 950 per metre, with a minimum of 4.5 metres, it can only be the most vulgar of clients that would choose it. The same house also offers a pinstripe woven with a 24-carat gold yarn and a platinum one, both around the 650p/m price.

Since the banking crisis, tailors and outfitters are seeing customers shy away from pinstripes, presumably because they do not wish to look like bankers, whose reputation has become irredeemably tarnished. Members of the financial services profession themselves are probably loath to make any further connection in the public's mind between bankers and gangsters.