I had an email the other day from somebody asking…
After Edwina Ehrman’s talk about London Couture at the V&A, I felt inspired to go through my pattern collection to find examples of tailored knitted suits. It was such a ubiquitous outfit in every woman’s wardrobe, particularly in the ’30s and ’40s, so versatile that it could be dressed up or down for evening or day wear. Its popularity reached the heights during the ’40s and ’50s (although the latter decade often favoured skirts teamed up with cardigans and fitted sweaters) but also had a brief resurgence during the ’60s, albeit in a looser, less structured form. By the end of that decade it was more or less an anachronism. The sewn cloth version continued its popularity in the office (particularly during the ’80s), but it’s hard to imagine its handknit cousin being welcomed into the boardroom quite so readily. Handknits, it seems, do not equal power.
In many ways it’s a shame that its popularity has never returned – knitting produces an elastic, versatile fabric which can hug the figure to exaggerate those well fitted curves at the waist and hips, although the weight of the yarn can sometimes result in a sagging hemline and retain the memory of the body shape (depending on the fabric drape, the shapes made by your knees and rear sometimes remain!) Those are possibly the very factors which contributed to its downfall, in that a stiffer cloth fabric can retain its own memory, plus disguise lumps and bumps and exaggerate the silhouette at the shoulders, bust etc. That and its high-maintenance upkeep – not for nothing did Vogue Knitting No.39 (1950) run a spread on suits and dresses under the title ‘Long Term Investments’. There has been some discussion in knitting communities recently about knitted skirts, but their appeal seems destined to remain limited.
As with many other designs of the time, handknit suit patterns from 1930s-1960s took their inspiration from catwalk, incorporating tailored details and silhouettes from the finest designers of the time. The most stylish examples, as ever, could be found in Vogue Knitting and occasionally in Stitchcraft, but Margaret Murray and Jane Koster inevitably produced some very fine examples, and individual patterns were also plentiful. It’s interesting to see that although the fashions changed over 30 years, the suit remained virtually unchanged (give or take a few details here and there) until the mid-60s, when the looser fit combined with the popular Chanel suit style saw variations on the collarless jacket and shorter skirt.
Forgive the amount of images to follow, but there are so many fine examples that I found it difficult to edit them down and felt they all deserved a showing – click on the thumbnails for larger images. Many of them are from Vogue Knitting as the photography is so spectacular – the ’50s shots are aspirational as you’d expect from Conde Naste, frequently associated with travel (airplanes, luxury liners, expensive cars etc), again to prove the versatility of the suit and also possibly to signify that if you’ve spent that much time and care knitting something, then it should be valued and shown off at every opportunity.