SIC 2311

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing men's and boy's tailored suits, coats, and overcoats from purchased woven or knit fabrics. Establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing uniforms (except athletic and work uniforms) are also included in this industry. Establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing men's work uniforms and clothing are classified in SIC 2326: Men's and Boys' Work Clothing, and those manufacturing men's and boys' athletic uniforms are classified in SIC 2329: Men's and Boys' Clothing, Not Elsewhere Classified. Knitting mills primarily engaged in manufacturing suits and coats are classified in SIC 2253: Knit Outerwear Mills.

NAICS Code(s)

315211 (Men's and Boys' Cut and Sew Apparel Contractors)

315222 (Men's and Boys' Cut and Sew Suit, Coat, and Overcoat Manufacturing)

Industry Snapshot

Throughout the 1990s, output and employment in the men's and boys' suit and coat industry continued the long-term pattern of contraction that had begun over two decades earlier. By 2000, the number of people employed making suits and coats had fallen to 17,220 from more than 100,000 in the late 1960s. The outlook of this branch of production was being shaped by a number of processes—a changing retail structure and the impact of imports produced with cheap labor among them—that were having similar effects across the entire apparel industry. Of all the factors affecting the suit and coat industry, however, probably the single most significant was a steady change in dress habits among American men.

Organization and Structure

About 222 U.S. companies produced men's and boys' suits and coats in 1998, down from more than 443 in 1982. Most were small enterprises, with fewer than 250 employees. The industry consisted of three major types of companies: manufacturers, contractors, and jobbers. Manufacturers cut and sew finished products entirely within their own facilities. Jobbers specialize in cutting the fabric, which they then supply to contractors for sewing. The major suppliers of these manufacturers are textile mills, which produce the broad-woven fabrics accounting for roughly three-quarters of the materials consumed by the industry.

Manufacturers sell their goods primarily to three types of retailers: small specialty clothing stores, department stores, and large menswear discount chains. During the 1990s, manufacturers became more dependent on the large discounters—such as Men's Wearhouse, Today's Man, and S&K Famous Brands—which expanded their operations often at the expense of the small stores, some 4,000 of which closed by 1996. Some of these discounters expanded so quickly that they overreached and suffered the consequences, at least temporarily.

Background and Development

The clothing industry in the United States began to develop in the eighteenth century, but most clothing was still being made in homes until the Civil War. Quality menswear was long the province of skilled tailors, while most ready-to-wear clothing was imported. In the nineteenth century, however, urban migration, the sewing machine, and a demand for war uniforms changed the industry.

Urban Migration. As more and more people began moving to cities in the nineteenth century, they became more concerned with their clothing. As Claudia B. Kid-well and Margaret C. Christman pointed out in Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America, "For the most part factory workers could not afford the services of a good tailor, but they still wanted clothing that looked in no way appreciably different from the mainstream fashion. Consequently, the demand was there—not for the inferior or specialized clothing that had previously distinguished 'ready-made,' but rather for 'equal clothing' for anyone, which anyone could afford to buy."

Tailors began to develop "scientific principles" and "proportional systems" for making clothing that would fit almost anyone. In 1848, Oliver Hudson, a men's clothier in Boston, advertised that "sizes are indicated by number and a printed tag is attached to each article, so that anyone after becoming familiar with the size will seldom find it necessary to try a second garment." Tailors also began hiring workers, usually women who worked in the home, for many of the less skilled tasks, such as sewing straight seams.

Brooks Brothers, the famous New York clothier, is thought to have introduced the first ready-to-wear men's suits in the United States in 1845 and pioneered the "sack suit" around the turn of the century. The comfortable, boxy-looking sack suit was a stark departure from the tight-fitting suits with padded shoulders and pleated trousers that were then popular in Europe, and it was considered the first genuinely American business attire. The sack suit evolved into the Ivy League look of the 1950s and the celebrated gray flannel suit of the 1960s.

Sewing Machine. Although many people contributed to the invention of the sewing machine, Elias Howe Jr., an American machinist, demonstrated a working model in 1845 and received a patent the following year. Isaac Merritt Singer, another American, made improvements to Howe's machine and introduced "the Perpetual Action Belay Stitch Machine" in 1850. Singer's was considered the first practical sewing machine. Although the two inventors squabbled over patent rights for years, I.M. Singer & Co. was formed in 1851 and garment manufacturers began placing their orders.

By some estimates, sewing machines reduced the cost of manufacturing simple ready-to-wear clothes by as much as 80 percent. In the mid-1860s, Brooks Brothers noted that a top-quality overcoat that took six days to sew by hand could be made in three using a sewing machine. A foot treadle was added in 1871, which further increased productivity, and Singer Sewing Machine Co., renamed after Singer's death in 1875, introduced the first electric sewing machine in 1889.

Civil War. Most clothing in the United States was made in homes before the Civil War, except military uniforms. At first, the U.S. government hired outside contractors to produce uniforms that were somewhat consistent in color and style. In 1812, however, the United States Army Clothing Establishment—perhaps the first true clothing factory in the United States—was created in Philadelphia. Fabric was cut to a standard pattern and then packaged along with padding, facing cloth, thread, and buttons. The materials were then delivered to "widows and other meritorious females" who sewed them into uniforms working at home. As private clothing factories appeared, they copied the same structure.

The demand for uniforms during the Civil War had several consequences. Because the Army's Establishment could not supply enough uniforms by itself, the government awarded contracts to other clothiers, many of whom received their first exposure to mass production. Second, military demand stimulated improvements in technology, including development of better cutting machines, pressers, and buttonholers. The Establishment also kept the first detailed records on measurements, which helped manufacturers develop regular ready-to-wear sizes after the war. In 1879, Albert S. Bolles wrote in the Industrial History of the United States that "the home manufacture of men's garments has virtually ceased, and every one, from ploughman to railroad president, goes to the store for his goods, and can be suited, if he chooses, from the shelves of the store at once."

Immigration. Many people who worked in the early clothing industry, both as inside cutters and contract seamstresses, were immigrants, primarily Irish in the 1840s and Germans in the 1850s. Many of the Jews who emigrated from Germany after 1860 also entered the clothing trade (although more often as retailers). The industry continued to provide thousands of low-paying jobs to later immigrants, including thousands of Italians and Russian Jews who arrived between 1880 and 1910. Many of these immigrants worked long hours in overcrowded, poorly ventilated buildings that became known as sweatshops.

Immigrants not only provided labor for the menswear industry, they fueled demands for its products. One of the first purchases a new arrival made was a new American-made suit, which, according to Kidwell and Christman, could instantly transform him "from 'green-horn' to 'someone who belonged.' " In the cities, men began wearing suits to work no matter what their occupations, even if they wore aprons or other work garments over the suits to keep them clean.

In 1869, garment workers in Philadelphia, led by Uriah Stephens, formed the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor—one of the first labor unions in the United States. Among its goals were an eight-hour workday and the abolition of child labor. The Knights of Labor remained a secretive, fraternal organization until 1879, when members elected Terence V. Powderly as Grand Master Workman. Powderly called for "one big union" and welcomed workers from other industries, including Catholics, whom Stephens had excluded. Membership in the Knights of Labor rose from about 10,000 in 1879 to more than 100,000 in 1885. In 1885, the Knights of Labor led an unsuccessful strike against the Texas and Pacific Railroad, and its influence waned. Eventually, it was supplanted by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) as the most powerful union in the United States. In the early 1900s, the United States passed laws outlawing sweatshops and regulating child labor.

Hart, Schaffner & Marx. The first men's clothing manufacturer to eliminate outside contract labor was Hart, Schaffner & Marx in 1911. Originally known as Harry Hart & Brother, the company was started in 1871 as a retail outlet in Chicago by Harry and Max Hart. In 1897, Hart, Schaffner & Marx became the first clothing manufacturer to advertise nationally, and within a few years, was the leading men's clothing label in the United States. Hart, Schaffner & Marx also promoted standards for the clothing industry, such as insisting that an "all-wool" suit should be made of 100 percent wool (although the federal Wool Products Labeling Act was not passed until 1939). In 1906, Hart, Schaffner & Marx announced that its ready-to-wear men's clothing came in 14 basic body types so customers could get a more tailored look. The company boasted: "We design models especially for men who call themselves hard to fit. Stouts, slims, short stout men, big and little men, men who are built 'close to the ground,' long bodies and short legs, men with slightly stooping shoulders; all the odd sizes have their special models, made to fit."

Fashion. Men's fashions were never as changeable as women's, except perhaps during the leisure-suit phenomenon of the 1970s. Leisure suits were an urban adaptation of the safari jacket and accounted for more than half of all men's and boy's suits produced in the United States in 1975—when more than 12 million were sold. But sales of leisure suits were less than half that in 1976, and by 1983 the leisure suit had disappeared. Similarly, knit fabrics were used in nearly 75 percent of suits and coats made in the 1970s, but they virtually disappeared by the mid-1980s.

Current Conditions

The persistent downward trend in U.S. production of suits and coats that began in the 1970s continued in the twenty-first century. For example, U.S. manufacturers shipped $1.84 billion worth of suits in 2000. This figure represents a significant drop in from just three years earlier, when the value of shipment totaled $$2.08 billion. Industry analysts explained the contraction as resulting from two major factors: competition from inexpensive imported clothes and acceptance of more casual dress. Central to this trend were relaxed dress codes at large corporations, most notably IBM, which instituted "dress down" days on which employees wear casual clothes. (One Boston mortician reported that formal attire was no longer universal—even on corpses.)

Office attire became "dress casual," a hybrid that was less formal than suits but more presentable than T-shirts and jeans. American men were still buying clothing because many had to furnish entire wardrobes more appropriate to the new standard. But sales of suits—once, with coats, the bread and butter of the men's apparel industry—continued declining. The trend was accelerated in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the predominance of the personal computer and advances in networking technology made it possible for many people to work from home. More and more men didn't need to appear in public every work day and found that they could easily make do with one or two suits.

Industry Leaders

Oxford Industries Inc. and Hartmarx Corp. are the two largest manufacturers of men's and boys' suits and coats throughout the 1990s. Both companies manufacture other apparel but have an established presence in those markets. Oxford posted 1999 total sales of $862.4 million, while Hartmarx's total sales in 1998 were $725.0 million.

Hartmarx was in dire financial straits in the early 1990s, but by the mid-1990s, they had engineered a major reorganization and financial comeback. With more than $300 million in debt and annual net losses reaching $220 million in fiscal 1992, the company was surrounded by bankruptcy rumors; its stock price plunged to $3.00 a share from $34.75 a share in 1987. The company responded by closing unprofitable retail stores, including selling the Kuppenheimer unit, downsizing from 35 to 22 factories, developing casual menswear lines, and establishing new ties with retailers. The newly downsized company was again profitable in 1993 and 1994, and had shed a large portion of its debt.


The suit and coat industry employed 21,402 people in 1997, 17,317 of whom were production workers. At Hartmarx, the largest producer, most production workers are covered by contracts with the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE). Sewing machine operators, mostly women, are the largest group in the workforce (55.5 percent). The assembly of suits and coats is organized largely according to the bundle system, in which each operator performs one task on a bundle of pieces, which is then taken to the next operator and so on until the piece is finished. Production of a typical men's suit is broken down, in this way, into as many as 100 different operations.

America and the World

Imported goods met a substantial share of U.S. consumers' demand for suits and coats in the mid-1990s. In 1994, for example, 70 percent of tailored coats and 45 percent of suits bought by U.S. consumers were imports. The value of imported suits and coats rose rapidly in the first half of the 1990s. Between 1991 and 1994, for example, imports of men's and boys' wool suits rose from $258 to $354 million.

International trade treaties ratified in the mid-1990s are expected to substantially affect domestic apparel industries, including production of suits and coats. The Agreement on Textiles and Clothing (ATC), which took effect January 1, 1995, called for the phaseout over 10 years of the bilateral import quotas that the United States had negotiated with textile- and apparel-exporting countries under the Multifiber Agreement (MFA). The terms of the ATC, however, preserve import quotas on most apparel items, including suits and coats, until 2005, while accelerating the rise of quota limits up until that year.

Research and Technology

After World War II, improvements in the sewing machine eliminated the need to stitch button holes, pockets, belt loops, and lapels by hand. New technology since the 1960s also increased productivity, although some technologies that seemed promising had to be abandoned. In the 1960s, some manufacturers replaced reciprocating blade cutting machinery with lasers, but the lasers tended tofuse layers of synthetic fabrics. Computer-controlled spreading, marking, and cutting systems were introduced in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Sewing machines also became more sophisticated beginning in the late 1960s, eliminating much of the manual labor involved in handling and positioning garments as they moved from one sewing-machine operator to another. Such advances led to significant increases in productivity, and employment dropped significantly faster than the value of output since the early 1980s.

Further Reading

Cleary, David Powers. Great American Brands. New York: Fairchild Publications, 1981.

Kidwell, Claudia B., and Margaret C. Christman. Suiting Everyone: The Democratization of Clothing in America. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1974.

Patterson, Gregory. "Hartmarx, Having Restyled Itself, Sees Robust Profits." Wall Street Journal, 31 May 1995.

Shelton, Linda, and Robert Wallace. "World Textile and Apparel Trade: A New Era." Industry, Trade, and Technology Review, October 1996. Available from .

Sieling, Mark Scott, and Daniel Curtin. "Patterns of Productivity Change in Men's and Boys' Suits and Coats." Monthly Labor Review, November 1988.

United States Census Bureau. 1997 Economic Census. Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1999.

United States Census Bureau. "Statistics for Industries and Industry Groups: 2000." Annual Survey of Manufacturers. February 2002. Available from .

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