Men's and Boys' Suits, Coats, and Overcoats

SIC 2311

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This category covers establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing men's and boys' 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.

Industry Snapshot

Throughout the 2000s, the men's and boys' suit and coat industry continued the long-term pattern of reduction that had begun in the 1970s. U.S. manufacturers experienced a positive sign in 2005 when the industry showed an increase in sales over the previous two years, mostly due to an increase in demand for suits and tailored clothing and the purchase by some major manufacturers of new brands. However, by the late 2000s the U.S. Commerce Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics was citing cut and sew manufacturing as one of the fastest declining industries in the United States in terms of employment and output. In addition, U.S. manufacturers continued to face fierce competition from foreign imports.

According to Dun and Bradstreet's 2009 Industry Reports, 551 establishments operated in the men's and boys' suits and coats industry in the late 2000s. Total industry revenues equaled $1.6 million. Illinois was the number one state in terms of revenue, with $568.9 million, followed by Tennessee with $311.3 million, and Pennsylvania with $149.1 million. States that employed the most workers in the industry included Tennessee with 2,382, New York with 2,022, and Alabama with 2,158.

Organization and Structure

The three major segments of the cut and sew apparel industry were 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 broadwoven fabrics accounting for roughly three-quarters of the materials used by the industry. Small specialty clothing stores, department stores, and large menswear discount chains are the three types of retailers that buy from manufacturers.

Background and Development

The clothing industry in the United States began to develop in the eighteenth century, but most clothing continued to be 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 people began moving to cities in the nineteenth century, they became more concerned with their clothing. As Claudia B. Kidwell 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., a U.S. 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 to place 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, which was perhaps the first true clothing factory in the United States, was created in Philadelphia. Fabric was cut to a standard pattern and packaged along with padding, facing cloth, thread, and buttons. The materials were then delivered to "widows and other meritorious females" working at home, who sewed them into uniforms. 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. In addition, 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."

Many people who worked as inside cutters and contract seamstresses in the early clothing industry of the 1840s and 1850s were primarily Irish and German immigrants, respectively. Many of the Jews who emigrated from Germany after 1860 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 those immigrants worked long hours in overcrowded, poorly ventilated buildings that became known as sweatshops.

Immigrants not only provided labor for the menswear industry; they also fueled demands for its products. One of the first purchases a new arrival made was a new U.S.-made suit, which, according to Kidwell and Christman, could instantly transform him "from 'greenhorn' 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, which was 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
In 1911, Hart, Schaffner & Marx (known in the 2000s as Hartmarx) became the first men's clothing manufacturer to eliminate outside contract labor. 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 that "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."

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 boys' suits produced in the United States in 1975 when more than 12 million were sold. Nevertheless, 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.

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 about $108.6 million worth of men's and boys' suits and coats in 2002, which represented a significant drop from 1997 when the value of shipment totaled $317.9 million. Industry analysts attributed the decrease to 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 could wear casual clothes. A 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 acceptable than T-shirts and jeans. Men in the United States continued to buy clothing because many had to furnish entire wardrobes more appropriate to the new standard. However, sales of suits, which at one time, with coats, had been the bread and butter of the men's apparel industry, continued declining. The trend 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 did not need to appear in public every work day and found they could easily make do with one or two suits.

In the mid-2000s, the suit and coat industry started to experience a comeback. The suit came back into style, and although the casual dress look may have remained the preferred style for men, fashion trends dictated a return to the "dressed-up" man, signifying ambition, success, and power.

However, the expiration of quotas on textile and apparel products that China could export in 2005 greatly affected the industry. Job loss was another concern regarding the increase in China imports. Bruce Raynor, president of the labor union Unite Here, stated that almost 10,000 apparel and textile workers lost their jobs in the first two months after the quotas were lifted. For example, Levi Strauss, which in the 1980s had 63 U.S. clothing factories, shut down its last remaining factories in the United States in January 2004, shifting production overseas where labor is cheaper. The textile industry and some labor unions, afraid of a Chinese monopoly, called for the U.S. government to initiate a World Trade Organization safeguard that would limit the number of apparel imports from China. In November 2005, the United States and China signed a three-year pact limiting the growth rate of Chinese imports in 34 different categories, including apparel. Growth rates for apparel categories were set at 10 to 15 percent between 2006 and 2008 as compared to growth rates of more than 1,000 percent in the first months of 2005. When the agreement ended in 2008, the National Committee of Textile Organizations and other industry organizations lobbied Congress for a new import-monitoring program on Chinese products. Although officials held meetings on the issue in mid-2009, no agreement was reached.

Current Conditions

The American Apparel and Footwear Association (AAFA) reported that U.S. production of men's, junior boys', and little boys' suits reached 1.6 million garments in 2007, which represented a 19.5 percent decrease from the previous year. Total value decreased 7.4 percent to $320 million. Whereas production of dress and sport coats (tailored) decreased only 4.1 percent to 821,000 garments in 2007, other categories experienced much greater declines: heavy nontailored coats and jackets were down 26.1 percent to 2.7 million garments; lightweight nontailored coats and jackets dropped almost 15 percent to 1.7 million garments; overcoats and topcoats were down 31.1 percent to 441,000 garments; and raincoats decreased 13.1 percent to 1.9 million garments.

The AAFA also reported significant changes in import totals for the industry. For example, imports of men's and boys' suit-type coats of manmade fiber (MMF) climbed 25.1 percent from 2004 to 2005, MMF suits increased by 22.7 percent, and cotton suit-type coats jumped 206 percent (from 182,000 garments in 2004 to 559,000 garments in 2005). By 2007, the import penetration rate for these categories were 94.8 percent, 97.3 percent, 94.8 percent, respectively.

In the apparel industry as a whole, 95.1 percent of U.S. clothing was imported in 2007, as compared to about 50 percent in 1991. The top five apparel suppliers to the United States in early 2009 were China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Honduras, and Indonesia, according to WWD. China was the top exporter of apparel, supplying a record 54 percent of the U.S. market in November 2008.

Industry Leaders

One of the leading manufacturers of men's and boys' suits and coats in the late 2000s was Hartmarx Operating Co. LLC, formerly Hartmarx Corp. and known by its label of Hart Schaffner & Marx. Hartmarx filed for bankruptcy in January 2009 and was sold to Emerisque UK and SKNL North America later that year. In 2007, the company had sales of $564.9 million. Another major presence in the industry was Oxford Industries Inc., of Atlanta, Georgia, which made private-label and brand-name men's clothing, including the Tommy Bahama brand. Oxford operated 80 stores in the United States in the late 2000s, with Macy's, Nordstrom, and Debenhams as its largest clients. The firm posted 2008 total sales of $947.5 million with 4,000 employees. Another leading company was Haggar Clothing Co. of Dallas, Texas. Founded in 1928, Haggar sold its products in 10,000 stores in the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the UK, including J.C. Penney, Kohl's, and Sears, as well as more than 70 Haggar outlet stores. Haggar transitioned from a public company to a private one when it was purchased by Infinity Associates LLC in 2005. Apparel giant Phillips-Van Heusen Corp. (PVC) of New York was also an industry leader, boasting such brands as Calvin Klein, Van Heusen, IZOD, Bass, and ARROW and licensed names such as Geoffrey Beene, CHAPS, and Tommy Hilfiger. In fiscal 2009, PVC had sales of almost $2.5 billion and 11,100 employees.


The cut and sew apparel manufacturing industry as a whole saw enormous losses of 484,000 workers between 1994 and 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The BLS predicted more significant losses of workers would result in an employment figure of 77,200 by 2016. In May 2008, BLS reported that more than 70 percent of cut and sew apparel manufacturing industry employees worked in production, earning a mean hourly wage of $10.91. Sewing machine operators comprised about 47 percent of production employees with a mean hourly wage of $9.70. Employment in the overall apparel manufacturing sector had dropped to 173,000 workers by January 2009, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association.

Some production workers are covered by contracts with Unite Here, formerly the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees (UNITE) and Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union (HERE). 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.

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. Technological advances beginning in 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 to fuse 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.

Business owners continued to pursue new means of increasing the productivity of apparel factories. In 2005, a patent was awarded for a new process of clothing manufacture called the Clothing Creator [TM], created by a business called FormaFit. In this process, which does not require direct human labor, a bolt of fabric feeds onto and is heat-molded to a 3-D body shape, The garment is created as machines worked around the form to ultrasonically bond and cut the fabric. The average time to produce a garment using the Clothing Creator is 45 seconds. However, the founder of the process admitted it will never replace the cut and sew business and that it will be used more for active wear and uniforms.

The use of computer simulation was another trend in the clothing industry in the late 2000s that was an attempt to make the manufacture of garments more efficient. Product developers in the apparel industry used software that allowed for 3D visualization of garments. Generally, these systems allow the user to "dress" a digital person, or avatar, using two-dimensional patterns, sometimes created in a CAD system. The avatar's measurements and characteristics can be manipulated to represent a particular segment of a target market. In addition, fabric textures and draping properties can be applied to a garment to better represent what the final product will look like. According to a July 2009 Apparel article, "As virtual dressing and related technologies become increasingly viable, there is an opportunity for product development teams to harness these capabilities for early identification of style and fit issues," in addition to reducing development time.

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