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Tailoring Cultural Change in the 1960s: Pierre Cardin’s Cylinder Suit Jacket

Tailoring Cultural Change in the 1960s: Pierre Cardin’s Cylinder Suit Jacket

The United States, the United Kingdom, and continental Europe experienced unprecedented social, political, and cultural revolutions in the 1960s. Those disruptions encouraged visual artists, musicians, writers, and fashion designers to embrace avant-garde and non-Western aesthetic influences. Different from “art for art’s sake” experimentation, these acts reflected an evolving consciousness of inclusion that worked to rebuild a fractured global society after the Second World War.

French designer Pierre Cardin’s visionary Cylinder suit jacket was at the threshold of this transformation. Its futurist aesthetic challenged the principles of utilitarianism and bourgeois conformity that dominated men’s fashion from the end of World War I to 1960: the year Cardin’s Cylinder menswear collection premiered. The line was also Cardin’s entrance into prêt-à-porter, or “ready-to-wear,” men’s fashion. Though the Cylinder suit jacket itself saw limited sales, Cardin used it to set a mass market template that allowed him to incorporate influences from outside the fashion capitals of Paris, London, Milan, and New York. Democratizing fashion in this way reinvigorated the menswear industry through the ideas it communicated: new-look masculinity, cultural inclusivity, and a massive generational shift.


Building the House of Cardin

Pierre Cardin was born in San Biagio di Callalta, Italy (near Venice) and moved to Saint-Etienne, France at the age of two. After studying architecture, he devoted himself to fashion, moving to Paris at the end of World War II in 1945. His prodigious talent earned him a place at the Haute-Couture House of Paquin. During this time Cardin designed costumes for visionary director Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête (1946), or as the English-speaking world knows it, Beauty and the Beast.[1] Cocteau’s surrealist approach forced Cardin to visually collapse time. The resulting designs blended opulent eighteenth century French aristocracy with a dreamy twentieth century modernism. This tactic of looking back to look forward stayed with Cardin through the most innovative periods of his career. Working with Cocteau also established the pattern by which Cardin found inspiration in the visual arts for his design aesthetic. That awareness helped Cardin absorb the power of deceptive tailoring techniques when he worked for Elsa Schiaparelli. Equally informative, however, was his time at Dior.

Cardin designed women’s coats and suits at Dior from 1946 to 1949 – inarguably the most important and formative period in the house’s history – and was thereby present for the launch of Dior’s New Look in 1947. The New Look embraced beauty and the female body and was Dior’s reaction to wartime utilitarian, austere fashions. He tapped into consumers’ desire to remodel themselves after the darkness of World War II. Yes,  Dior was sensitive to changing times, but he was also a shrewd businessperson. In 1948, shortly after presenting his first collection, Dior negotiated an unprecedented licensing agreement on hosiery that allowed him to recoup a percentage of sales, rather than the usual flat rate. [2] He extended that practice with the New Look by adding shoes, gloves, and hats to complete his outfits. The New Look’s massive commercial success showed Cardin that it was possible to capture the cultural zeitgeist, focus on innovation, and appeal to a mass market. These became the foundational principles of the House of Cardin.

Cardin recognized that post-World War II middle class affluence meant that there was a mass market for unique fashion somewhere between couture and mass production.

Cardin founded his own business in 1950 at 10 rue Richepanse in Paris. Its first projects were masks and costumes for the theater; however, he showed his first womenswear collection in 1951. This inaugural collection was dominated by heavyweight wool fabrics cut into geometric shapes that became a hallmark of his style. Throughout the decade, innovative couture designs like the “bubble dress,” or “balloon dress,” and the “barrel coat” catapulted Cardin to the top of the industry. Instead of being content with that notoriety, however, he shocked the fashion world by shattering tradition and introducing a women’s prêt-à-porter, or ready-to-wear, collection for the Printemps department store in 1959. The move proved Cardin was ahead of his time, but it also resulted in his expulsion from the Chambre Syndicale de La Haute Couture, France’s trade association of high fashion which accepts or denies houses and firms the right of admittance based on strict quality and tradition guidelines. [3] The designer recognized that post-World War II middle class affluence meant that there was a mass market for unique fashion somewhere between couture and mass production. The fashion industry was not ready to concede, but Cardin set out to fill that void with his first prêt-à-porter menswear line in 1960.


The Cylinder Collection as Contemporary Art

Cardin’s greatest strength was his ability to translate socio-political happenings into sartorial experiences. Influenced by the Cold War space race between the United States and Russia, he introduced the Cylinder menswear collection a year before Russian cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being in space. The collection’s signature piece was the Cylinder jacket. A reinterpretation of a traditional sports coat, Cardin removed the lapel, relaxed and narrowed the shoulders, and abandoned the usual two or three button constraints for a five button design that reached up to the tie knot. [4] The final product was demarcated by its streamlined silhouette and efficient structure that stood in stark contrast to the loose fit, padded shoulders, and moderate gorge of popular 1940s and 1950s suits. [5] Other exceptional tailoring details included high armholes, a fitted waist, and tapered pants. [6]  Less visible within the design, however, was the perspective Cardin originally learned when working with Jean Cocteau: using historical references to make contemporary statements.    

Cardin’s time training at Elsa Schiaparelli’s fashion house in the late 1940s shows its influence in the construction of this jacket. [7] Schiaparelli’s signature design is the three-needle knit Trompe L’Oeil sweater designed in 1927, distinguished by its large intarsia-effect butterfly bow at the neckline with matching trick of the eye collar and turn-back cuffs. The Cylinder jacket showed a similarly illusory collar and boxy shape. Cardin’s device of ocular deception also spoke to the technique of “optical painting,” an emerging style of the 1960s. [8]

Although very much inspired by present events, the Cylinder jacket would have remarkable longevity. Perhaps most notably, Cardin reinvented the silhouette for his 1968 Space Age, or Cosmo Corps, collection. This time it was made of plastic, vinyl, leather, and his own three-dimensional “Cardine” fabric. [9] These brightly-colored, glossy designs mimicked the mass market subjects of pop artists like Andy Warhol’s 1962 Campbell’s Soup Cans series. At the same time, Cardin was playfully predicting what humans would wear in space a year before Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. Borrowing from different influences, the Cylinder jacket blurred lines between fashion, science, technology, and art.


Here Come the Derivatives

Cardin’s Cylinder style was adapted by other designers reflecting the prevalence of youth culture in America, Britain, and Europe. Around the time of their first single release, “Love Me Do” in 1962, the Beatles were photographed sporting collarless jackets designed by London-based tailor Douglas Millings. [10] Millings was an opportunist, capitalizing on the fresh international interest in menswear Cardin developed.  In The Day of the Peacock: Style for Men 1963 to 1973, Geoffrey Aquilina Ross, the first men’s fashion editor of British Vogue and merchandising editor of the now-defunct Men in Vogue, bluntly argues that “Only a cynic would disbelieve Millings when he denied he was influenced by Cardin.” [11]

Millings was tuning into the cultural zeitgeist that Cardin’s vision expressed. The Cylinder design symbolized rebellion for a new generation that was fighting ideological battles on several fronts. Cardin’s futurism started by fusing fashion, art, and science, but eventually it recognized that the many civil rights movements of the decade would lead to an intercultural future for Western society.


The Nehru Jacket and Cardin’s Global Reach

Cardin modified the original Cylinder design by looking beyond the couture of Paris, London, Milan, and New York. Specifically, however, Cardin looked to a somewhat unlikely place – far outside of the Western fashion capitals – to India where he found inspiration in the Nehru jacket. Named after Jawaharlal Nehru, Prime Minister of India from 1947 to 1964, the jacket featured trimmer pockets and a high mandarin collar. [12] That design reached global audiences through hit movies like Dr. No and through ads featuring Hollywood stars like Sammy Davis Jr. [13]

Synthesizing Eastern and Western aesthetics spoke to changing identity concerns in the 1960s, as people of color fought for equality. One can argue that the Nehru jacket design is an instance of cultural appropriation; however, I argue that such a label somewhat ignores Cardin’s commitment to multiculturalism – something he practiced since the earliest days of his career. In 1957 he was invited to teach his three dimensional cut technique at Japan’s Bunka Fukosa College. During his time there, he became familiar with the Japanese fashion market and gained a respect for the culture, which contributed to his interest in working with Japanese model Hiroko Matsumoto for much of the 1960s. [14] That decade also saw him redesign employee uniforms for Pakistan International Airlines (1966 to 1971), as well as create a new version of the Barong Tagalog, the Filipino national dress. By the time of the Battle of Versailles in 1973, [15] he was one of the first designers to welcome models of color to walk in his show. [16] Cardin’s interests in social justice and international relations even earned him the title of Honorary Ambassador to UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 1991. That title helped him transition from designer to good-will spokesperson.


The End of an Era

While advancing his outreach, the controversial designer concentrated on developing his brand across the globe. The radical spirit of experimentation and invention that characterized the House of Cardin in the 1960s grew more muted in the 1970s. It seemed that the Cylinder and Nehru designs were suddenly too odd or too risky for men in London, arguably the capital of menswear during this period. Geoffrey Aquilina Ross recalls that Cardin’s designs “appeared to have prissy surplus detailing rather than a new direction.” [17] American designers like John Weitz were introduced to London’s menswear intelligentsia as an antidote to Cardin’s advancement. The Frenchman’s couture and prêt-à-porter lines continued with moderate success, but they became enmeshed in a bigger business empire. 

Cardin’s licensee Gruppo GFT merged with the Tianjin Jin Tak Garment Company, a suit factory, to form the Pierre Cardin label in the 1970s. He negotiated over 800 licensing deals in more than 100 countries on products including clothing, accessories, beauty and fragrance products, chocolates, pens, cigarettes, frying pans, alarm clocks, mineral water, cassette tapes, and car seat covers; by the late 1990s he was generating about $2.5 billion per year from these licensing deals alone. [18] More important than this financial success, however, are Cardin’s artistic influence on fashion design and the ways he contributed to changing the industry.

Pierre Cardin’s innovative spirit is embedded in twentieth and twenty-first century fashion histories

Pierre Cardin’s innovative spirit is embedded in twentieth and twenty-first century fashion histories. After being kicked out of the Chambre Syndicale in 1959, he was soon reinstated in an implicit acknowledgement from the industry that ready-to-wear was its future. The wakeup call came when eleven French designers rebelled against the Syndicale’s decision to remove Cardin and showed prêt-à-porter collections two weeks before their couture collections. [19] The clothes were then stocked in boutiques for immediate purchase, unlike the usual couture process which involved fittings. A new tradition of showing both couture and ready-to-wear collections at fashion weeks emerged. Fashion magazines picked up on the trend by 1963 and the modern retail market that we know today began to develop. The industry fully recognized that importance ten years later when the Chambre Syndicale established both the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode and the Chambre Syndicale de la Mode Masculine. These two organizations focused on ready-to-wear, and the latter named Pierre Cardin its Président d’honneur. He helped organize Paris’ first prêt-à-porter show in 1973, inaugurating the annual fashion week tradition of showing ready-to-wear collections in February and September and showing couture collections in January and July.

Cardin’s foresight allowed him to use fashion to tailor cultural change. His creativity, social consciousness, bold designs, and keen business practices kept him in the vanguard. Moreover, he pioneered the fashion designer as entrepreneur model,  a revolution that arguably started with the Cylinder suit jacket.



[1] Francesca Sterlacci and Joanne Arbuckle, The A to Z of the Fashion Industry (London: Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2009), 33.

[2] An Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-and-Twentieth Century Fashion Designers and Retailers Who Transformed Dress, ed. Anne T. Kellogg, Amy T. Peterson, Stefani Bay, and Natalie Swindell, (London: Greenwood Press, 2002), 86.

[3] Fashion Design.” The Fashion Handbook (New York: Routledge, 2006, Reprinted 2009, 2010), 34-36.

[4] “Designer,” Pierre Cardin, accessed June 5th 2017.

[5] Sven Raphael Schneider, “1950’s Men’s Fashion,” 2012, Gentleman’s Gazette, accessed June 4th 2017.

[6] An Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-and-Twentieth Century Fashion Designers and Retailers Who Transformed Dress, 45.

[7] Fashion: The Whole Story, ed. Marnie Fogg (New York: Prestel, 2013), 264-265.

[8] “Op Art,” The Art Story, accessed June 7th 2017.

[9] Elizabeth Langle, Pierre Cardin: Fifty Years of Fashion and Design, (New York: The Vendome Press, 2005), 18-20.

[10] “Who Dressed The Beatles?: Pierre Cardin, Douglas Millings and the Collarless Suit of the 1960s,” The Fashion Culturist, 2010, accessed June 5th 2017, And see, Douglas Martin, “Dougie Millings, 88, The Tailor of the Beatles,”The New York Times, October 8th, 2011, accessed June 6th 2017,


[11] Geoffrey Aquilina Ross, The Day of the Peacock: Style for Men 1963-1973 (London: V&A Publishing, 2011), 47.

[12] Alison A. Nieder, 20th Century Fashion, ed. Jim Heimann (New York: Taschen, 2009), 366-367.

[13]“Bond Style - Crab Key Summer Attire in Dr. No.”  BAMF Style (2014), accessed June 5th 2017,

[14] Sarah Leon, “Pierre Cardin With Model Hiroko Maatsumoto [sic], 1966: A Look Back,” Huffington Post, updated December 6th 2017, accessed January 27th 2018,

[15] “About,” Versailles ‘73: American Runway Revolution, accessed June 3rd 2017,

[16]  Fashion: The Whole Story, ed. Marnie Fogg (New York: Prestel, 2013), 264-265.

[17] Ross, 83.

[18] An Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-and-Twentieth Century Fashion Designers and Retailers Who Transformed Dress, 47.

[19] Tim Jackson and David Shaw, The Fashion Handbook (New York: Routledge, 2006, Reprinted 2009, 2010), 36.

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