On suits... Part I

The Fashion Week for Menswear 2015 is over, new and exciting ideas were presented on the world's biggest Fashion stage. But this year as well, we have seen suits reappearing. Maybe presented in new colours or new patterns, interesting cuts and shapes. Nevertheless, it is the same old suit we know for decades.

It seems to be a social phenomenon that the suit has not changed for 200 years, despite the predominance of the ‘modish costume’ in the western world. “’Modish’ costume (…) changes very rapidly in time, this rapidity of change belonging to its very essence; but it varies comparatively little in space, tending to spread rapidly over all parts of the world which are subject to the same cultural influences and between which there exist adequate means of communication”, (Flügel, 1950:130).

Anne Hollander suggests that the suit is a relentlessly modern phenomenon, to own self-perpetuating symbolic and emotional force. Since dress is being considered to be a mirror to social changes, the suit, in contrast to that, seems to possess its own authority.

The suit actively gathered more value through remaining true to itself, even in times of grand social changes. So it not only gained power through staying the same, but also more and more satisfaction. “By not vanishing, but instead shifting ground and visual emphasis, and also shifting their social and sexual meaning tailored suits have proved themselves infinitely dynamic possessed of their own fashionable energy”, (Hollander, 1994:4).

 The classic male tailored suit originated between about 1780 and 1820, and is regarded as Neo-classic. Largely influenced by the French fashion, the three-piece outfit emerged, consisting of breeches, waistcoat and coat. Tim Edwards describes the emergence of the suit as a notion far ahead its time, both referring to design practice and the essential meaning of the garment.

The suit in its origin in the seventeenth century preferred ornament as identifiable feature for the upper, and to some extent middle-classes.

During the following century, the design of the suits hardly changed in favour of simplicity. The colour of the suits was the characteristic of the social status. So that colourful garments were worn by the wealthy, while the lower classes were not able to afford the expensive dyes, (Edwards, 1997: 18).

The famous grey suit, actively worn by the contemporary society, came into fashion with the emergence of the industrialisation, according to Jennifer Craik, (Craik, 1994).

At the same time, a number of different types of suits were introduced, to be worn for special occasions. Dinner and smoking jackets became fashionable, as much as the tweed walking suit and the Norfolk hunting jacket.

Despite those numerous variants of the suit, this garment was still considered to feature aspects of uniformity. Tim Edwards argues, that this notion only emerged in contrast to the rapid developments of woman’s fashion at the beginning of the 20th century. From the corset to Dior’s New Look, the female fashion experienced great changes in solely thirty years.

As an answer to those changes the Men’s Dress Reform Party was set in 1929, to loosen the discomfort and dullness of the suit of that time.  The move towards more casualty in male dressing did not have a chance to take place, neither the persistence of the Party, which collapsed in 1937. Those circumstances “highlighted the strength of convention still evident in men’s dress, particularly where work was concerned, and perhaps more importantly the impasse in surpassing the suit as the perfect outfit for many meaningful or formal function. It also exposed the suit’s associations of intense masculinity, of grown-up-ness, and indeed of manhood”, (Edwards, 1997: 20).

Instead of a casual outfit, a lounge suit appeared, for the gentlemen to lounge, and showed a contrast to a work suit, abandoning the waistcoat. “It is interesting to note that the lounge suit has since lost this significance, as it is commonly worn to work or in the evening, as the workplace and transport to it are now cleaner and warmer, whilst a variety of other more casual clothes are often worn at home”, (Edwards, 1997: 20). 

Anne Hollander suggests, that those new abstract shapes, to be found in modern suits, responded to the modern abstract art of the 20th century. Hollander further notes, that technological and also economic progresses were used in a mode to preserve the character of men’s tailored suits, turning it into a flexible, easily available garment.

 Amongst other factors, it is the structure of the suit that through its unique idea of the complete envelope for the body, with separate flexible and layered pieces, contributed to the persistence of the garment. “Arms, legs and trunk are visibly indicated but not tightly fitted, so that largely movements of the trunk or limbs do not put awkward strain on seams or fastenings and the lumps and bumps of the individual body’s surface are harmoniously glossed over, never emphatically modelled”, (Hollander, 1994: 8). The individual parts of the suit allow free movement and mobility, by simply overlapping each other, avoiding any interruption in the linearity of the suit, which might have been caused by sudden dash. “The costume is thus socially formal and informal at the same time, obedient to the flow of circumstances”, (Hollander, 1994: 8f).

With the popularity of Hollywood and its stars, the suit, worn by celebrities, became associated with glamour and eroticism.

For Hollander the suit possesses a grand erotic appeal. It hints at the body wearing this attire, and underlines its shape and contours. She compares the suit’s ease to the natural dress of animals, bearing in mind the elegance of a panther or gazelle, (see Hollander, 1994: 5).

Pamela Church-Gibson argues that the suit does not just hint at the body beneath, but it emphasises the inaccessibility demonstrated by the form of the suit and its details. “Zipped in, buttoned up, it is thus presented to the world as a monolithic, even phallic block. The tie is another phallic hint, but again the phallus is inaccessible, controlled, regulated, just as the tie is carefully knotted”, (Church Gibson, 2005: 68). As the trend of consumption reached the young male persona in the 1980s, the male body became visible and further an object of commodification.

However, the suit seems to awake very different associations, but for Tim Edwards “(i)t remains a potent symbol of success, virility and maturity, and the one ensemble from the man’s wardrobe that still looks incongruous on a boy”, (Edwards, 1997: 22).

 

Bibliography: 

Bruzzi, S., (1997), ‚The Instabilities of the Franco-American Gangster’ in  ‚Undressing Cinema: Clothing and Identity in the Movies’. London and New York: Routledge. 

Church Gibson, P., (2005), ‘Brad Pitt and George Clooney, the rough and the smooth: Male Costuming in Contemporary Hollywood’, in R. Moseley (ed). ‘Fashioning Film Stars’. London: BFI.

Craik, J., (1994), ‘The face of fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion’, London: Routledge.

Edwards, T., (1997), ‘His story of fashion’ in ‘Men in the Mirror: Men’s Fashion, Masculinity and Consumer Society’. London: Cassel.

Flügel, J.C., (1950), ‘Types of dresses’ in ‘The Psychology of Clothes’. London: The Hoghart Press Ltd.

Gamman, L., (2008), ‘On gangster suits and silhouettes’, in M. Uhlirova, (ed). ‘If Looks Could Kill: Cinema’s Images of Fashion, Crime and Violence. London: Koenig Books.

Hollander, A., (1994), ‚Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress’. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Rubinstein, R. P., (1995), ‘Dress Codes: Meanings and Messages in American Culture’. Oxford: Westview Press.

Spencer, N., (1992), ‘Menswear in the 1980s: Revolt into Conformity’, in J. Ash and E. Wilson (ed). ‘Chic Thrills: A Fashion Reader’. London: Pandora.