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Suiting Ourselves

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

For a symbol of conformity, the archetypal men's garment has a remarkably rich history.

SuitsAmerica's classic suited-up zone is surely the two square miles or so north of the New York Public Library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in New York, a district home not only to old-line men's retailers but also to many of the financial, legal, and media headquarters where coats and ties are still de rigueur.

The library now features a delightful exhibition, "A Rakish History of Men's Wear," on view until May 6. What unites it is an improbable story: the rise and persistence of the male suit, a garment that shows how cultural evolution can be as bizarre, yet weirdly logical, as biological selection.

Suits are, in fact, unnatural. The peoples of antiquity, the early Middle Ages, and traditional Asia, Africa, and the pre-Columbian Americas dressed beautifully with a minimum of cutting and sewing. Togas, kimonos, pre-Columbian mantles, dashikis — however luxurious or elegant — were not constructed as second skins.

The present male uniform began to emerge in the 14th century as an unintended consequence of military innovation. The body-fitting plate armor that we now admire in museums was replacing mail of the earlier Middle Ages. New craftsmen, the linen armorers, emerged to construct padding to cushion warriors' new exoskeletons, cutting and stitching pieces of cloth to fit the body. Those artisans, Anne Hollander declares in Sex and Suits (Knopf, 1994), "can really count as the first tailors of Europe."

Greater changes were to come. The French and American Revolutions discredited the elaborate waistcoats and knee breeches of the old regime's palaces. Male aristocratic finery never recovered from the Terror. Men from the middle and even upper classes copied the practical dress of country gentlemen and urban artisans. A colored etching of a gentleman's costume of 1792 reminds us that the new democratic spirit induced even wealthy men to adopt the pantaloons and trousers of the working class in place of the courtier's breeches (culottes) for political self-protection if not from conviction — hence the nickname "sans-culottes" for the revolution's militants.

Men's business clothing illustrates a paradox of design: The faster technology changes, the more people are reassured by the classics.

Beau Brummell, an Etonian from an upstart middle-class family, established a new aesthetic. English pre-Revolutionary dandies like the Macaronis (best known now through "Yankee Doodle") had copied elaborate flourishes like the richly embroidered waistcoats of French aristocrats. In place of such overt luxury, Brummell introduced more subtle but equally painstaking and meticulous detail, admired by intellectuals like Baudelaire for turning the self into a work of art. Dark fabrics contrasted with immaculate white shirts and matching neckcloths that could take an hour to tie properly. And just as the medieval knight's silhouette in a pointed helmet resembled a Gothic arch, the late-18th- and 19th-century Western man in his top hat echoed the smokestacks and chimney pots of growing cities. (Visitors to the show will instantly recognize one of Brummell's greatest followers, the Count d'Orsay, as the inspiration of The New Yorker magazine's fictitious Eustace Tilley.)

Brummell was the last of the grand rebel-innovators in men's fashion. Machine sewing encouraged further democratic simplification. The price of business clothing was beginning a decline that has continued ever since. By the late 1800s, the present-day "sack suit" of a single fabric had made the frock coat with contrasting trousers almost obsolete.

Would-be revolutionaries since then have failed, if only because their innovations have seldom improved appearance, comfort, or price. In one 1930s photograph at the library exhibit, a motley foursome of British dress reformers appear to be on their way to a mad tea party, not a progressive rally. The toga-wearing future citizens in the era's science-fiction film classic "Things to Come" are no more believable. More recent rebel styles — zoot suits, hip-hop gear, motorcycle leathers — have rarely made the jump out of their own subcultures. The most successful alternatives to the suit have been variants of work, military, or sports clothing: miners' blue jeans and pilots' bomber jackets, for example.

For 10 years or so in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the youthful rebels almost had their way. Mainstream manufacturers seemed to be capitulating. At a recent vintage film festival, I saw an unintentionally hilarious promotional short sponsored by the Arrow Shirt Company from 1970 in which grumpy, frumpy middle-aged people deplored the new styles of groovy youth; they were foils for a hip granny who found the kids refreshing.

But in the mid-70s, John T. Molloy's Dress for Success heralded the end of such polymeric exuberance. Molloy's meticulous research revealed clothing's signals of social class and education, confirming that conservative cuts and colors, and dressing like one's superiors, were the means of advancement. Science had developed brightly colored polyester double-knits to defy conformity; Molloy made conformity a science, helping consign the leisure suit to comic punch lines. Even the most celebrated breakthrough of 1960s fashion technology was a conspicuous failure. DuPont dropped production of its massively advertised plastic shoe material Corfam, the Edsel of footwear, within seven years of its introduction.

The informalization of the workplace in the 1990s also fizzled. It seemed either to devolve into T-shirts and flip-flops or to flower into a whole new wardrobe for "casual Fridays" — hardly more serviceable at a desk than shirt sleeves and tie, yet requiring new outlays for an ill-defined reincarnation of the competitive dressing it was supposed to replace.

Fashion resists technological advances. Our hottest high-tech innovation, nanotechnology, is found in apparel mainly as an invisible protective coating for traditional materials.

Indeed, men's business clothing illustrates a paradox of design. The faster technology changes, the more people are reassured by the classics. Consider architecture. The Crystal Palace of the London Great Exhibition of 1851 — which originated from the experience of its architect, the gardener Joseph Paxton, in building greenhouses for the aristocracy — became one of the world's most influential commercial structures. But the industrialists whose wares crammed such halls showed no interest in modeling their own homes on such glass-and-steel edifices.

For example, Sir William George Armstrong, a 19th-century inventor-engineer who became one of the world's largest makers of artillery and the armor plate to resist it, loved his era's new electrical lighting and devices. The home displaying them, however, was an immense neo-Tudor complex by Norman Shaw built high on a Northumberland hillside. Thomas Edison's plans for poured-concrete houses for American workers failed, and Edison himself remained in his New Jersey mansion with its 1880s Victorian furnishings (acquired with the house) until he died in 1931.

Even the most wired scholars today appreciate tradition. The renovated, century-old Beaux-Arts Carrere and Hastings building housing the library exhibition is more popular than ever with researchers, with its spacious and well-lit reading rooms in which the magnificent original tables have been discreetly rewired for laptop connections.

So, too, fashion resists technological advances. Our hottest high-tech innovation, nanotechnology, is found in apparel mainly as an invisible protective coating for traditional materials. Luxury itself is disguised; platinum watches resemble stainless steel to all but a few cognoscenti.

Technology has also increased the value of protective coloration and "fitting in." The Renaissance pikeman could flaunt his shocking stripes and gaudy sleeves; the more visible he was, the more intimidating. Noblemen literally followed suit. Today even camouflage — originally based on natural forms — is now abstract and digitized, the better to mask the soldier's presence. The library exhibition features the ostentation of the hip nonconformists of revolutionary France, the incroyables, but the existentialist dissenters of 1950s Paris dressed in black, as many of the hip have done ever since. Belief in the color's slimming illusion, its psychological if not truly visual disguise, has helped.

In today's office, the rakish dresser is the tall poppy, standing out to be downsized — raked away. Even violators of the corporate dress code echo conservative stereotypes: Steve Jobs's blue jeans, black turtlenecks, and rimless glasses combine to mark him as the officiating worker-priest of design.

If there is a new rebellion in costume, it is the middle-class tattoo, recalling a plate of Pictish body art at the beginning of the library exhibition. Well-off businessmen are said to be wearing the most elaborate designs — discreetly. But men have largely given up using clothing as a means of expression in the workplace. Rather, suits are more useful than ever for shielding people's true selves.

Edward Tenner is an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at Princeton University and a visiting scholar in the department of the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is author of "Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity" (Vintage, 2004) and "Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences" (Knopf, 1996).

This essay originally appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education (Chronicle Review, March 30, 2007).

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