The Suit is Dead! Long Live the Suit!

At first I was incredulous. Now I am inconsolable. News is spreading that the suit, a staple of menswear for over two hundred years, is being ‘broken up’. In the March edition of British GQ, Trevor Dolby argues that ‘The day of the jacket is over’.[i] As if there had been some kind of columnists’ collusion against the grande dame of male dress, David Hayes claims that men have begun to ‘question the traditional suit’ in the weekend’s Financial Times.[ii] So long two-piece! Farewell three-piece! If these clothing commentators are right, we’re about to enter the brave new world of ‘mix and match’.

When The Suit Doesn’t Fit

photoBehind Trevor Dolby’s denunciation of the jacket lies a lot of sartorial baggage. His main grievance is that suits make men sweat, although I wonder what he’d expect when wearing a three-piece to a Birmingham nightclub as a hormonal teenager? Nowadays, Dolby only wears a jacket out of ‘courtesy’, as though jacket-clad men need to be humoured. But his sartorial clean sweep doesn’t begin and end here. Jettisoning the jacket means throwing out the tie. It also means replacing the suit trousers with… jeans. Jeans. Hayes’ critique of the suit is less iconoclastic. Speaking with fashion designers and industry insiders from the creative director of Z Zegna to the editor of Mr Porter, he suggests that tailored separates are becoming increasingly ubiquitous and popular. Various reasons for this raiment reshuffle are given: men’s growing confidence and desire to express their character through clothing; the increasingly blurred boundary between work and leisure, which can make formal attire seem fussy and fusty; the relative profusion of men’s tailors, who can create good-looking garments along unconventional, or at least non-traditional, lines; the appeal of ‘old school’ styles.

This concatenation of causes has developed over a long time, and not always to the suit’s detriment. Quite the opposite in the fact. Heightened sartorial confidence, indistinct divisions between work and play, the rise of entrepreneurial tailors and a renewed appreciation of old-style cool, have created a mini-suit revival. The three-piece is now more common than it was five years ago and suit accessorising has reached fever pitch, with pocket squares, tiepins and boutonnières becoming a not-so-irregular sight. So why the treacherous turn? In part, it is probably a case of hubris and nemesis, the suit is a victim of its success. As Grace Coddington, Creative Director of American Vogue observes in her memoirs, as soon as one clothing style has become the norm, it is superceded by something different.[iii] This is fashion at its most capricious.

photo-12

There is another reason why men may now be inclined to shun the suit: the economic downturn. As the suit has become a symbol of masculinity, so it has indirectly, but no less decisively, become a signifier of male confidence and success, specifically in what is now the predominant sphere of manly pursuits: business. One only has to look at Sophie Elgort’s photoblog, Suits in the City, which is available through the Financial Times’ website and features shots of Manhattan’s suited (business) elite, to get the point.[iv] In years of economic prosperity, the suit can be a positive signifier, but in today’s straightened economic climate, the suit may have become a sign of unashamed success and excess, just as it was in the eighties. In popular perception, it is the garb of greedy and unprincipled financiers, like Gordon Gekko, or for the younger generation, Jake Moore. This perception may become entrenched if the present economic conditions continue and the rift between high and low wage earners increases.

History Repeating

photo-11To even out this hyperbolic harangue (somewhat), sartorialists who know their history will be aware that the ‘ditto’, a term describing men’s trousers, vest (waistcoat) and jacket that are cut from the same colour and grade of cloth, is a relatively recent development. During the nineteenth century, gentlemen would wear matching jacket and trousers when relaxing at home, but they would invariably wear contrasting jacket, vest and breeches (or trousers) in public.[v] The different colours, cloths and textures provided a clearer demonstration of a man’s rank, wealth and societal worth, than the more-humble ‘ditto’, or lounge suit. Attaining the appropriate balance in dress with different colours and textures required skill. Sartorial success ensured the distinction and fortune of several young cads, notably Beau Brummell and the Count d’Orsay. Failure caused the embarrassment of many more.

The prospect of ‘mix and match’ is therefore really no-more than a sartorial revival. My mood is improving. Traumatic societal shifts, which alter people’s habitus – a sociological term referring to people’s public behaviour – often affect modes of dress, which makes sense. As Alison Lurie has argued, clothing is a language and what we wear communicates our conscious and subconscious thoughts.[vi] In the mid- to late-eighteenth century, for example, the Macaroni style of dress, characterised by a surfeit of decoration, was prominent when aristocratic power was strong. It was replaced by humble, country-inspired dress when the anciens régimes collapsed at the century’s close.[vii] Prima facie, this makes the present ‘mix and match’ renaissance oddly timed. If contrasting jackets and trousers constituted the elite look of the nineteenth century, why would such a style return during a period when the wealthy are encountering a specific and sustained backlash? The reason is that the separates worn today carry a different emphasis to those worn in the nineteenth century. Instead of contrasting complementary colours and textures, recent catwalk shows emphasise tones and patterns that clash. As Jeremy Langmead, editor Mr Porter, explains:

Yes, it may look as if you left the house with the wrong jacket on, but that’s all part of the look that the Italians call sprezzatura.[viii]

In other words, a studied indifference to dress, which reminds me of the lyrics from Everclear’s 2000 song ‘Unemployed Boyfriend’, is de rigueur:

Ever since when I first saw you, looking bored in that plastic chair;

with the lights of the office around you.

Those blond streaks that look so pretty in your black hair;

you look cool and alternative, with that disaffected stare.

Yeah, you want people to think that you just don’t care.

This casual approach to dress seems to reflect people’s desire to adopt a less materialistic and mercenary attitude to life. It therefore represents a renunciation of the attitude that conspired to cause the economic crash. And people with clashing clothes are unlikely to be responsible for precipitating financial Armageddon; just think of the opprobrium that Paul Wolfowitz, former president of the World Bank, endured in 2006 for having holes in his grey socks.[ix] Imagine the consternation if he had been wearing a ‘mix and match’ number.

Maybe It’s Just Me?

photo-10This all brings me to the pressing, and real, issue: I just don’t like separates. I am having another suit made for me at the moment. Over the Christmas recess, I agonised about its colour and style. I also contemplated having a jacket and waistcoat in the same fabric and a pair of trousers in a complementary, but contrasting, fabric. I had seen some ‘mix and match’ photographs that looked good and I was perhaps subconsciously aware that this look was becoming more prevalent. Before the holiday, I wore ‘mix and match’ to work as a ‘dry run’. But I hated it. Looking down at my clothes, the contrast between my jacket and trousers made me feel self-conscious and queasy. I couldn’t wait to go home and take the hideous outfit off. The strength of my reaction could be because I am colour blind and considered the colours jarring. But I also felt under dressed. So, my new suit will not be separates. It will be another three piece. Another ‘ditto’. Thinking about it, this will probably be my most formal day suit yet, as the waistcoat will be double-breasted. Clearly, it will take time for me to become reconciled to the new (or revived) suiting trend, but one thing does reassure me. Whilst ‘mix and match’ does not presently appeal, it is evident that the jacket, waistcoat and trousers remain the focus of men’s clothing identity.

The suit is dead! Long live the suit!

And breathe.

This post has been published with Parisian Gentleman.


 

[i] T. Dolby, ‘The day of the jacket is over’, GQ (March, 2013),125.

[ii] D. Hayes, ‘Mix and match of the day’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (23/24 February, 2013), 5.

[iii] G. Coddington, Grace: a memoir (London, 2012), 82.

[v] C. Breward, The Culture of Fashion (Manchester, 1995), 174.

[vi] A. Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 2000), 3-17.

[vii] J. Craik, The Face of Fashion: cultural studies in fashion (London, 1993), 182-83.

[viii] Hayes, ‘Mix and match’, 5.

[ix] ‘Holes found in Wolfowitz’s style’. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6316765.stm. Accessed: 26-ij-2013.

LC:M 2013: Modish Men (?)

Well, I think, is it fashion [in] Britain, [was worth] something like £21 billion last year? I think men’s fashion is up to £9 billion. It’s vital for the economy and people don’t really realise. And when you think of £21 billion, it’s essential to our economy.

David Gandy, menswear model[i]

 

How would I sum up British [men’s] style? It’s that they seem to have a very interesting sort of dialogue with traditional English clothing, [which] makes it more enduring, [which] makes it almost less prone to the vagaries of fashion.

Toby Jones, English actor[ii]

 

Tailoring is enjoying a fashion renaissance, what are your do’s [sic] and don’ts [sic] in sartorial dressing?

I don’t myself. But I think the brilliant thing is that there is a whole new generation of men who are taking a really keen interest in tailoring and you only have to look at the rejuvenation of Savile Row to see that, both with some of the very established houses and some of the younger ones, and it’s brilliant because London is the home of menswear.

Interview with Dylan Jones, Editor of British GQ[iii]

 

LCMMuch of the domestic commentary surrounding this year’s London Collections: Men, which ran between 7 – 9 January, had a tinge of national pride, as the extracts above show: Britain, more specifically London, has become the menswear capital. These three comments, from a model, an actor and an editor, also challenge the entrenched notion that men are inherently disinterested in the clothes that they wear. Up to a point. Jingoism aside, it was interesting how little of the discussion surrounding LC:M considered the clothes. The importance of menswear to our economy, to our cities and to a younger generation of men and women, was frequently rehearsed, as though event organisers and participants felt compelled to justify the metropolis’ three-day clothing convocation. There were copious photographs on Instagram and slideshows on GQ with accompanying personal commentary, but verbal and written critiques about the modelled garments and the designers who created them were negligible.[iv] Some British newspapers featured photographs from the inaugural day of LC:M on their front page, but discussion of the event was cursory: London’s Evening Standard focused on celebrity-spotting;[v] The Guardian included excerpts from Dylan Jones’ introductory speech at Downing Street, which he made as chairman of LC:M. A brief overview of Topman Design was also provided.[vi] But both papers, along with The Daily Telegraph, seemed more interested in using the opportunity of a London fashion event launched from the prime minister’s residence to berate David Cameron for his sartorial blunders.[vii]

It’s Oh So Quiet

It seems odd that commentary on a menswear event should feature so few discussions about men’s clothing. Two reasons are frequently put forward to explain men’s ambivalence about dress: their suspicion of fashion and their aversion to gender-specific dialogues. According to Financial Times columnist Charlie Porter, ‘in the world of menswear, it has become the norm to say one is interested not in fashion but in style … Ask most men if they favour ‘fashion’ or ‘style’, and a sizeable majority would steer sharply to the latter.’[viii] Fashion is inconstant, capricious, even tyrannical, and men, in particular, are said to dislike this volatility and lack of control. Moreover, fashion is often perceived as an avowedly female preoccupation.[ix] Style, on the other hand, is timeless, fixed or changed but slowly. It provides assurance and thus, perhaps, legitimacy. The dichotomy that exists between fashion and style is apparent in Toby Young’s attempt to define men’s style (above).

Man About TownThe second reason why men are commonly said to be disinterested in dress stems from a dislike – or insecurity – in talking about their gender and different masculinities.[x] Research suggests that men do not like to be addressed en masse. They feel uncomfortable knowing that ‘other men within their age group feel the same way as them’ and they are averse to being targeted ‘in gendered terms.’[xi] This may explain why style magazines for teenage boys have never caught on; why style magazines for men (which are a relatively new product compared with their female equivalents[xii]) feature an array of sections, from health and leisure, to food, gadgets, women and cars – presumably to cater (subliminally) to different masculinities – and why television shows akin to What Not To Wear and How To Look Good Naked do not exist for men. The difficulty and discomfiture in adopting a gendered approach when addressing men is even apparent when a shared characteristic is referenced, as Philip Utz’s editorial in the recent gay-themed issue of Man About Town shows.[xiii]

But if men really are opposed to dress, whether or not they like discussing it, there would be no menswear industry. The menswear industry is presently prospering, as David Gandy points out (above), so another explanation for men’s antithetical stance on dress must be identified. Porter, in his FT article, hints at a reason: men’s attachment to the suit, an age-old article of clothing that symbolises ‘pride and certainty.’[xiv] Porter’s hunch has been explored further by art historian Anne Hollander, who has traced the evolution of the suit, and with it the ascendancy of men’s dress over female dress, from the Middle Ages.

Suits you, Sir

In brief, Hollander has argued that women’s dress has lagged behind that of men in terms of interest and innovation since the fourteenth century, the moment when male and female garb became noticeably distinct.[xv] While men’s clothing tended to accommodate, even extenuate, the contours of their physique, female clothing wrapped women in an impenetrable swathe of distorting material. Louis XVI’s endorsement of female tailors in 1675 exacerbated this sartorial divide, to women’s detriment. As women now clothed women, the influence of male dress on female raiment diminished. Women’s dress became more theatrical and evocative, with ‘ballooning skirts covered with bubbly furbelows, vast airborne hats festooned with ruffles and garlands, supported by mountains of frizzed and fluffed hair.’[xvi] In marked constrast, men’s dress became simpler. Through sartorial vogues in the English court, political upheavels in the French court and technological developments in cloth production, the suit acquired its modern form during the early years of the nineteenth century.

london-collections

The genesis of the suit was also inspired by antiquity, which drew attention to the body’s natural form through sculpture. In Britain, the arrival of the Elgin marbles showed what male bodies should be like. This led to further refinements in the fit and silhouette of the suit, which culminated in the Brummellian aesthetic of closely tailored raiment and, by 1815, the widespread adoption of trousers by men. Simultaneously, male couturiers led by Charles Worth resumed making garments for women, a craft that is continued by the likes of Adrien Sauvage, who recently launched his Menswear for Women collection.[xvii] As men once again clothed women, female dress adapted elements of the male wardrobe, including the suit. The sartorial relationship between men and women was not entirely one-sided, but it was only during the latter half of the twentieth that men began to incorporate aspects of women’s dress in their wardrobes in an overt way, chiefly through the adoption of ornamentation and brighter, contrasting colours. From Hollander’s perspective, men were never disinterested in dress and averse to fashion; rather, they have focused on adapting a style of garment that has always suited them well.

Like other excellent and simple things we cannot do without, men’s suits have lately acquired an irksome esthetic flavor, I would say an irritating perfection. Their integrated, subtle beauty is often an affront to post-modern sensibilities, to eyes and minds attuned to the jagged and turbulent climate of the late twentieth century. Current millennial impulses tend toward disintegration, in style as in politics; but men’s suits are neither post-modern nor minimalist, multicultural nor confessional – they are relentlessly modern, in the best classical sense.[xviii]

Hollander’s argument helps to explain the casual response of Dylan Jones, who was recently asked about this clothing preferences:

Being the talisman for London Collections do you feel any pressure when picking an outfit in the morning?

No. Apart from today, I usually get up in the morning and put on a blue suit and don’t worry about it until I take it off. So, no, I don’t really worry about what I wear.[xix]

It seems strange that an editor of one of Britain’s leading men’s style magazines and the chairman of LC:M would publicly imply that he doesn’t think much about his dress. If Hollander’s argument is accepted, Jones’ lack of worry is less a reflection of disinterest, rather an his assurance in his suit, which has subtly evolved over the centuries to form a garment that is classically modern. Hollander’s thesis also explain’s Beau Brummell’s retort that ‘folly is the making of me’.[xx] Rather than making light of his personal situation, Brummell was more likely remarking on the fact that he was not doing anything especially novel with his dress. Much of his sartorial inspiration came from antiquity, as he explained in Male and Female Costume.[xxi] Brummell was therefore mocking society, who rushed to embrace his sartorial style without ever really grasping its significance.

Imitation as Flattery

Parts of Hollander’s argument do not completely convince. Men’s response to dress may owe much to the sartorial superiority of the suit, but the notion that women’s dress is beholden to male garb is more difficult to establish. Hollander’s book also has some curious omissions: Savile Row is not mentioned, nor are the clothing reforms of Charles II’s court in 1666, which did much to establish the modern form of the male suit.[xxii] The Macaroni style and Zoot Suit are largely passed over, although Hollander does suggest that fringe groups, ‘the powerless’, have continually adopted modes of dressing that are as ‘remarkable and fantastic’ as they are fleeting.[xxiii] Nevertheless, her thesis goes far to penetrate the paradox of men’s attitude to dress.

menscollections-london-aw13In my previous post (Fashion’s Past & Present), I suggested that trends in men’s clothing often eschew the past. I could have said that, on the whole, they are also tend to veer away from many present and futuristic vogues. This is because in championing the suit, men have, consciously or otherwise, refrained from combining ‘different programs’ of dress. For the majority of men, ‘a single costume fulfils a single esthetic purpose, and requires a single idea to unify its visibly separate parts.’ Put simply, men do not wear ‘sweatpants with the white tuxedo jacket, as women’s fashion indicates she might.’[xxiv] The ubiquity of the suit at LC:M demonstrated its hegemony in contemporary menswear. Even the more avantgarde collections by J.W. Anderson or Topman Design used the suit, or key elements from it, for satorial structure. By adopting a holistic approach to their dress, men have tended to innovate with subtle variations, rather than changing the fundamental structure of their outfit, hence the present popularity of pocket squares and tie bars, which ornament the suit.

In my last post I also indicated that men look to other men for sartorial assurance and incorporate clothing styles from those whose characters appeal, individuals like the Duke of Windsor, Beau Brummell or (whisper it quietly) David Beckham. By contrast, women tend to focus on items of clothing and pay less attention to the wearer. I think the reason for this is that men have become accustomed to visual homogeneity among their peers. When people look alike or very similar, their character assumes greater importance. Consequently, those men with distinctive characters will tend attract greater attention and interest, which may lead to imitation.[xxv] Consider the raconteur Beau Brummell, who did not wish to be noticed because of the clothes he wore. As women’s dress has always been less uniform than that worn by men, so the clothes and not the females within them attract more attention, at least initially.

A Tailoring Tyranny?

The suit is now the staple of many male wardrobes. Perhaps inevitably, therefore, it has become one man’s symbol of ‘pride and certainty’ and another man’s symbol of sobriety and oppression. David Walliams’ observation, if not his sartorial preference, encapsulates this sense of sartorial ennui:

Menswear in general can be so boring and I’m so jealous when I see womenswear and think, ‘I’d love to wear that’, because it always just seems more inventive, but I think men are at last catching up.’[xxvi] 

Men may not like to be addressed in gendered terms and may feel uncomfortable discussing their clothing. Some men also perpetuate the notion that the significant women in their lives select what they wear, as though clothes shopping is trivial and inconsequential. This is the argument David Cameron used when his curious sartorial choices came under recent scrutiny. Cameron blamed his wife (a designer for Smythson, no less[xxvii]) for his poor sartorial judgement.[xxviii] Representatives of the menswear industry, from male models to editors, may also feel uneasy defining and defending their work, but however tongue-tied men become about their raiment, it is evident that they do take a lot of care, pride and interest in their clothing, even if some now feel that the suit is showing its age.

Hackett2


[ii] Ibid.

[v] E. Martin, L. Watling & M. Frith, ‘Ronnie and Liam rock and roll out of men’s fashion week’, Evening Standard (Tuesday, 8 January 2013), 8-9.

[vi] S. Chilvers, ‘Fashionable address: No 10 stages homage to men’s fashion’, The Guardian (Monday, 8 January 2013), 12.

[vii] S. Shakespeare, ‘Cameron addresses his fashion disasters’, Evening Standard (Tuesday, 8 January 2013), 17; L. Leitch, ‘My sartorial disasters? Speak to Samantha,’ The Daily Telegraph (Monday, 8 January 2013), 12.

[viii] C. Porter, ‘Peacocks on parade’, Life & Style: Financial Times (Saturday, 5 January 2013), 1.

[ix] A. Hollander, Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress (New York, 1994), 10-11.

[x] On plural masculinities, see S. Nixon, ‘Exhibiting Masculinity’, in Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, ed. S. Hall (London, 1997), 296-314

[xi] J. Craik, The Face of Fashion: Cultural Studies in Fashion (London, 1993),193-94; C. Breward, The Culture of Fashion (Manchester, 1995), 214-15.

[xii] American Vogue launched in 1892, Harper’s Bazaar in 1867. Apparel Arts (later American GQ) and American Esquire launched in 1931. C. Breward, Fashion (Oxford, 2003),122.

[xiii] P. Utz, ‘Editor’s Letter’, Man About Town (Autumn/Winter 2012) , 32.

[xiv] Porter, ‘Peacocks’, 1.

[xv] Also see, A. Hollander, ‘The Modernization of Fashion’, Design Quarterly, 154 (1992), 27-33.

[xvi] Hollander, Sex and Suits, 73.

[xvii] E. McCarthy, ‘Walk like a man’, Evening Standard (Tuesday, 8 January 2013), 28-29.

[xviii] Ibid., 3.

[xx] I. Kelly, Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Dandy (London, 2005), 207.

[xxi] Ibid., 366-70.

[xxii] P. Wollen, ‘Unembraceable’, London Review of Books (19 October 1995), 42-43; P. Mansel, Dressed to Rule: Royal and Court Costume from Louis XIV to Elizabeth II (New Haven and London, 2005), 49-50.

[xxiii] Hollander, Sex and Suits, 11.

[xxiv] Ibid., 112.

[xxv] Ibid., 98.

[xxviii] Leitch, ‘My sartorial disasters?’, 12.

Fashion’s Past & Present

There is a scene in Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis where the stretched limo of cyber capitalist Eric Packer is pelted with rocks and smeared with paint and human excrement as it meanders conspicuously through a crowd of anti-capitalist protesters at Times Square. Safe within the limo, Packer and his chief of theory Vija Kinski reflect coolly on the violence outside, as a man sets fire to his body. Packer is momentarily transfixed, but Kinski is unfazed. Her chilling verdict is that this form of protest, much like the causes that have spawned it, ‘is not original’. The exchange between Packer and Kinski, which occurs in the middle of DeLillo’s novel, encapsulates a profound sense of disenfranchisement with the modern economic system. This sentiment was remarkably prescient for a book published in 2003. The recent film adaptation of Cosmopolis, starring Robert Pattinson, tapped into the financially frightened zeitgeist and was marketed as ‘the first film about our new millennium’.

Original Sin?

VogueA harsh critic might offer a similarly bleak verdict of the financial behemoth that is the global fashion industry, which is estimated to be worth $1,306 billion per annum.[i] In a recent interview, Valentino Garavani seemed to bemoan the increased commercialisation of an industry that he has worked in since a boy of seventeen: ‘Everything has changed; fashion became a profession, a money-making career.’[ii] As it has grown, the fashion industry has fought hard against accusations of exploitation – of models and child manufacturers – and is periodically accused of a lack of originality in its drive to sell more wares. In a revealing, albeit minor, way this point comes through in The September Issue – and it’s parody The Devil Wears Prada – when Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington debate whether certain combinations of clothes have been photographed for Vogue before:

GC: Well there’s two coats here and I’m sort of undecided about them.

AW: It is similar to the one we did in July.

GC: It’s not because you’re thinking of the one we shot and didn’t run. I’ve shot them twice, but we have not had them in the magazine. The coat didn’t run.

Originality poses particular problems for clothing because sartorial decisions are so prominent. As I have indicated before, people generally seek to be individual, rather than different.[iii] What we wear reveals so much about us, so we try commensurately hard to get it right. When choosing an outfit a myriad of decisions – conscious and subconscious – are made, based on the ‘look’ that we want to achieve and a withering self-interrogation of how we think people will actually perceive us wearing it. Adopting a new style of garment or a range of atypical colours can make an outfit novel, but if the cumulative effect is too different, too removed from our usual shapes and palette, the effect can be nugatory. I still rue the day that I thought an apple green roll-neck was a good purchase (although I have said before that I am colour-blind). By contrast, perpetually abiding by a tried and tested look becomes worn and dated. The best option, as Tom Ford observed in an interview with Bridget Foley, is for fashion to be new and old simultaneously:

BF: Invention is rare today. Reinvention is more the method of the moment, no?

TF: From music to film, everything has been about sampling, recycling. I mean, vintage clothes – people wear vintage now to the Oscars […] We seem to have some deep-seated need for familiarity, and at the same time, an obsession with newness. Culturally, there needs to be a quick understanding and a sense of comfort with things that hit us. We still want something new and fresh, but somehow if it can be something old yet something new, that’s the best thing. We can accept it quickly, which is why all these old brands are so important right now. It’s part of this trend of taking the familiar and making it new – an old brand like Gucci, an old brand like Vuitton, an old brand like Dior – and transforming it.[iv]

But designers also need to take care because the desire for ‘quick understanding’ and acceptance means that they too are pigeonholed, as Ford explains:

We do get typecast. If Lee [McQueen] sent out a collection that was like one of mine, you’d think it was dull and boring, too commercial. We all get typecast. Miuccia Prada is the intelligent designer; Tom is the sexy designer; Yves was the delicate, fragile designer who wore his heart on his sleeve. It’s just how a lot of us construct ourselves to the outside world.[v]

Familiarity Breeds … Fashion

Familiarity in fashion is important because it provides that reassuring sense of the past that we evidently crave whilst also offering a frame of reference, a tested – better yet, proven – approach to wearing a particular outfit that can be subtly tweaked, just so much that it becomes our own. This helps to explain why designers have frequently looked to the past to find inspiration for their creations and why fashion companies invoke the past to provide potential consumers with the assurance of familiarity to buy their products. A recent squabble between two perfumers over Marilyn Monroe, who died in 1962, shows how important fashion’s past is to its present. Dior’s current television campaign uses doyens from the golden age of Hollywood to market J’Adore perfume.

In the one and a half-minute film directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, a tardy and flustered Charlize Theron arrives back-stage at a Dior fashion show, which is taking place in one of Louis XIV’s grandiose palaces. As Theron rushes to slip into her shimmering gold dress and head out to the catwalk, the camera pans around the dressing room to reveal Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe waiting to strut their stuff. For a perfume launched in 1999 to claim such heritage maybe unconvincing, but few who watch this glitzy confection will be counting the years, I expect. If Annaud has done his job, audiences will be as rapt about J’Adore as the CGIed Marilyn Monroe, who is shown cradling a bottle of the fragrance as the film reaches its climax. With a tad more legitimacy, perhaps, Chanel have recently used photographs, interviews and audio to capture Marilyn Monroe’s apparent, and oft-repeated, preference for Chanel No. 5, of which she famously wore five drops in bed. Invoking Monroe to promote Chanel No. 5, the perfumer has been quite explicit that this enhances the ‘legend’ of the scent.

Heritage is equally important for the tailors along London’s Savile Row, even though they are selling a very different product and, in some cases, use their past in a less conspicuous manner, which can sometimes manifest itself as a barrier to potential consumers. Such is the illustrious history of many of the Row’s tailors, who have clothed royalty from Buckingham Palace to Hollywood, that they have often eschewed any form of advertising. Even in Beau Brummell’s day, ‘the tradesmen of the area around Savile Row … did not put anything in their shop-window or a nameplate on the door. It was a question of exclusivity and the nuances of class.’[vi] And if the advent of Abercrombie and Fitch on the Row is the sign of things to come, a certain amount of sartorial reserve – even snobbery – might not be a bad thing.[vii] Things have changed somewhat, though, largely because of Richard James, who was the first of the Savile Row bespoke tailors to advertise in men’s style magazines and who, in 2000, ‘really went for it’ by obtaining the lease for the largest shop along the Row and installing large windows ‘that showed the world what we were doing inside. It was the opposite of the traditional Savile Row tailor and that’s not a criticism.’[viii] In this sense, the extent to which a fashion brand engages with its past has a profound impact on its modern image, its products and, thus, its customers. A fashion company’s past can promote new business or preserve that which already exists. An illustrious past can be championed, as in the case of Tom Ford, who reintroduced bamboo and the horse bit to Gucci, or it can be used to shroud a company in a mystique to maintain a sense of exclusivity and privilege.

marilyn-monroe-chanel-no-5

 

Oriental Excess

The management of fashion’s past has had a significant impact in the East, which is set to account for nearly half of the world’s total outlay on luxury goods by 2020.[ix] Scores of high-flying Chinese have bought western brands to flaunt their newfound wealth, sometimes ill advisedly: when government officials were snapped wearing £1,500 Hermès belts, there was a veritable media storm. Initially, well-established brands that conferred heritage and legitimacy on the nouveax riches sold well in the East, but no longer. Burberry, which has sixty-six stores in China, and Louis Vuitton, which has thirty-nine, have become ubiquitous and consequently less desirable. By contrast, ‘stealth-wealth brands’ like Prada and Bottega Veneta, are faring better.[x] A look at when these four companies were founded may seem to throw the argument about the importance of heritage in fashion on its head. In ascending order of age, the companies are as follows: Bottega Veneta (1966), Prada (1913), Burberry (1856), Louis Vuitton (1854). But the buying preferences of the Chinese recall the observation of Tom Ford; namely, that consumers like their clothes and clothing apparel to be at once old and new. Whilst Burberry and Louis Vuitton are considerably older than Prada and Bottega Veneta, their marketing is now as commonplace as the scarves and leather holdalls they peddle. For the design-conscious Chinese, these companies are old in two senses: their length of operation and their length of trade on the streets of China. The former is acceptable, but the latter is not, hence the popularity of old and ‘new’ brands like Prada. In a society that is becoming saturated with brands, subtly is key. As Gemma Soames notes, ‘The cool crowd tend to leave the obvious labels behind – Louis Vuitton almost marks you out as a novice.’[xi]

Gendered History

If there is a slight difference in attitude regarding fashion’s past between the East and the West, there is a greater contrast between the genders. Trends in men’s clothing generally seem to eschew the past, which is often regarded as frivolous. Women’s clothing, however, seems to have a more dynamic and positive relationship with past styles. If Charlie Porter is right, this could be because men do not share ‘the female romance for the catwalk.’[xii] Aspects of male dress are making a comeback – the pocket square and tie pin are obvious examples – and today sees the launch of London Collections: Men,[xiii] but the influence that fashion icons like Beau Brummell, the Count d’Orsay and Edward VII possess over modern men’s style stems largely from the characters they were and the lives they led. Dressing like these ‘heroic’ figures is an incidental step towards being like them, which often seems to be a greater concern for men. I doubt the pocket square and tiepin would have made such a convincing comeback if it had not first been worn by men’s men like Dan Draper (Jon Hamm) and Roger Sterling (John Slattery). Even Beau Brummell, trendsetter extraordinaire, remarked that ‘it is folly that is the making of me.’[xiv] By contrast, the women icons of yesteryear, women like Grace Kelly, Marlene Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe, who are gracing the screen once again thanks to Dior, have perhaps always seemed enigmatic. Their dresses and accessories attract attention because of their intrinsic beauty and workmanship, rather than because of who is modelling them. Whilst this observation may not be a universal truism, it shouldn’t surprise that fashion’s past is viewed in a gendered perspective when that is how fashion’s present is seen.

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Either way, the fashion brand that ignores its past, clearly jeopardises its present. Fashion brands that lack the familiarity and legitimacy of heritage could do worse than take a leaf out of Thom Browne’s book. Browne’s eponymous collections appear to derive from historical vogues. His monotone aesthetic recalls the sartorial code of Beau Brummell and his eyewear range looks as though it is taken straight from the eighteenth-century factory, price tags notwithstanding of course.[xv]


[i] E. Van Keymeulen & L. Nash, ‘Fashionably Late’, Intellectual Property Magazine (Dec. 2011/Jan. 2012), 53. www.cov.com/files/Publication/8fc11e54-27e2-4da3-9323-0663dd0a5746/Presentation/PublicationAttachment/45a27275-df92-475b-9e11-11154b0c1061/Fashionably%20Late.pdf.

[ii] ‘The Inventory: Valentino’, FT Weekend Magazine (January 5/6, 2013), 7.

[iii] ‘Clothes are not just for Christmas’, December, 20 2012.

[iv] Varia, Tom Ford (London, 2004), 26.

[v] Ibid., 30.

[vi] I. Kelly, Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Dandy (London, 2005), 204.

[vii] C. Porter, ‘Peacocks on Parade’, Life & Arts: Financial Times (January 5/6, 2013), 1.

[viii] J. Sherwood, Savile Row: The Master Tailors of British Bespoke (London, 2010), 199-200.

[ix] G. Soames, ‘Orient Express’, Style: The Sunday Times (18 November, 2012), 35.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid., 36.

[xii] Porter, ‘Peacocks on Parade’, 2.

[xiv] Kelly, Beau Brummell, 207

[xv] Ibid., 186-208; www.thombrowneeyewear.com.

Deadly Dress

The social stakes in making a sartorial statement

There are certain items of clothing within the male wardrobe that are widely considered taboo; they are worn, but rarely, by the bold or the sartorially uneducated. The walking cane is possibly the most dangerous of these risqué items, but there is an array of objects that pique the curiosity, and perhaps provoke the derision, of passers-by, as Figure 1 shows.

Fig. 1. Dandy to Dangerous Scale[ii]

In the nineteenth century, a well-dressed man would have worn or carried most of the items listed above, but not any more. Dress accessories that were once considered staples of the male wardrobe have now become mere curios.

From Mainstream to Marginal

There is a popular notion that male dress was at its most significant and resplendent during the first half of the nineteenth century, when cravats, breeches, waistcoats and furs, not to mention bows and an abundance lace, were worn with alacrity. George ‘Beau’ Brummell, plays an important part in this history. His incredible social following, which included the Prince Regent (later George IV), placed new emphasis on gentleman’s social conduct and dress. But Beau’s formidable prowess as a raconteur and his singular importance in determing what, and who, was ‘in’, made him a unique and inimitable phenomenon. Lacking so great a champion after his fall from grace in 1816 (due to unpaid debts, of course), the cause of men’s fashion stagnated. It stuttered through the early 1900s, but succumbed to the frugalities that followed the world wars and to the practical considerations of mass production. The result is apparent along alleys, boulevards and sidestreets the world over: certain men who are blissfully unaware of the importance of good dress; many men that are, but who know nothing about how to achieve it.

Practical Priorities

In a bid to demonstrate that the evolution of male dress has been more complex, and to provide a social and intellectual frame for the resurgence that men’s clothing is currently enjoying, an increasing number of fashion scholars argue against this view, which they deem simplistic.[iii] They point out that men’s dress has always carried significance and highlight the fact that restraint and pragmatism were not new concepts borne of industrialisation and war. According to the sociologist Norbert Elias, the concern to moderate behaviour and dress in public, particularly in environments like the princely court where minor faux pas were seized upon by rivals, has been a dominant theme in human interactions since the Middle Ages.[iv] Recent studies of male clothing, which consider themes such as masculinity and self-fashioning, sexuality and the influence of music, have done much to demonstrate, and to educate us about, the diversity of men’s style. Yet even these studies tend to show (if inadvertently) that attitudes to men’s dress changed irrevocably during the nineteenth century, not necessarily because of Beau Brummell, but because of industrialisation.

The impact of the industrial revolution on men’s dress was profound. It not only demanded a new type of practical costume that could be worn in the factories, but created new markets for sport and leisure garments, as men took advantage of the travel opportunities afforded by the harnessing of steam and pursued new sports, made possible through novel manufacturing processes. As ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ became increasingly distinct spheres within men’s lives, the task for which clothes were to be used, rather than the personal preferences and tastes of the wearer, become a major determinant in their manufacture. For men who were unaccustomed to wear specific forms of clothing for their occupation and who had no connection to the military, this would have been a very new experience. Prioritising practicalities over personal preferences probably helps to explain why, over time, many of the dress accessories included in Figure 1 have become less common. The desire to make a sartorial statement and demonstrate one’s wealth has not gone away, but I do not think it coincidental that some of the most expensive accessories that men buy today – chiefly watches and technology cases – are rooted in practicality. Technology cases frequently retail at many times the price of the electronic device they protect: an Hermés iPad case can be purchased for £1,430 ($1,425), a similar product by Burberry costs £1,295 ($2,195).[v] Prices for the iPad II start at £329 ($399).

Dandyism is Dead, Long Live Dandyism

But dandyism is not dead. In fact, there is reason to think that it is making a come back. Pocket squares are now not so uncommon, nor (unfortunately) are tie bars. Pocket watches are a little more daring, although prestigious horology marques, including Bell & Ross, are selling them.[vi] The smoking pipe, which does not make it onto the Dandy to Dangerous Scale because it is not in strictu sensu a dress accessory, is also in vogue. It has been brought bang up to date by Stiff, who have created a Dieter Rams-esque beauty entirely from plastic.[vii] I suspect it will be a while before men are ready for the walking cane, but the ground is being prepared. Umbrellas by Burberry and Archer Adams, which feature Gothic and ornithologically inspired handles, certainly seem to have been fashioned in homage to 1930s canes.[viii]  Whilst it is difficult to pinpoint the cause of this dandy revival, television dramas and movies are surely a major contributor. Downton Abbey has charmed the Brits and is now taking the US by storm. Many fashion houses have taken inspiration for their Fall catalogues from Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina and Baz Luhrmann’s yet-to-be-released Gatsby. And yet for all the progress that is being made to advance the cause of dandyism, one piece of male dress remains beyond the pale: the bow tie.

The question to ask is not whether an activity is riskfree, but whether the risk incurred is acceptable when weighted against the benefits. As with beauty, the acceptability is in the eyes of the beholder.

Larry O’Connor[ix]

The Bow Tie

The bow tie is a part of a man’s dress that people feel compelled to ‘read’ and ‘interpret’. Wearing a bow tie for formal evening occasions is de rigueur, but sporting one during daylight hours suggests the wearer wishes to make a statement about his [>masculinity<, >sexuality<, >social standing< take your pick], or so it is often assumed. In a fascinating article, Rob Shields has explored why an object as small and delicate as the bow tie has come to carry such heavy social baggage.[x] In part, the bow tie’s troubles stem from where it is worn. In a previous post I discussed the cultural significance of the waist.[xi] Well, the neck is just as significant a part of the body. Without any sense of hyperbole Shields observes, ‘In some ways, the history of clothing is marked out by the treatment of the neck.’[xii] The bow tie is also ambiguous in that it is worn by ‘servants and masters’ alike, from waiters and butlers, to bouncers and presidents. It is thus a ‘Janus-faced signifier’ that makes people, who love to pigeonhole, uneasy.[xiii] But, even here there is hope. American actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson and his partner Justin Mikita have recently launched Tie the Knot, a neckwear line sold through e-tailer Tie Bar.[xiv] Their aim is to raise awareness and money for groups working to promote the cause of same-sex marriages.[xv] This campaign, which combines principles with personal flair, truly shows that men’s dress can be interesting and individual. Beau Brummell would be proud.

I have wanted to incorporate a bow tie into my daily itineration of neckwear for some time, but have never progressed beyond the contemplative stage, chiefly because of concerns about the bow tie’s social baggage. Ferguson and Mikita’s endeavour, which promotes a cause I care much about, has strengthened my resolve to wear a bow tie with pride. Now all I need do is pick the one I want. The following, from Drake’s is a particular favourite…[xvi]

[i] See previous post, ‘Them Boots, Them Boots’. October 21, 2012.

[ii] The compilation of the Dandy to Dangerous Scale is 100% unscientific.

[iii] For what follows, see ‘Introduction: The Field of Men’s Fashion’, The Men’s Fashion Reader, ed. P. McNeil & V. Karaminas (Oxford & New York, 2009), 1-11.

[iv] N. Elias, The Civilising Process: Sociogenetic & Psychogenetic Investigations, tr. E. Jephcott, revised edition, ed. E. Dunning, J. Goudsblom & S. Mennell (London, 1994); Idem, The Court Society, tr. E. Jephcott (New York, 1983).

[v] M.C. O’Flaherty, ‘Best-Case Scenario’, how to spend it: special Christmas edition (November 17, 2012), 25-26.

[vii] www.stiffonline.com. On public sale from December, the pipe can now be purchased direct from Stiff for EUR 625/$800.

[ix] Shamelessly taken from the Stiff website: www.stiffonline.com/about/about2/. Accessed: 23-xj-2012.

[x] R. Shields, ‘A Tale of Three Louis: Ambiguity, Masculinity and the Bow Tie’, The Men’s Fashion Reader, 108-16.

[xi] ‘Undies go inside the pants’. November 10, 2012.

[xii] Shields, ‘A Tale of Three Louis’, 109.

[xiii] Ibid., 115.

[xv] A. Tschorn, ‘It’s a fashion statement with political and personal ties’. www.latimes.com/features/image/la-ig-tie-the-knot-20121118,0,2087976.story. Accessed: 19-xj-2012.