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Economist article on history of the suit

post #1 of 14
Thread Starter 
I didn't see this posted here nor an equivalent of Random Fashion Thoughts so started a thread. Let me know if it should go somewhere in particular. I thought this is an interesting article. Perhaps there are some here (Manton?) who can elaborate, verify, or give countering evidence, for the history of the suit ? Well it was interesting to me. In particular the paragraph I've quoted below. I have 1 suit, a single-butting Raf from spring/summer 2008, and I've never worn it. I don't like the concept of fitting the human form much but don't take this as representative of SWD, I am not speaking on their behalf. I prefer that my outfits, uniforms or otherwise, drape gently over my body, not to hide anything (I've nothing to hide) but rather I find the concept quite elegant. Anyway, thought I'd share and get your reactions to the article !
Quote:
Men's clothing

Suitably dressed

The lounge suit, battledress of the world’s businessmen, is 150 years old—possibly

The practice of fitting cloth closely to the human form rather than draping it around the body was new. As fashion historians point out, medieval linen-armourers had long made padded undergarments that fitted beneath suits of armour, reducing a little the discomfort of wearing plates of steel. But the Enlightenment and neoclassicism brought tightly fitted clothing to the surface. In an attempt to emulate Greek statues of naked men, Brummel commissioned figure-hugging trousers and coats. He used plain colours to focus attention on form and line, ushering in what Mr Kelly calls “the tyranny of monochrome”. When the prince regent swapped his flamboyant wardrobe for Brummel’s stripped-down style it spread across London and beyond.

http://www.economist.com/node/17722802
post #2 of 14
Interesting article -- thanks!
post #3 of 14

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post #4 of 14

The relationship between clothes and form is interesting, and not one that should be approached statically or narrowing. What I mean is that is you just look at clothes & bodies and try to draw lessons from their relationship to each other, you risk missing the overall context of that relationship in the culture of the age, and how that evolves over time.

 

Brummelian dress acted as a powerful contrast to the older aristocratic order in existence at the time, and can be conceived as a middle-class expression of disquiet at that regime. Its adoption by the Prince Regent can be seen within that sociopolitical lens, especially when you consider the Regent's close political relationship with the Whigs (vs. the Tories under George III). As for its figure-hugging romanticised form, it expresses a certain desire to return to more "natural" or "classic" form, despite actually being very non-classical compared to actual clothes worn during classical times (which, while clinging to the body during movement, actually achieved that through drape and careful cinching & folding). In many ways, Brummel's insistence on tightly figure-hugging clothes aped classical statues more than it did actual classical people. I'd suggest that womenswear showed some similarly incongruent thinking during this period, but that's another topic.

 

Creating volume and space between body and clothes is an interesting area to discuss, as it speaks directly to what concept of self one wishes to project. Even a figure-hugging outfit is a conscious projection of a certain image. Creating space adds a different complexity of meaning, one more specifically crafted. As such it can appear "less natural" but "more structurally interesting" if done intelligently. I personally like some structural/architectural interest in a look.

 

More generally, closely fitting clothes come and go, depending on the mode of the age. But leaving that aside, Brummel's more essential appeal to perfection of fit & standing out from others through cut rather than colour or extravagance is a very bourgeois attitude that makes its popularity on the more staid internet style forums (AAAC or this subforum) entirely unsurprising given that they are the ultimate modern expression of an anxious desire to fit into middle class respectability. "What should I wear to interview?", "What should I wear to prom?", "What should I wear to my wedding?", "What should a lawyer/doctor/businessman wear?", "Need a new wardrobe now I've left college?", "how do I look one step above the rest"... the average list of recurrent topics speaks volumes in this regard, as do the correct but obvious (and to my mind, uninteresting) answers. But given that most people live a certain way, the questions do make sense in their own way.

 

By the way, and without regurgitating the whole tired debate, this difference in intent is partly why MC and SW&D end up butting heads more often than not, from a conceptual perspective.

 

The Economist article is quite right to point out the versatility of the suit, but I find that almost a trivial statement, as it's not really any different to saying that clothes generally are versatile, given that a suit is just a matching jacket & trousers. Well, yes, it's versatile. But so what?

post #5 of 14
Very nice, Holdfast.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Holdfast View Post


Brummelian dress acted as a powerful contrast to the older aristocratic order in existence at the time, and can be conceived as a middle-class expression of disquiet at that regime. Its adoption by the Prince Regent can be seen within that sociopolitical lens, especially when you consider the Regent's close political relationship with the Whigs (vs. the Tories under George III). As for its figure-hugging romanticised form, it expresses a certain desire to return to more "natural" or "classic" form, despite actually being very non-classical compared to actual clothes worn during classical times (which, while clinging to the body during movement, actually achieved that through drape and careful cinching & folding). In many ways, Brummel's insistence on tightly figure-hugging clothes aped classical statues more than it did actual classical people. I'd suggest that womenswear showed some similarly incongruent thinking during this period, but that's another topic.

Creating volume and space between body and clothes is an interesting area to discuss, as it speaks directly to what concept of self one wishes to project. Even a figure-hugging outfit is a conscious projection of a certain image. Creating space adds a different complexity of meaning, one more specifically crafted.

There is no question that Regency dress looked to classical dress for inspiration, especially for color and "restraint." But tailored clothing was itself part and parcel of the industrial revolution and self-consciously modern. Tailored clothing was, in Regency England, extremely hi-tech. Tailors were not craftsmen so much as engineers. I suspect there is also something to the idea that tailored clothing fit neatly into the idea that science and technology would finally allow mankind to re-make that natural world to suit its purposes. Close fitting clothing depended on the wearer for its shape. Loose, flowing clothing could hide the body but little more. Tailored clothing, however, allowed the wearer, within limits, to control body shape. Got a few extra pounds? No problem! Are you a spindly git but want broad shoulders? We can fix that.

So while tailored clothing was "a middle-class expression of disquiet" with the old aristocratic order, it was also a badge of support for the new trends that would, in fact, eventually result in the overthrow of that order and the triumph of the middle-class. In summary, tailored clothing was the Regency iPhone.
post #6 of 14

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Bounder View Post

Very nice, Holdfast.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Holdfast View Post


Brummelian dress acted as a powerful contrast to the older aristocratic order in existence at the time, and can be conceived as a middle-class expression of disquiet at that regime. Its adoption by the Prince Regent can be seen within that sociopolitical lens, especially when you consider the Regent's close political relationship with the Whigs (vs. the Tories under George III). As for its figure-hugging romanticised form, it expresses a certain desire to return to more "natural" or "classic" form, despite actually being very non-classical compared to actual clothes worn during classical times (which, while clinging to the body during movement, actually achieved that through drape and careful cinching & folding). In many ways, Brummel's insistence on tightly figure-hugging clothes aped classical statues more than it did actual classical people. I'd suggest that womenswear showed some similarly incongruent thinking during this period, but that's another topic.

Creating volume and space between body and clothes is an interesting area to discuss, as it speaks directly to what concept of self one wishes to project. Even a figure-hugging outfit is a conscious projection of a certain image. Creating space adds a different complexity of meaning, one more specifically crafted.

There is no question that Regency dress looked to classical dress for inspiration, especially for color and "restraint." But tailored clothing was itself part and parcel of the industrial revolution and self-consciously modern. Tailored clothing was, in Regency England, extremely hi-tech. Tailors were not craftsmen so much as engineers. I suspect there is also something to the idea that tailored clothing fit neatly into the idea that science and technology would finally allow mankind to re-make that natural world to suit its purposes. Close fitting clothing depended on the wearer for its shape. Loose, flowing clothing could hide the body but little more. Tailored clothing, however, allowed the wearer, within limits, to control body shape. Got a few extra pounds? No problem! Are you a spindly git but want broad shoulders? We can fix that.

So while tailored clothing was "a middle-class expression of disquiet" with the old aristocratic order, it was also a badge of support for the new trends that would, in fact, eventually result in the overthrow of that order and the triumph of the middle-class. In summary, tailored clothing was the Regency iPhone.
 

 


Nice post.

 

I certainly would agree with all of your last paragraph, especially the argument that the financial & political rise of the middle classes dominated the following centuries. My personal feeling is that during the past decade or two, as fewer & fewer people are employed in traditional working class jobs, the middle class is buckling under its own burgeoning weight. It is gradually polarising into a rather large "poor middle class" and a much smaller "wealthy middle class". And the poor middle class will see standards of living come under increasingly heavy pressure due to the unsustainability of their lifestyles as BRICs and other developing countries acquire the skillsets to do the jobs of the "poor middle class" at lower cost than the West.

 

It makes me wonder about what language of dress will come to symbolise this fresh order. I am tempted to suggest that a rediscovery of accessorising sumptuary glamour on a vast scale is waiting to happen, and to say that the whole concept/visual language of "bling" from the last decade or two is an early foreshadowing of this. Think of all those knock-off designer handbags, oversized rings, designer perfumes, and the like (dare I even include iPhones, since you mentioned them...): easy indicators of consumption that appeal to those with the least to spend, but who wish to still play at pleasure. As the financial power of the poorer middle classes dwindles, their political power will also fall (through simple voter apathy increases rather than any specific reduction in voting rights), thus magnifying this shift towards consumption of indicators.

 

Will the wealthy middle classes continue to see themselves as middle class? That, to my mind, is the most interesting question. Currently, they do (witness the debate in both the UK and US about whether top-rate taxpayers are middle class or not). If they eventually stop seeing themselves as middle class, their clothing habits will no longer be restricted by stealth wealth aesthetics (whether tailored or not). But I do not think they will stop seeing themselves as middle class, as the direction of travel seems to be that an astronomically wealthy group of individuals & entities capable of shifting vast amounts of capital will continue to exist (and grow wealthier), thus keeping even middle-class millionaires cognisant of significant limitations to their financial freedom. I would hope this results in their turning towards a more personal/spiritual identity/growth, but then again, I'm an optimist...

 

All a bit off-topic, but oh well. :)

post #7 of 14
Quote:
Originally Posted by Holdfast View Post

It makes me wonder about what language of dress will come to symbolise this fresh order. I am tempted to suggest that a rediscovery of accessorising sumptuary glamour on a vast scale is waiting to happen, and to say that the whole concept/visual language of "bling" from the last decade or two is an early foreshadowing of this. Think of all those knock-off designer handbags, oversized rings, designer perfumes, and the like (dare I even include iPhones, since you mentioned them...): easy indicators of consumption that appeal to those with the least to spend, but who wish to still play at pleasure.

I think the problem is that there is no longer a language of dress. Rather, we have a sartorial Babel. Until very recently, popular culture was pretty hierarchical in the West and there were only a few channels of dissemination. This made it easy to establish norms. In fact, norms established themselves. But today, there is no such thing as "popular culture" in the sense of stylistic norms that are broadly adhered to.

Popular music is a good analogy. Once upon a time, popular music was very well defined and what constituted "popular" was accepted by almost everyone. People might get "stuck" on the popular music of a certain period, typically that of when they were young, but it was very easy to define what constituted "popular" at any given time.

But there will never be another Beatles. Popular music has been fragmented into a thousand different streams. Some are smaller, some are larger, but none are dominant. I think the trend began with cable TV but the internet has accelerated it by orders of magnitude.

The same thing is true of clothing. Tailored clothing is now just one of many possible sartorial choices. While it still has a certain cultural dominance -- a vestige of it being a cultural superpower for 150 years -- it now exists in a multipolar sartorial world.
Quote:
Will the wealthy middle classes continue to see themselves as middle class? That, to my mind, is the most interesting question. Currently, they do (witness the debate in both the UK and US about whether top-rate taxpayers are middle class or not). If they eventually stop seeing themselves as middle class, their clothing habits will no longer be restricted by stealth wealth aesthetics (whether tailored or not).

Tailored clothing, especially the suit, still carries with it a certain connotation, not so much of wealth but of power and status. But that is fading and may be completely gone in another 20 or 30 years.

Or not. It is interesting to contrast the average person's reaction to "bling" vs. that to tailored clothing. Very conspicuous consumption does signal wealth but it also suggests a certain marginalization. A suit, even a not particularly nice suit, suggests that one has a position in the hierarchy that runs things, even if it isn't a particularly exalted position. Chicks totally dig this. Well, in its proper context, at least.

Again, this is being eroded by casual Fridays, etc. and may not survive. But for the moment, this explains why people tend to treat you much better when you are wearing a suit. The question is whether this is culturally re-enforcing or a sort of vestigial reflex. If people have an inherent "respect" for suits just because they remember their grandfather wearing one, this is the last generation where wearing a suit will allow you to sweet talk your way into an aisle seat. So my advice? Work it while you can.
post #8 of 14
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bounder View Post

But tailored clothing was itself part and parcel of the industrial revolution and self-consciously modern. Tailored clothing was, in Regency England, extremely hi-tech. Tailors were not craftsmen so much as engineers. I suspect there is also something to the idea that tailored clothing fit neatly into the idea that science and technology would finally allow mankind to re-make that natural world to suit its purposes. .... Tailored clothing, however, allowed the wearer, within limits, to control body shape.


"...that science and technology would finally allow mankind to re-make that natural world to suit its purposes.."
Yes.
And here, in the US, we embraced that idea more fervently then the English. You could say this was the American state religion.

And to follow that thought, here in the US, the 1960s marked the disenchantment with that American faith that science and technology would liberate man. The 60’s also marked a major repudiation of the classic suit and tie.
post #9 of 14

The '60's, as one who lived through them, marked a rejection of the grey suit-white shirt-black tie dogma of the post-WWII corporate world.  Much of what was 'new' in the '60's was a return to the flamboyant styles of mens' suits from the 30's and 40's.  And now that we have gone through the Peacock Period, the Slave to Designer Era and the current Stupid Short and Skinny Style, perhaps we can once again dress like men.

post #10 of 14
Quote:
Originally Posted by OlSarge View Post

The '60's, as one who lived through them, marked a rejection of the grey suit-white shirt-black tie dogma of the post-WWII corporate world.  Much of what was 'new' in the '60's was a return to the flamboyant styles of mens' suits from the 30's and 40's.  And now that we have gone through the Peacock Period, the Slave to Designer Era and the current Stupid Short and Skinny Style, perhaps we can once again dress like men.


You'd better tell the costume designer of Mad Men cos they are up to 1965 and still have the men dressed frequently in gray suits, white shirts and black ties.
post #11 of 14

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Bounder View Post

But there will never be another Beatles. Popular music has been fragmented into a thousand different streams. Some are smaller, some are larger, but none are dominant. I think the trend began with cable TV but the internet has accelerated it by orders of magnitude.

 

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by OlSarge View Post

The '60's, as one who lived through them, marked a rejection of the grey suit-white shirt-black tie dogma of the post-WWII corporate world.  Much of what was 'new' in the '60's was a return to the flamboyant styles of mens' suits from the 30's and 40's.  And now that we have gone through the Peacock Period, the Slave to Designer Era and the current Stupid Short and Skinny Style, perhaps we can once again dress like men.

 

Sorry old-timer, but I wouldn't count on it. The break-up of society as Bounder has described it is most likely going to be the new norm, and while some people might start dressing "like men" (as you call it), the majority will not.

post #12 of 14
This article has certainly been posted here before, probably in 2010.
post #13 of 14

The article seems familiar but anyhow tailored clothing still matters and it's really in demand now more than ever.

post #14 of 14

More is spent on fine men's clothing than at any time in the past fifty years.  Likewise sales of neckties, despite 'casual Friday' and 'business casual' continue to increase.  Either what is portrayed in the media is simply more "geewhiz" or those few who want to dress like men are spending one hell of a lot of cash.  And please don't tell me what your favorite celebrity is wearing.  He's getting paid to look like that.

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