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Mad Men Is Totally Wrong About Suits and I Hate It

By Synthese, May 5, 2015 | | |
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  1. By David Isle

    Every so often a TV show comes along and digs some bygone era out of the grave; its injustices remembered as quirks, its novelties portrayed as traditions. Mad Men performs this seance for the 1960s, an era dead just long enough to be resuscitated. We now find charming the rampant misogyny, the incessant smoking, the daily three-martini lunches. But the show also presents a bygone world full of suit-and-tie-wearing men, which has made many young male and especially (based on my research of teen blogs like Style Girlfriend) female viewers yearn for a Mad Men-inspired suit-and-tie revival, believing that the show presents some Platonic ideal of “classic menswear.” But their desires are hopeless and their beliefs are wrong.

    The modern suit, with its matching coat and pants, tail-less coat, and turned-down collar, became standard male professional dress around the turn of the 20th century. After some brief experimentation with skinny trousers and other nonsense, the suit settled into its classic form: generous lapels, a full chest, a trouser waist that sat around the belly button, a trouser hem that covered most of the shoe. There were certainly deviations over the next 30 years, but compare, for instance, the Duke of Windsor in the mid-20s to Cary Grant in His Girl Friday (1940) to Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday (1953). Those suits are from the same family, and a handsome family at that.

    The Duke

    The Grant (image courtesy Gonemovie.com)

    The Peck (image courtesy misterbespoke.com)

    But like most great families, it eventually succumbed to inbreeding and penury, in this case somewhere around 1960. James Bond and the “Conduit cut” shares at least some of the blame. Maybe JFK and “Ivy Style” too. Lapels got skinnier; lines got straighter; colors and patterns got more conservative; belts became common. The classic suit silhouette of the 20s through the 50s was mostly loose and comfortable - the 60s profile was tighter and trimmer. It went well with a firm jawline, love of baseball, and hatred of communism. This is the look that Mad Men captures, and which many people today probably consider the distillation of decades of suit-and-tie-wearing.

    But this trim look only held together for 10-15 years. By the late sixties and mid-seventies, coats exploded to wide lapels, stacked shoulder pads, and extravagant colors and patterns. The business suit eventually shriveled into a Banana Republicanized version of the 60s suit, except in dark navy and with looser trousers.

    This is the typical person’s conception of what a “suit” is today, and Mad Men seems inspiring because it’s a slightly better version of the suit they know, worn by extremely handsome actors. The Mad Men effect on the suit is roughly the effect of a good movie score on classical music. For all but a small segment of true believers in interwar styles, clothing means something other than suits, just as music means something other what comes out of violins and oboes.

    And perhaps that’s for the best. The only thing more depressing than Banana Republic selling overpriced chinos to college students hoping to look like Ryan Gosling is Banana Republic selling overpriced suits to college students hoping to look like Don Draper. The girls reblogging Mad Men screen caps and adding “Ermagawd why don’t guys dress like this more often??!?!?” are probably not impressed by the weird guy from their English class who always wears a grey suit, white shirt, and black tie, and asks if they want to go get some milkshakes.

    Or if they are, it’s for a different reason than Betty fell for Don. The suit used to represent an acceptance of a large set of social rules and beliefs. Hardy Amies once wrote that to wear a suit is to accept the legitimacy of primogeniture. That might be taking it a little far, but not by much.

    With fewer situations that require or even suggest suit-wearing, wearing a suit no longer means that you understand the rules - which are gone anyway. Primogeniture is pretty much over. But if you start wearing a suit because you saw Don Draper wearing one and you think he’s cool, do you miss all the other social conventions of the Mad Men era, when everyone was more "respectful" and "knew their place”? Wearing a Don Draper suit asks the question but doesn’t answer it.

    Some suit lovers regret the decline of the suit and hope that Mad Men can revive it. But as a suit lover myself, I’m happy going down with the ship. It’s sinking slowly, and there’s still plenty of gin left.

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  1. redmusic1
    @tradernick One of the few times I've seen someone on here make a connection between the nature of morals and aesthetics. The two are distinguishable, but inseparable as the current philosophy being lived out in modern society shows. I definitely agree with you concerning both the objectivity of aesthetics and the transcendent nature of such works as the Goldberg Variations.
  2. spectre
    I 've changed my mind Just a Guy. I think you are correct after all. After much thought I have to agree with you. The (early and mid) 60s were untouchable as far as men's style is concerned.

    I think the problem now is that designers have taken the 60s slim look and made it cartoonish with tiny lapels and suits three sizes roo small.

    The 60s were slim and streamlined but always in proportion - the gorge for example on the jacket was a little lower and a little smaller but the lapels were certainly nit 1" wide, like the ties these days.

    There will probably now be another backlash similar to the awful 70s without us ever achieving the true 60s aesthetic.
  3. spectre
    This is way too intense for me...
  4. Just a guy
    ...exhibit a ready to wear menswear collection, but it doesn't follow from that that "off the peg" replaced "custom tailored". Ready to wear suits (known as "stock" suits) are as old as tailoring itself. Montague Burton founded his empire - which supplied most of the suits worn by British Men for much of the twentieth century - selling stock suits in 1903.

    According to a report in a 1963 issue of the Tailor and Cutter, three quarters of the suits purchased in the UK in 1962 were "custom tailored".

    You clearly like fashion - for that is what it is - from the 1960s but your justification for its superiority is simply fatuous.

    Certainly, the styles from the "Mad Men era" were "the fashion" at the time, but the same is no less true of the examples that David Isles gives of what he considers to be "proper suits".
  5. Just a guy
    When were slim cuts prevalent before around 1960?

    Periodically, from the invention of the lounge suit, but, to give you an example, see this webpage for slim cuts from the 1920s:

    Why do you say the 1960s were not a rebellion?

    The entire post-war period saw social and cultural changes. The "counter-culture revolution" of the 1960s - the Paris student riots, Woodstock, the "Summer of Love" - came in the late 1960s. The slimmer "Don Draper" styles pre-date this "rebellion" by almost a decade.

    Why were the 1960s the pinacle of the lounge suit, and if so why did that not last longer and why was there fairly quickly a revolt against it in the 1970s?

    The technical understanding of how to fashion three-dimensional garments from two-dimensional bolts of cloth developed throughout the first two thirds of the twentieth century. Weekly trade journals such as the Tailor and Cutter constantly printed articles outlining new principles and methods which could be used to achieve this end. The lounge suit silhouette of the 1960s emerged as the ultimate best solution for providing comfort and style, while eliminating undesirable wrinkles and drags. The overall silhouette remained largely unaltered until the looser unstructured "Armani" suit became fashionable in the 1980s. Fashion trends altered the appearance of the lounge suit in the late 1960s and early 1970s - the influence of the more flamboyant, costumey, youth-oriented "Carnaby Street" clothing, and the suits of cutter Tommy Nutter combined with the "hippy" influence and the normal cyclical nature of fashion to introduce overly wide lapels and flared trousers. By the end of the 1970s, the lounge suit had simply ceased to be the attire that most men wore at leisure, and had become primarily white collar workwear, and a costume that men who didn't wear a suit to work would put on for weddings and funerals.

    I was in my late teens, early 20s in the 1960s and I can tell you those slim suits and 1" wide ties were far from comfortable or attractive, which is why they flamed out.

    Obviously I can't comment on how comfortable you found the suits that you wore. I'm about twenty years younger than you claim to be, but I wore "vintage" 1960s suits throughout most of the 1980s and found them to be extremely comfortable. 1" ties were certainly a fashion extreme - the majority of ties in the "Mad Men" era were two to two and a half inches wide, reflecting the slimmer lapel width that was common, which, in turn, was harmonious with the slimmer proportions of the silhouette of the suit coat.

    Mad Men was a TV show of that era, when designers came to the fore. How you can describe off the peg suits as superior and technically superior to custom tailored garments which had gone before is beyond me.

    Certainly, "fashion designers" were more to the fore in menswear than they previously had been - Hardy Amies was the first designer to actually...
  6. spectre
    Your assertations simply deny the facts.

    When were slim cuts prevalent before around 1960?

    Why do you say the 1960s were not a rebellion - in fashion in everything else whe the world has long known they were. A truly bizarre suggestion.

    Why were the 1960s the pinacle of the lounge suit, and if so why did that not last longer and why was there fairly quickly a revolt against it in the 1970s?

    I was in my late teens, early 20s in the 1960s and I can tell you those slim suits and 1" wide ties were far from comfortable or attractive, which is why they flamed out.

    Mad Men was a TV show of that era, when designers came to the fore. How you can describe off the peg suits as superior and technically superior to custom tailored garments which had gone before is beyond me.

    You clearly like fashion - for that is what it is - from the 1960s but your justification for its superiority is simply fatuous.
  7. 0JSIMPS0N
    Loved Mad Men. Hated the skinny ties.
  8. Just a guy
    "David is correct and logic will tell you why.

    The trim look which came into being in the 60s was not an evolution of what had gone before in suits.

    It was caused by two reasons - the decade's rebellion against every previous social norm which probably started with The Beatles and was a backlash against the buttoned up and conservative 50s - and the emergence of designers for the first time

    This isn't factually accurate. Logic has nothing to do with it. More closely fitted styles had been periodically fashionable long before the 1960s. "Social rebellion" - at least as far as fashion is concerned - resulted, ultimately, in a reaction against the "Don Draper suit", rather than being a catalyst for it. The paradigm Mad Men look originated towards the end of the 1950s, and lasted about a decade, and the reason that it represents the pinnacle of the evolution of the lounge suit is that the technical understanding - and the application of same - of how to construct garments to achieve a particular form and function was more advanced than anything that had gone before, or came after.

    The much-fetishized "drape cut" always was, as Archibald Whife, the long-time editor of the Tailor and Cutter magazine, wrote, "a suit that doesn't really fit". As a somewhat crude attempt to give puny specimens a more athletic appearance, when worn by men with a normal to athletic physique, it looks only a little less ridiculously costumey than the Zoot Suit.

    The principle of "chest drape", on the other hand, whereby the coat pattern is moderately manipulated and supported by a properly constructed understructure, was ubiquitous during the "Mad Men era", and had a flattering appearance on almost all men, from the thinnest rake to the stoutest trencherman.
  9. tradernick

    "This is hilarious. Do enlighten us - what are these universal aesthetic truths?"

    I'm glad you find it hilarious. Most relativists would. Sorry, I'm way too old to take the troll bait. You stick with your belief that everything is relative, and I'll stick with my belief in universal moral truths and also the transcendent nature of the Goldberg Variations.

    By the way, I basically know jack shit about fashion, except what my senses tell me. I know almost nothing about SF-approved fashion.
  10. Harold falcon
    Wow, what a piece of shit dog crap post. FUCK YOU OP. Fuck you in your face. You are an asshole troll.

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