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 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.