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Responding to "the suit died for good reasons"

Discussion in 'Classic Menswear' started by JJ Katz, Jul 5, 2018.

  1. JJ Katz

    JJ Katz Active Member

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    A recently posted article on “Die Workwear” argues that “The suit died but for good reasons”. I think it is one of the clearer expositions of the currently predominant thinking about the meaning and symbolism of ‘traditional’ clothing. I happen to disagree quite strongly with it.

    It’s not too long to read and you should do so yourself but its basic thesis is that the gradual decrease and eventual disappearance of suit-wearing is the inevitable consequence of ever-diminishing formality which reflects but also contributes to ‘liberal’, anti-hierarchical, pluralistic social values. Since the hegemony of those values is inherently desirable, it is potentially reactionary to bemoan the marginalisation of suit-wearing.

    It would be silly, in a style-oriented forum, to address directly the unconstrainedly progressive, Whig-historical world-view and assumption that ever-greater individualism and social levelling are attainable, mutually consistent and/or desirable. I just want to point out that the original thesis would be fatally undermined without that assumption.

    What I would like to address, instead, are two fallacies that I perceive in the argument even if we accept the socio-philosophical premise. First: the strong causal link suggested between material hierarchies and pluralism. Second: the conflation of qualitative discernment with material hierarchies. Furthermore, I would like to ‘stress-test’ the clothes informality = democracy/pluralism nexus.

    Error 1: formal /elegant clothing ↔ elitist views / conditions (& vice versa)

    There are many reasons why someone might choose to wear relatively more structured, elegant, formal clothing. Status signalling is clearly one but aesthetic pleasure, love of craft, etc. might matter just as much. Whereas there will always be some brands or high-end tailors that signal a degree of wealth (albeit one within reach of a large minority of the population), following the industrial revolution only extreme penury can prevent one from dressing well. As the Congolese Sapeurs and Soweto dandies demonstrate so well, in fact even some objectively poor folks can dress well.

    Conversely, insanely wealthy and powerful people ‘pretending’ to be just like the rest of us by wearing tacky clothes or, worse, wearing obscenely expensive versions of basic clothes, is scarcely a sign of egalitarianism, it is arguably a sign of deception, condescension, insider status.

    A social predilection for unstructured, slovenly in some cases even squalid or vulgar attire / grooming does not seem to correlate with social equality and freedom, especially on a transnational comparison basis. I think very few social scientists would argue that the US is the most egalitarian country today (just look at wealth distribution and social mobility compared to NW Europe) and yet it ‘excels’ at extreme informality in clothes.

    Error 2: quality discernment ↔ normative judgement of others

    Ask yourself this: if we were talking about furniture, or food or electronic gadgets, would anyone seriously argue that if everyone only ever sat in cheap plastic chairs, only ate processed junk food and used sub-standard electronics society would be fairer, freeer, more accepting? Why?

    Is it a better world where craft and a sense of occasion or love of beautiful (≠ luxury) things are proscribed? If not, why should that reasoning be applied to clothes?

    Lastly, as a thought experiment, I raise the question: if it WERE true that pluralism / inclusivity is unreservedly good and also true that foregoing traditional formalised dress helps that process along, is there a reasonable end point? Because if it’s objectively good for society to give up suits then it’s very, very, very unlikely to be the case that sport-coats, traditional leather shoes and tailored trousers survive. Then what? Chinos? Jeans? Do we achieve the ultimate ‘woke’ society when everyone wears flip-flops and a compostable/recyclable diaper?

    My counter-thesis is that the suit did not die because of increasing democracy and liberalism but rather because increasing individualism and relativism (partial strands of liberalism) have resulted in the undeniable vulgarisation of manners, customs, entertainment and, yes, aesthetics.
     


  2. Quesjac

    Quesjac Senior Member

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    Counter-counter-point: no single grand narrative about society maps cleanly onto the clothes that society wears.

    I don't think that DWW is just saying that suits = hierarchy, therefore liberalism killed hierarchy and suits. See the comments about casual suits for instance.

    Response from a while back: Are Suits Conservative?
     


  3. jimney

    jimney Senior Member

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    Vulgarisation - choice of strong words. Interested to see responses to this.

    I’m wondering how much of people’s responses to this topic will be colored by the culture they grew up in.
     


  4. dieworkwear

    dieworkwear Mahatma Jawndi

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    Some quick responses:

    1. What you consider to be formal/ elegant wear was once the casualwear of another era.

    2. Individualism and relativism came out of liberalism. It's possible to be liberal without those elements, but liberalism is a huge and diverse field with many contradictions. I'm not making an argument for a particular type of liberalism. I'm saying the start of liberalism eventually grew the way it did -- into the many different types and varieties it has now -- and some of the things that came as a result of liberalism has not only killed the suit, but caused a general flattening and broadening of dress codes. Also, a move towards casualwear.

    3. People who are concerned about the death of the suit should ask the broader question: why has there been a consistent slide only towards one direction for the last four hundred years? The thing that bugs me about conversations on this topic is that people only ask why the suit died after 1945. But look back further -- there is a much bigger trend here, which I think gives you a better understanding into the general causes. If there was the internet in 1885, someone would be on a board complaining about how all these vulgar people are wearing lounge suits.

    4. IMO, OP is letting his aesthetic preferences get in the way of his judgement on the whys and hows of suit decline. TBH, I don't really care what people wear, but even if I prefer the suit for myself, that has little to do with why it declined.

    5. The US is very liberal. Probably more so in a "pure" sense of liberalism than any other country. But all Western countries are totally liberal. And most of the world, except for Middle Eastern theocracies and North Korea, at least partially liberal. Some other person emailed me about this and seemed to take a very particular slice and narrow view of liberalism, but liberalism is a huge and diverse field. There are many possible social outcomes. I'm only saying that the original precepts -- when ironed out over time, as it has been -- has caused the decline of formality, hierarchy, and upper class aesthetics in general. Those things mean different things at different times, however. The suit, again, was once basically beachwear.
     


  5. JJ Katz

    JJ Katz Active Member

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    Thanks for your points, DWW. I understand this sort of debate might seem esoteric to some, even sterile but personally I’ve enjoyed it.

    I wouldn’t dream of denying that formality is relative to its historical setting and, to a lesser degree, so is what constitutes good taste. The major break, which your historiography does not recognise, is the departure from the desirability of elegance. Before the mid-20th century, whatever non-poor people wore, they mostly wanted to ‘look good’ and dress ‘properly’. After the big turn, many stopped caring how they looked at all. That’s not an evolutionary timed rift it’s a Copernican revolution. The only other ‘modern’ parallel is the re-definition of male elegance from sumptuousness to cut/quality in the early 19th century.

    What puzzles me most, and I’ve yet to see a convincing explanation, is that in many other material fields, casualization has not led to as much aesthetic unconcern as in apparel. For instance the cosmetics / personal grooming industry is booming.

    Help me understand. If you say that liberalism can take many forms and that the form it has taken (i.e., a strong individualistic streak) undermines notions of propriety and even formal elegance and that, furthermore, this is a good thing, does it not follow that you believe ever-increasing individualism (resulting in ever-increasing informality) is a good thing?

    What I am positing is the possibility (the forlorn hope?) that those aspects of liberalism which perhaps have become exaggerated might take another direction.

    My characterisation of ‘the slide’ of course is much less time-deterministic, smooth and inevitable . But I agree that the question still remains: why did it happen? I think one strand of ‘modern’ (though not obligatorily ‘enlightenment’ or ‘liberal’) outlook that played a part is the expanding reach of romanticism. But it might suffice as an explanation that the effects of individualism on certain norms, including dress, might not be linear (and evidence of adoption of ‘fashions’ suggests they are far from linear – a concept popularised in “The Tipping Point”).

    Quite likely! J Per Kahnemann/Haidt/etc., I am probably ‘confabulating’, using my System 2 to find ‘rational’ to cling desperately to my System 1 instincts.

    I care about aesthetics and certain objects / demeanours, while not quite ethically objectionable, bother me the way a pungent but harmless smell might bother another person.
     


  6. usctrojans31

    usctrojans31 Distinguished Member

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    Thank you both for disagreeing with logic, fact and tact. It's nice to actually see two people discuss their opinions and feelings in a logical, mature way. It's almost like this isn't on the internet.

    Edited my 7 am typo
     
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2018


  7. jayysonn

    jayysonn New Member

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    In the late 20th century (in first world countries), things changed. Ordinary people could afford good clothes. And started wearing them, so they could look like the wealthy people at the top of society. Pretty soon, the wealthy realized that wearing a quality suit didn’t set them off from the masses anymore - anybody could dress that way. So, after a while, the wealthy started dressing for comfort.
    And, again, everyone else followed them. Except for a small class of men, who continue to wear suits to this day - bankers, lawyers, politicians, hired company bosses (not founders), and business executives who hope one day to become hired bosses.

    The suit has become a symbol of conformity. Precisely because it’s old and traditional, associated with old-time authority, and most importantly, uncomfortable (at least until you get used to it). Go watch a business meeting between bankers (looking for business) and entrepreneurial business owners (who aren’t asking for money). The business owners are dressed casually - sometimes even in jeans and T-shirts. The bankers wear suits.
     


  8. Caustic Man

    Caustic Man Distinguished Member

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    So if the lounge suit was casual wear at one point, and increasing casualness is a result of liberalism, and liberalism is causing the death of the lounge suit, then liberalism caused both the birth and the death of the suit. I should think this peculiar phenomenon deserves more explanation.

    ETA: FWIW, I agree with the OP's thesis. Richard Sennett's "The Fall of Public Man" is not about clothes but it follows this same line of argument. Essentially he says that the inner psychic world of people in contemporary urban environments, or individualism in a broad sense, has replaced the outer public persona. The result is less emphasis on formality and uniformity and increased emphasis on individuality and expressions of the "true" inner self. It probably goes without saying that Sennett doesn't care for this change and makes the argument that a "problem of audience" follows from this phenomenon. In other words, when we abandon traditional social forms of hierarchy and interaction we don't quite know how to interact with one another in a meaningful way. And so the interesting phenomena that cities, so packed with people, are some of the most anonymous places you can be. All this is to say that I think the OP's argument is actually supported better by evidence than DWW's. But I suppose you'd have to read Sennett to get a strong idea of what that evidence is (mostly historical, btw). While I applaud the attempts made to delve into this subject at length, sadly I am under the weather today and haven't the energy to participate as much as I would like.
     
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2018


  9. dieworkwear

    dieworkwear Mahatma Jawndi

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    Just to push back on some things that keep reoccurring in your posts:

    Casualwear (by which I mean non-tailored clothing) is a lot richer, more nuanced, and interesting than you give it credit for. In your original post, you mentioned something about how one can appreciate tailored clothing not because of its formality, but because of craft. Which sure, I agree. But you can also appreciate casualwear for it's craft. The section of CM that can be genuinely appreciated for craft is about as small as it would be in casualwear. It's mostly handmade items (so, not Goodyear welted shoes but handwelted; not machine made suits but hand sewn).

    That slice in CM is about as big as it is in casualwear. There are handmade, handcut, and hand silk screened causal shirts. There are bespoke leather jackets made with toile fittings. There are casual shoes genuinely made to West End standards. The list goes on. Craft is not limited to tailored clothing.

    There's this other theme about how the world has gotten more vulgar in manners, customs, and aesthetics.

    I don't care about vulgarity in manners and customs. My favorite pre-war music was considered vulgar in its day (e.g. jazz and blues). I also don't care about superficial manners, I care about people just being genuinely nice to each other. To me, this is the difference between people getting uppity about the formality of table manners and people who just understand you should be considerate of other people. For example, it's good to not put your elbows up on the table because you can crowd out the people beside you. But if someone gets harrumphy about that even when their guest has no one besides them, that seems misplaced to me. Lots of people use things like manners and customs to essentially reinforce institutions that block out other people in society. It's often just an excuse for uncosmopolitan, elitist, and classist attitudes. Which seems like the opposite of being considerate, and thus actually vulgar.

    You may have read John Rawls, he's one of the modern defenders of liberalism. He wrote about the "veil of ignorance," which is a thought experiment. Close your eyes and imagine yourself still in your mother's womb. You can think, but you don't know anything about yourself or your parents -- you don't know your economic class, you don't know your race, you don't know your gender, you don't know anything about your identity. He says to think about the world you'd want to be born into, and that's a liberal one (he has his own interpretation of liberalism). In that veil of ignorance, I would rather be born in 2018 than any other period in history because the world has gotten continually better by almost any measure, assuming you don't know your class, gender, race, etc.

    Now to specifically your points in your last post:

    1. Elegance is not the end point of aesthetics, nor has it always been interpreted the way you interpreted it. The reason why it was once improper for a gentleman to wear a lounge suit in the city is because they were considered inelegant.

    But regardless, there are many different and totally legitimate forms of aesthetics that are not about elegance at all. This is like arguing the only worthwhile music is classical or the only worthwhile paintings are Renaissance period. If you're open to other forms of aesthetics, the world becomes a much richer place. But even if you're not, the nice thing about the world is that people can choose for themselves what they like. That's pretty liberal (and great).

    Broadly, the decline of "elegance" isn't complicated. Liberalism celebrates the common man, and the common man is often accused of all the things you complain about -- slovenly, rough, inelegant, vulgar, etc. Yes, you can point to counter examples like thrifters who spend their whole lives dedicated to clothes, but I'm talking about general dynamics. In your first post, you say that it's not egalitarian for rich people to dress like the common man, it's masquerading and hiding class. But that misses the point. After the end of WWII especially, cultural capital was created not at the top, but at the bottom. Rich people aren't trying to masquerade anything. They, like many of us, want to look cool, youthful, desirable, etc. And that's defined by everyday, often "lower class" people. Liberalism celebrates the everyday common man, which gives us the good and, for you, the bad. I'm only saying it would be hard to take the good without the bad.

    It would be hard, for example, to imagine the gender and sexual equality we enjoy today without the 1970s dress revolution, when men were allowed to wear earrings, long hair, and feminine silhouettes. Or when feminists outright called on women to reject traditional women's clothing as a way to also reject patriarchy. And it would be hard to imagine a country such as the United States, who has always celebrated the common man (even if unequally) to not have guys like Marlon Brando in leather jackets. The post-war rebel look is the cowboy of another era. And that necessarily means that other people are going to want to wear t-shirts, jeans, and leather jackets.

    2. There has not been a decline in aesthetics. There has been an incredible boom. It's true that the public space, in general, has gotten uglier, but I don't think the slice of the population in the 1950s that was genuinely interested in aesthetics was any greater than it is in 2018. Maybe it was even less since there used to be, and still very much is, a weird gender norm around men not being able to care about clothes. But in any case, I take that the number of people who care about aesthetics today is either equal or greater than it was in the 1950s. If only because people can afford more things, frankly. Hard to care about aesthetics pre-war, I imagine, when the average person could only afford three suits and two shirts with five detachable collars. And the scope of the kind of stuff you can engage in, appreciate, and buy has also exploded. I can't imagine a richer aesthetic world than the one we live in today, so long as you're willing to appreciate anything outside your personal preferences as legitimate.

    3. Lastly, liberalism is not just about individualism. It's a family of fairly diverse theories and interpretations. It spans everything from libertarians to socialists. I'm not an individualist, but I consider myself a liberal. I generally think of myself roughly as a communitarian in philosophy and left-of-center in politics. I'm only saying that liberalism, to me, is the reason why the suit has given way to casualwear, just as the frock coat gave way to the suit, and just as kings and queens before that had to dress more modestly. There are good and bad things that come out of that. But if you have to choose between a world untouched by liberalism and this one, I would think you would choose this one like me.

    Put another way, you can map how much each country today has been affected by liberalism. All "Western" societies are fully liberal, even if they take diverse forms. Most of Latin America, Africa, and Asia partially liberal. The only truly illiberal states today are probably Middle Eastern theocracies and North Korea.

    Is it any coincidence the most illiberal places in the world still have the strictest, most traditional dress norms (and have their version of the suit)? And the places that are liberal tend to be more cosmopolitan, accepting, and diverse in dress? Which of those places, even with all the "vulgarity" and "lack of elegance" you describe," is more desirable to live in?
     


  10. classicalthunde

    classicalthunde Senior Member

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    Just want to take a moment to thank @dieworkwear and @JJ Katz for taking a discussion about menswear in a direction I never really truly thought about complete with history, philosophy, politics, and sociology...
     


  11. dieworkwear

    dieworkwear Mahatma Jawndi

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    Actually, come to think of it, if someone really appreciated craft, they'd likely be more fascinated by non-traditional dress than traditional. The work that goes into designer womenswear collections is remarkable and blows anything from Savile Row out the waters. The only reason why you don't have this level of craft in non-traditional men's dress is because of how men have broadly rejected fashion.

    But for example, the Alexander McQueen Savage Beauty exhiibit



    The Rei Kawakubo/ Comme des Garcons exhibit



    The sewing that goes into a Raf Simons Dior collection (this is the night before the show)



    Savile Row doesn't even compare (Henry Poole used to machine pad their chests!). And anything below Savile Row is even worse.
     


  12. Caustic Man

    Caustic Man Distinguished Member

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    “If someone really appreciates craft they’d be more interested in the space shuttle than muscle cars.”

    Problematic.
     


  13. JJ Katz

    JJ Katz Active Member

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    Thanks for the substantial re-re-reply. I can’t respond just now to each point, but I might take a stab at one (central) point.

    It would seem that we hold opposite views on: the meaning and purpose of aesthetics, the nature of liberalism, the character of ‘the masses’, the dynamics of taste-making, the desirability and aetiology of most social / political developments since the beginning of the 290th century and more … J

    You quote Rawls, which possibly provides a useful shorthand of your standpoint (?). Since my standpoint is very different, I don't suppose we would quickly (ever) arrive at compatible conclusions. If I may offer an equivalent contemporary household-name shorthand, my though is more along the lines of Scruton / Peterson.

    I think you confuse cause and effect. The loosening of gender roles/norms, first the most arbitrary/contingent/openly oppressive ones, then the more long-standing and universal ones, ultimately, perhaps, ones that have sound biological bases, can certainly result in the removal of strict gender codes in dress but I think it’s a very brave statement to say that it’s the other way around. You imply that wearing low-slung hippy-chick trousers made it ok for guys to be less up-tight. Rather, less uptight guys were willing to buy low-slung hippy-chick trousers from the boys in the marketing whoa, the year before, sold them ever-so-correct Ivy-league trousers.

    At any rate, the KEY metric of wealth and income equality, especially in the US but not exclusively, in the period that spans the slow death of the suit, has moved in the OPPOSITE direction of clothing ‘democratisation’. Correlation does not demonstrate causation, but lack of correlation rather precludes it.
     


  14. dieworkwear

    dieworkwear Mahatma Jawndi

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    No, I'm not Rawlsian. I'm somewhat communitarian, which is a set of people who argued against Rawls. Rawls focused on the protection of minorities, which is to say individuals. Communintarians argued for a heavier focus on groups, rather than individuals, but were still fairly liberal in sentiment.

    I don't think my argument has anything to do with the different discussions within liberalism, however. I think almost everyone nowadays is a liberal except for religious extremists and neo-Nazis. You can be a right-wing or left-wing liberal. But if you are a liberal, all I'm saying is that the more important things you care about (hopefully not clothes) are connected to the decline of the suit. It would be hard to have one without the other because liberalism, as it was first developed in the 17th century, necessarily had to go through the process it did. Which resulted in the different societies we have now. The last four hundred years has been about the ironing of that cloth to make a more perfect idea.

    You may not care for the specific shape of the cloth, but it would have been impossible to hold onto "traditional" dress as soon as liberalism started. I just want to stress again: what you take to be elegant and formal and traditional was once considered the vulgar beachwear of another era. If the internet existed in 1885, some old fart in a frock coat would be arguing about how all these vulgar people are now wearing lounge suits. And then some nerdy 20 year old would be lying in bed, staring at photos of crowds in frock coats and sighing to himself, "I was born in the wrong era."

    If you want a return of the suit, why stop there? Why not frock coats? Why not ruffs? Why not doublets?

    I'm not denying the cause and effect relationship runs the other way. I'm saying theres a back-and-forth relationship between gender norms and dress. One loosens the other, the other loosens the first. It seems to me that you're denying one relationship -- I'm simply saying it exists and, like many social phenomenons, there's a back-and-forth feedback loop.

    Yes, if you only look at post-war history. I'm again arguing for a bigger view of history, going back at least 400 years. The inequality today doesn't compare to the inequality that existed four hundred years ago. Or even a hundred.

    But in any case, to the degree that we can fix and address growing inequality today, it will be because of liberalism. Think of how much harder it is to raise those issues in genuinely illiberal states.

    There are also liberals who don't care about equality (you don't seem to, as evidenced in your first post). So it's also possible to have very liberal societies that are extremely unequal. Liberals interpret equality differently. I'm only saying that liberalism is the cause of the decline of "traditional" dress in general, and that includes the suit but is not limited to it.
     
    Last edited: Jul 6, 2018


  15. JJ Katz

    JJ Katz Active Member

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    Let me see if I can re-state some points in a different way.
    I'll write what (I think) you think. And, if you feel like it, you can correct the bit about what you think until it reflects your belief but with a prayer, on my part, fro conciseness:

    You perceive a clear progressive trend in history from obscurantist prejudice, oppression and exclusion towards ever greater enlightenment, freedom and unity.

    You similarly perceive a constant trend in attire from the renaissance splendour/gaudiness to modern athleisure wear.

    You conflate or twin these two shining paths and so think that ever more succinct, unstructured, convenient, unadorned clothing is an inevitable result of ever greater liberalism and indeed reinforces it (maybe is even necessary to it?).

    You see instinctive, spontaneous, untutored behaviour, art and taste as authentic, democratic and admirable.

    You say that we live in a golden age of aesthetics, if only one accepts that Las Vegas, Crocs, Lululemon, reality TV, Escalades, Taylor Swift and Jeff Koons are not inherently inferior to Baroque Rome, brogues, suits, Channel 4, 1930s cars, Mozart and Caravaggio.
     


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