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Men in Suits: Who’s the suit?

Paul Sweeten


American Psycho

© Graham Ryder


The development of clothing, like that of language, depends first upon utility and later upon usage. What is practical becomes popular and eventually popularized, before losing all sense that it was ever anything but the done thing. Yet as some of us despair at tracksuits leaving the track and entering casual wardrobes, one should consider that the closest thing to a modern business suit in the Victorian age was reserved for the tennis court, and had no place at the dinner table of the aspiring classes, where longer—often double-breasted—jackets were requisite. The urbanisation of the tracksuit follows that of the modern business suit, and where the tailcoat once upstaged the short jacket, a fitted jacket of any description may now be considered unnecessarily smart, especially outside of the office. The decline in popularity of suits, parallel to their becoming unnecessarily smart, may be tracked through the shifting conceptions associated with those who wear them.

By the Victorian era, Dandyism’s understated elegance had spread to the newly formed middle classes. Frockcoats became the standard jackets for men, and were worn with matching coloured waistcoats and trousers. It is worth noting that after the development of these monochrome ensembles from which the word “suit” is derived, the garment undergoes surprisingly few variations in arriving at its current design. The Victorian “ditto suit” may be distinguished by its longer tails and waistcoat, yet one would not look that out of place wearing one today on the streets of London. One could certainly wear a suit from 1920 without turning a single head. So while the suit has remained the same, social attitudes have developed at a much faster rate, consequently changing the way we perceive suit-wearers.

In the 1980s the term “suit”, when used to describe someone who might regularly wear one, evoked images of a powerful and apathetic class whose vein rituals of tying ties and attaching cufflinks blunted its members’ humanity till all that remained of their constitutions was a bottom line. Bret Easton Ellis satirised the cult of image-conscious Wall Street bankers in his 1991 novel American Psycho, wherein label-snob Patrick Bateman is frequently mistaken for his colleagues despite meticulously fussing over what he perceives to be characterising touches in the presentation of his pocket squares and bold-patterned shirts. Bateman is a crazed serial killer by night, simultaneously brutalized and pacified by the uniformity of his routine. His wardrobe epitomizes this homogeny: here the suit defines and dominates the man—and indeed men—much as it does in Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, a novel in which the armour of a banal jacket and tie serves as an advertisement, a cover for the chaotic homelife of a struggling businessman. With its countervailing power, one begins to suspect that the suit became nothing more than an adult’s school uniform, a dresscode by which businesses could institutionalise their staff, and staff could play the parts of diligent, aspiring citizens.

Like oysters and Notting Hill, the suit has gone from rags to riches, turning from a symbol of the liberal and democratic Dandies to the uniform of conservative elites. Yet both today and in 1790, the sartorial counterweight to overdressed patricians has been found in an agrarian aesthetic. The suit was once a champion of outdoor living, yet since it has become fully compatible with urban sensibility, our department stores have been filled with factory-distressed denim and emblematic t-shirts conveying vague evocation of rural Americana. Designs featuring double-digit highway numbers and the logos of non-existent clothing outlets with the word “Athletic” in their name recall a frontier idealism, a rejection of metropolitan living in favour of cowpunching, Johnny Cash and baseball. Levi jeans, all-terrain boots and Yankees caps have undergone that same transition from the field to the street—and indeed across the Atlantic—where on both sides the relics of Beau Brummel walk alongside the remnants of Babe Ruth and Billy the Kid, far-flung and estranged from their cultural homes. Today there is no garment more British, nor more contemporary, than the all-American checkered shirt, circa 1895.


Read part one of this series, “Men in Suits: Fine and Dandy”


Paul Sweeten graduated in 2010 with an MSt in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford. Paul is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.