© Graham Ryder
While consumerism relies upon our being just as fickle as the sartorial seasons, the history of fashion suggests at least one consistency: that a garment once considered “casual” will eventually be thought of as “smart-casual”, then as “businesswear”, and finally as something in which one could reasonably expect to be sued or buried. Decommissioned accessories such as the cravat or even ones as recently defunct as the fedora hat were at one time no more formal than a pair of jeans, yet as our waistlines have slackened from our stomachs to our hips (and continue to fall in that direction towards increasingly worrying depths), the subculture-of-smart which had previously been confined to City brokerage is now enjoying a resurgence.
Despite our shallower pockets and the apposite fact that many of the businesses on London’s Saville Row have become less like tailors and more like shops by stocking ready-to-wear suits, films like An Education, television programmes like Mad Man and videogames like LA Noire have had men wondering how one should fold a pocket handkerchief and how high a tie clip should be worn (to which the answers are “in any way you like” and “just below the ribs”).
These aesthetical considerations seem at first glance to be directly opposed to the neutrality, and indeed the banality, of suits. Yet given their increasingly formal status since the 1960s, wearing a suit outside of social ceremony—simply wearing one out, for instance—would nowadays suggest a personal conviction not far removed from that which accompanied the outfit in its infancy. In both 1790 and 2012, to wear a suit while not under social duress is to make a point.
Among a society who dressed in satin breaches, colourful tailcoats and gaudy wigs, Oxford undergraduate Beau Brummell reinvented gentlemen’s loungewear to include darker, close-fitting jackets, modest white shirts adorned with neat cravats and, most innovative of all, full-length trousers, usually in white or khaki. The look was synonymous with Dandyism, a term which evokes rather unfair connotations of highfalutin extravagance and sartorial vanity. Dandies were certainly accusable of vanity—polishing their shoes with champagne leaves little doubt about that—yet their clothing was anything but extravagant compared to the style from which they departed.
Brummell’s notion of menswear was founded in practicality; his suit jacket was made from durable fabrics in which one could ride and hunt, yet was versatile enough for balls and other formal occasions. Aside from carefully arranged neckwear, there was nothing about the Dandy outfit that was ornate or fancy. Men looked simple, unpretentious and undisguised, and though Dandyism held beauty in the highest regard, their aesthetic was one which upheld the basic dimensions of the human form, and did not attempt to distort it with the elaborate proportions of foppish costume.
According to Baudelaire, the Dandy “must live and sleep before a mirror”. The Dandy must always be alert, attentive and fussing over his look because to be a Dandy, as Albert Camus noted, is to be “always in opposition” (a pursuit far more demanding than to be always conforming). In challenging the herd mentality of fashionistas, Dandies were required to be stubbornly unfashionable. Here we find a familiar paradox shared by many “alternative” subgroups. From Dandies to punks, the discord between the libertarian and mimetic compulsions of a group’s members has drawn its associated clothing as both uniforms as well as the antidote to uniformity. The suit has always straddled this divide, and though it remains occasionally daring, it has suffered the transition from innovative style to requisite dresscode in the three centuries of its evolution.
Now that the suit has outlived its functionality and is ever-more overstating its formality at social occasions, the garment has “stopped working” as it was previously understood it to work, and has become in Heidegger’s definition not an object but a “thing”. Its associations, bound to the rise of the middle classes, now outshine its simple purpose. Ancestrally rebellious yet soberly conservative, coupled with commerce and professional vocation, showing aspiration of a particular kind—strait-laced and understated—and above all reflective of a middlebrow advertisement: the suit is a garment whose reach exceeds its grasp, unwelcome at both football matches and Black Tie dinners, and something which is as much inhabited as it is worn. From Beau Brummell to Prince Charles via Marcel Proust, Oscar Wilde, Marcel Duchamp, Ronald Reagan, Cary Grant and Nick Cave, Dandyism has somehow endured, and like all artistic movements founded in nostalgia—those schools we call neo-something or something-revival—modern Dandyism stems from a political aesthetic, the idea that an outmoded paradigm—like that of the cowboy or the hippie—may be recontextualised in modernity. As Epictetus said, “Know, first, who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly.”
Paul Sweeten  graduated in 2010 with an MSt in Creative Writing from Kellogg College, Oxford. Paul is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.