My friend John Slamson recently gave a talk that covered the ‘Pitti Peacocks,’ and one member of his audience asked whether it was a conservative phenomenon. To the menswear enthusiast, the deafening patterns and rainbow palette associated with the most extreme peacocking could not be further from conservative, but to the questioner—I suppose—the mere category of the suit suggested that these Florentine fowls were traditionalists.
This raises a general question: are suits conservative today? The question is complicated, of course, because the term operates in diverse ways: conservatism can imply moderation (as in conservative business dress) as well as a traditionalism that may include ostentatious costume. Defenders of family, community and nation share the label with radical individualists. And the political and aesthetic do not fit neatly together: in Britain, eye-catching elements of business dress such as bright Bengal stripe shirts and bold chalk stripe suits can suggest political conservatism in ways than plainer cloths do not.
Politicians are commonly judged for what they wear, but the judgements are so consistently negative that they do not provide much evidence. Gordon Brown was criticised by the tabloid press for wearing a (presumably expensive) Gieves and Hawkes suit while heading the party of the working man, but then his counterpart today, Jeremy Corbyn, was lambasted for looking cheaply dressed, and thus unsuited to serious politics.
On the other side of the house, criticism of Conservative party prime minister David Cameron’s cabinet of privately-educated school friends returned incessantly to a photograph of him and key allies at Oxford, dressed in Bullingdon club white tie. (The original photo at the heart of the controversy has been suppressed by a copyright claim, it appears, but attention has turned to another which had, appropriately, been hanging on the wall at Ede and Ravenscroft’s Oxford branch.) As you might expect from his background in PR, Cameron tried to draw attention to his cheap Marks and Spencer suit (see below) rather than his favoured Richard James model. But Cameron was equally mocked for his apparent incapacity to dress himself casually, relying on the same navy polo shirt seemingly every time he left the house. Fine tailoring can signal weakness, but only in the sense that fine anything (food, cars, travel) can be embarrassing for politicians of either side trying to be down-to-earth.
More broadly, there are enough examples from across the political spectrum to quash any generalisation about the (party) politics of the suit. Yanis Varoufakis famously refused to wear a suit and tie in defiance of the European Central Bank, but then what of Friedrich Engels, who, we are told, was the frock-coated communist? The Orange Order, back in the British news because of their connections to the new parliamentary kingmakers, march in suits and bowler hats, their Edwardian garb intended to make them appear more English than Englishness itself. Mao’s adoption of the Zhongshan signalled suited opposition to capitalism. Dieworkwear has noted the popularity of suits amongst the American far right and amongst progressives.
For Anne Hollander, the central visual meaning of the suit is its tendency to unify the body, rather than to divide it into component parts. To this she opposes both the elaborate courtly wear that preceded it, and ladieswear, in which the tendency has persisted to focus on surface detail and embellishment rather than overall form.
This makes the suit progressive, in the sense that it strikes a democratic blow against courtly ritual and hierarchy: suits do not indicate rank in the direct, semiotic sense that military and ceremonial dress do. Yet while the modern suit came on the scene as a casual choice, it now represents a more formal option for most men, and the suit remains a strict requirement in only the most traditional professions: law, banking, politics, and some areas of business and hospitality.
Even the House of Commons is loosening its tie requirement. In one more turn of the screw, though, it is because the suit is still bound by tradition that it is open to such striking reinterpretation and subversion. A canary yellow t-shirt will catch nobody’s eye, but a tailored jacket certainly will. As long as the lounge suit remains one of the few decisively gendered garments, it can be worn to great subversive effect by women.
And because modern suits still essentially maintain their original silhouette, small fluctuations in lapels, button stance, padding and roominess have far more dramatic effects than similar changes to t-shirts or sweaters.
Finally, because so few professions demand strict business dress, choosing to wear suits is not—and will only become less—a matter of conformity. The three-piece suit, or the double-breasted jacket, is now a decidedly unconventional choice in most settings, and wearing it well is a question of judgement and panache rather than compliance with anyone else’s expectations.
The politics of suits is like the politics of jokes. As Simon Critchley has observed, the joke is a politically ambivalent category: jokes can undermine an institution, or defend it by mocking those who might seek to change it; jokes can protect the establishment by letting us vent our frustration with it in a way that poses no threat, and jokes allow a minimal but persistent form of resistance under totalitarianism. The joke is a deeply political form—the strength of the disagreements over comedy demonstrates this.
But telling a joke does not commit you to one political position so much as make available to you a whole language of tropes, signifiers and conventions, and presents the opportunity to preserve, transgress, restore and reinterpret them.
The same is true of suits.
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