The suit is dead, long live the suit !

Dr Benjamin WILD

The suit is dead, long live the suit !

At first I was incredulous. Now I am inconsolable.

News is spreading that the suit, a staple of menswear for over two hundred years, is being ‘broken up’. In the March edition of British GQ, Trevor Dolby argues that ‘The day of the jacket is over’.[i] As if there had been some kind of columnists’ collusion against the grande dame of male dress, David Hayes claims that men have begun to ‘question the traditional suit’ in the weekend’s Financial Times.[ii] So long two-piece! Farewell three-piece! If these clothing commentators are right, we’re about to enter the brave new world of ‘mix and match’.

When the suit doesn’t fit !

Behind Trevor Dolby’s denunciation of the jacket lies a lot of sartorial baggage. His main grievance is that suits make men sweat, although I wonder what he’d expect when wearing a three-piece to a Birmingham nightclub as a hormonal teenager?

Nowadays, Dolby only wears a jacket out of ‘courtesy’, as though jacket-clad men need to be humoured. But his sartorial clean sweep doesn’t begin and end here. Jettisoning the jacket means throwing out the tie. It also means replacing the suit trousers with… jeans. Jeans.

Hayes’ critique of the suit is less iconoclastic. Speaking with fashion designers and industry insiders from the creative director of Z Zegna to the editor of Mr Porter, he suggests that tailored separates are becoming increasingly ubiquitous and popular.

Various reasons for this raiment reshuffle are given: men’s growing confidence and desire to express their character through clothing; the increasingly blurred boundary between work and leisure, which can make formal attire seem fussy and fusty; the relative profusion of men’s tailors, who can create good-looking garments along unconventional, or at least non-traditional, lines; the appeal of ‘old school’ styles.

This concatenation of causes has developed over a long time, and not always to the suit’s detriment. Quite the opposite in the fact. Heightened sartorial confidence, indistinct divisions between work and play, the rise of entrepreneurial tailors and a renewed appreciation of old-style cool, have created a mini-suit revival.

The three-piece is now more common than it was five years ago and suit accessorising has reached fever pitch, with pocket squares, tiepins and boutonnières becoming a not-so-irregular sight. So why the treacherous turn?

In part, it is probably a case of hubris and nemesis, the suit is a victim of its success. As Grace Coddington, Creative Director of American Vogue observes in her memoirs, as soon as one clothing style has become the norm, it is superceded by something different.[iii]This is fashion at its most capricious.

There is another reason why men may now be inclined to shun the suit: the economic downturn.

As the suit has become a symbol of masculinity, so it has indirectly, but no less decisively, become a signifier of male confidence and success, specifically in what is now the predominant sphere of manly pursuits: business. One only has to look at Sophie Elgort’s photoblog, Suits in the City, which is available through the Financial Times’ website and features shots of Manhattan’s suited (business) elite, to get the point.[iv] In years of economic prosperity, the suit can be a positive signifier, but in today’s straightened economic climate, the suit may have become a sign of unashamed success and excess, just as it was in the eighties. In popular perception, it is the garb of greedy and unprincipled financiers, like Gordon Gekko, or for the younger generation, Jake Moore. This perception may become entrenched if the present economic conditions continue and the rift between high and low wage earners increases.

History repeating

To even out this hyperbolic harangue (somewhat), sartorialists who know their history will be aware that the ‘ditto’, a term describing men’s trousers, vest (waistcoat) and jacket that are cut from the same colour and grade of cloth, is a relatively recent development.

During the nineteenth century, gentlemen would wear matching jacket and trousers when relaxing at home, but they would invariably wear contrasting jacket, vest and breeches (or trousers) in public.[v] The different colours, cloths and textures provided a clearer demonstration of a man’s rank, wealth and societal worth, than the more-humble ‘ditto’, or lounge suit. Attaining the appropriate balance in dress with different colours and textures required skill. Sartorial success ensured the distinction and fortune of several young cads, notably Beau Brummell and the Count d’Orsay. Failure caused the embarrassment of many more.

The prospect of ‘mix and match’ is therefore really no-more than a sartorial revival.

My mood is improving.

Traumatic societal shifts, which alter people’s habitus – a sociological term referring to people’s public behaviour – often affect modes of dress, which makes sense. As Alison Lurie has argued, clothing is a language and what we wear communicates our conscious and subconscious thoughts.[vi]

In the mid- to late-eighteenth century, for example, the Macaroni style of dress, characterised by a surfeit of decoration, was prominent when aristocratic power was strong. It was replaced by humble, country-inspired dress when the anciens régimes collapsed at the century’s close.[vii] Prima facie, this makes the present ‘mix and match’ renaissance oddly timed.

If contrasting jackets and trousers constituted the elite look of the nineteenth century, why would such a style return during a period when the wealthy are encountering a specific and sustained backlash? The reason is that the separates worn today carry a different emphasis to those worn in the nineteenth century. Instead of contrasting complementary colours and textures, recent catwalk shows emphasise tones and patterns that clash. As Jeremy Langmead, editor Mr Porter, explains:

“Yes, it may look as if you left the house with the wrong jacket on, but that’s all part of the look that the Italians call sprezzatura.[viii]

In other words, a studied indifference to dress, which reminds me of the lyrics from Everclear’s 2000 song ‘Unemployed Boyfriend’, is de rigueur:

Ever since when I first saw you, looking bored in that plastic chair;
with the lights of the office around you.
Those blond streaks that look so pretty in your black hair;
you look cool and alternative, with that disaffected stare.
Yeah, you want people to think that you just don’t care.”

This casual approach to dress seems to reflect people’s desire to adopt a less materialistic and mercenary attitude to life.

It therefore represents a renunciation of the attitude that conspired to cause the economic crash. And people with clashing clothes are unlikely to be responsible for precipitating financial Armageddon; just think of the opprobrium that Paul Wolfowitz, former president of the World Bank, endured in 2006 for having holes in his grey socks.[ix] Imagine the consternation if he had been wearing a ‘mix and match’ number.

Maybe it’s just me ?

This all brings me to the pressing, and real, issue: I just don’t like separates.

I am having another suit made for me at the moment. Over the Christmas recess, I agonised about its colour and style. I also contemplated having a jacket and waistcoat in the same fabric and a pair of trousers in a complementary, but contrasting, fabric. I had seen some ‘mix and match’ photographs that looked good and I was perhaps subconsciously aware that this look was becoming more prevalent. Before the holiday, I wore ‘mix and match’ to work as a ‘dry run’.

But I hated it.

Looking down at my clothes, the contrast between my jacket and trousers made me feel self-conscious and queasy. I couldn’t wait to go home and take the hideous outfit off. The strength of my reaction could be because I am colour blind and considered the colours jarring. But I also felt under dressed.

So, my new suit will not be separates. It will be another three piece. Another ‘ditto’.

Thinking about it, this will probably be my most formal day suit yet, as the waistcoat will be double-breasted. Clearly, it will take time for me to become reconciled to the new (or revived) suiting trend, but one thing does reassure me. Whilst ‘mix and match’ does not presently appeal, it is evident that the jacket, waistcoat and trousers remain the focus of men’s clothing identity.

The suit is dead! Long live the suit!

And breathe.

– By Benjamin Wild @http://linleywild.com/


[i] T. Dolby, ‘The day of the jacket is over’, GQ (March, 2013),125.

[ii] D. Hayes, ‘Mix and match of the day’, Financial Times: Life & Arts (23/24 February, 2013), 5.

[iii] G. Coddington, Grace: a memoir (London, 2012), 82.

[v] C. Breward, The Culture of Fashion (Manchester, 1995), 174.

[vi] A. Lurie, The Language of Clothes (New York, 2000), 3-17.

[vii] J. Craik, The Face of Fashion: cultural studies in fashion (London, 1993), 182-83.

[viii] Hayes, ‘Mix and match’, 5.

[ix] ‘Holes found in Wolfowitz’s style’. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/6316765.stm. Accessed: 26-ij-2013.