My dear friend Alexander Freeling and I were recently discussing whether suits were conservative.
The answer is obviously that they are—and quite equally obviously that they are not. It is all a question of context.
As we were lounging in a rather posh imitation of a French wine cellar in Cambridge, the matter of context was palpably relevant. Take our beverages: we were sipping Beaujolais and Rosé de Touraine. In this specific context, those lovely wines—the epitome of working class French wines, the simple “vins de comptoir” that can be relied on to quench your thirst—took on a positively snobbish hauteur.
Concerning our attire, needless to say that our sharp Canali and Dalcuore jackets, quietly stylish Luxire and Marol shirts, ancient madder or grenadine ties supplemented by a nonchalant flourish of pocket squares had not bumped into other soul mates that we could remember for many weeks—despite the swanky setting and the affluence of formality in a town replete with suit-and-tie events, business meetings and conferences, graduations and weddings—a rare place where dress code indications compete in numbers with road signs.
But posh people don’t care about what they wear and dutiful professionals simply put on a dark suit.
Disdain for clothes can be a meaningful social attitude, sometimes verging on show-off. It can also be brutally honest. I’ve seen dirty jackets on the back of some very eminent locals—and by “dirty” I mean a cream jacket with grimy black edges, ancient tomato stains and a blatant rip. So again, no clear class sign there.
In the same venerable academic context, people often wear black tie. They do so because there are occasions that require such a dress code. As dinner jackets are available from any high-street brand, provided to you by salespersons who claim without flinching that the vague measurements they take are the reason why you can see “bespoke” pretentiously written on their puffed-up windows, buyers purchase their dinner jackets without any notion of how to wear them. So you find the streets glutted with droves of formally attired young people wearing plastic shoes, clip-on bow ties, casual button-down shirts and vaguely proportioned jackets: the tuxedos that were supposed to be the embodiment of posh, actually display ill-advised consumption habits hijacked by the cheap mass-produced ready-to-wear, not distinction.
G. Bruce Boyer recently addressed the matter in an article about the “casual revolution” of society and the loss of sartorial occasions. The actual upshot of that so-called revolution renders the very term “casual” obsolete as it can only be opposed to “formal”. Except that since “casual” has become dominant it is no longer “casual” but simply “normal”, “standard”, “ordinary”. When casual was unusual in public, suits were the norm. Now that suits are the exception, their social value as signifiers has changed.
We are supposedly under no obligation to dress in a suit, or in jeans. We allegedly dress for pleasure, « to express oneself ». Except we don’t live in a vacuum. Choosing one style or another is thus dependent on codes that have changed but that still retain some of their former meaning. The suit is now a remnant of what used to be the “proper” outfit. But now that there is almost no judgement of propriety that really applies any more, it is just one option among others. It is “conservative” only when worn to comply with an outdated norm that no longer exists.
It is not just that it’s all “in the eye of the beholder”—the beholding depends on group perception. The suit will mean something different in a banking firm or on a campus. Some people will view the suit as conservative because they see it as a norm to free oneself from. Others will see it as dandified because it allows to escape from tracksuits and trainers.
Of course, the whole question is completely biased because “conservative” is a four-letter word and not a descriptive one. What would be the antonym?
Is there such a thing as a “progressive” outfit? Why should there be a “conservative” outfit? Such labels, however intellectually shallow, are pervasive and often used only as tools to take the moral high-ground—even when there is no moral or political stake. Unless you can prove that wearing jeans and sneakers is an actual advancement for mankind while wearing a suit is the cause of unspeakable oppression.
As Alex Freeling importantly concluded in his latest article, the suit is open to interpretation and reinterpretation. Another way of putting it would be to say that the suit has now become semiotically unstable. Nobody knows any more what the suit is supposed to stand for. When it came about, the suit was a step down from courtly dress and became a progressive equalizer of appearances.
Once the democratic and ubiquitous urban garment by default, the suit is now ambiguous. As are, in fact, “casual” clothes or “prole gear” (Boyer’s words). You can be a powerful CEO even if you are dressed in torn jeans and a t-shirt, branding yourself as cooler than cool, displaying in-your-face efficiency and couldn’t-care-less-about-clothes-I’ve-got-more-important-things-on-my-mind affectation. Or you can be a very flamboyant and dapper suit-wearing student standing out in a crowd of hoodies. There’s no class implication there—which doesn’t mean there is no social significance.
The same outfit will have a different meaning in a different setting: take the banal dark suit of the business areas in Paris and displace it to the proletarian northern or eastern suburbs and it becomes a class statement. Actually, it looks out of place more than really superior—in such suburbs, only real estate and bank employees or security guards wear suits—hardly an upper-class mannerism in those cases.
In the context of modern individualism, the semiotic indeterminacy of the suit can be summed up broadly by three context-related interpretations. It is either a professional uniform, a personal style choice, or a class habit. Only the latter is conservative in a social sense and only the second has anything to do with elegance. Things are in fact even more complicated as they can overlap and need to take into account the maze of variations according to geographical and generational factors.
So the question of conservativeness is basically flawed and useless if asked in view of receiving a yes-or-no answer. But it has a certain virtue if it makes us pause and reflect on the history and meaning of clothes, style and social presence.