Fashion September 2001

Suitably Attired

Well-dressed men have worn the same thing for a century now. A history and an appreciation of the suit

"It's hardest on the older guys," the well-tailored captain of an elegant New York restaurant known for the ego-mindful seating of its powerful clientele told me last spring. "They don't know what to wear, and when they try, they just don't look right. Look at Gerald Levin over there—he might as well be carrying a toolbox." Levin is the CEO who sent chills through haberdashery, in January of last year, when he wore khaki trousers and an open-necked shirt to the press conference announcing the merger of his company, Time Warner, with AOL. Levin has scarcely been seen in a necktie since.

Later in the season I stopped by a great Manhattan store to have a look around the men's-suits floor. It was nearly empty of customers, and the ranks of hanging suits brought to mind the terra-cotta army guarding the Emperor's tomb near Xian. Would souls ever come to fill these silent human forms, or was this spectacle archaeological, an awesome and monumental reminder of a bygone age?

"About three months ago there was some concern," said an executive called in by a manager who had been called over by a clerk. "But the whole formal look is definitely coming back now." Evidently, the possibility that we were gazing at an obsolescent inventory made my question about how suits were selling too hot to handle for anyone less than a vice-president. When the executive left, the clerk called my attention to an entering customer, a man in shorts, a backpack, and a baseball cap. This apparent hiker or bird watcher picked up a sleeve to look at the tag. Before closing in on him as delicately as a fisherman stalking a trout, the clerk said, "It was those damn dot-coms that nearly killed us, but now that they've all crashed, we're going to be just fine again."

"We went casual in the nineties," the senior partner of a mighty New York law firm told me. "We had to compete with the dot-coms for the best and the brightest new talent, and not just with money. The dot-coms didn't wear suits. No ties. Comfortable cottons. They looked like a new way to do business. Some of my partners still wear suits. And you know who else does? The women. The young women lawyers all wear these black suits, with pants. I think it's so they won't be mistaken for secretaries. But none of the young guys wear suits anymore. I still wear a shirt and tie under my sweater. And I keep a blazer in my closet for important meetings."

W ho would argue against the proposition that the twentieth century went farther, faster, than any before it? Yet despite the spectacular, transmogrifying effects of electricity and telephones and rockets and nuclear energy and birth-control pills, men, at least in their most official capacities, wore nearly the same outfit the whole time. My grandfather, a member of Yale's class of 1896, kept a photo scrapbook of his college life. The haircuts, suits, ties, and shoes—even such accessories as suspenders, cuff links, fountain pens, and little wire eyeglasses—in these old snapshots indicate that a male time traveler from 1896 would not look very unusual on a present-day city sidewalk (except, of course, for his look of shocked amazement as he took in contemporary transportation, architecture, and women). But in 1896 a man of 1796, in a tricorn hat, powdered wig, knee breeches, buckled shoes, and frock coat, would have looked like someone on his way to a costume party.

The Roman toga and the mandarin robes of Imperial China covered correct officials for years too, but in comparatively static worlds that their wearers were trying to keep that way. The modern men's suit, with its pockets and sleeves and trouser legs and lapels and buttons, and flying that pennant of necktie, was devised and rigged for motion, like a sailboat. But it came from the turf, not the surf. That split in the back of the jacket was originally cut to drape over a saddle. The notched lapels can close the front as sleekly as a cavalryman's breastplate. Trousers, too, were probably first pulled on for horseback riding. The flying skirts of Alexander the Great's legions could cause riders not only sudden gusts of embarrassment but saddle sores.

When conquest became more administrative than heroic, the suit dismounted and gave orders from behind a desk. The outfit never looked smarter or more urban and organized than it did in the nineteenth century, standing against untailored backdrops of crumbling feudalism and spreading colonialism. In counterpoint to the ancient, often buttonless clothing on peasants and muzhiks and natives and slaves, suits were officers' uniforms of the New Authority.

Understandably, such a style of dress would come to the ruling classrooms of Yale in 1896—but what kept such caballero wear in vogue for yet another hundred years? Jackets cut for saddles are cumbersome in cars. In our indoor, thermostat-steadied atmospheres the suit and tie can feel as monstrously clumsy as the old lead-footed, copper-domed suits in which deep-sea divers were lowered to the muddy bottom. In fine restaurants many chairs containing males are now hung with removed suit jackets. Pilots wear their jackets only in the airport, to look official and able and in charge (and reminiscent of the sea captains they have superseded). Like Clark Kent's boxy double-breasted suit, which had to be removed, in a phone booth or behind a tree, for Kent to function as Superman, ours have become more a transitory disguise than the clothes in which we actually do our work. Could the suit and tie, like the tuxedo, become an example of special-occasion wear? Maybe even a rental?

"Well, the suit per se has no utilitarian value," the senior law partner told me. "It once had a psychological value, but even then it had no actual function. With guys in shirts and jeans working their computers on Microsoft-style campuses, the appearance of a suit just means somebody from outside the hive has arrived—maybe a banker or a lawyer or a mortician. After you've sat in a couple of meetings with billionaires wearing shorts—and drinking water from baby bottles the whole time, by the way—you wonder which is stranger: these new guys, or you in your suit and tie?"

The first suit came into focus as photography did. Freezing actual instants of light and shade, the camera took all the guessing, exaggeration, and rumor out of fashion news. There for all the boys to see on a magazine page was a photograph of Queen Victoria's heir, the Prince of Wales, off duty in reality, smoking a cigar in Paris, in trousers, a frontally buttoning jacket, and a necktie. So this is what a man who could buy anything wore when he wasn't in the ermine! Photography saw through the hundreds and thousands of formerly opaque miles and layers of class between his off-duty Royal Highness and the ambitious miners' and farmers' and grocers' sons who would change the world. It turned the robes of state into antiques reserved for parade wear. For the first time the everyday plumage of the unpecked apogee of the pecking order was available for popular study. Tailors clipped such pictures to show their clients, who obviously liked the idea of wearing what the Prince of Wales—and J. P. Morgan and Oscar Wilde and Caruso—did on the boulevards. Despite differences in quality, the suits on Kafka, in Prague, and Santos-Dumont, in Rio de Janeiro, and Toulouse-Lautrec, in Paris, were strikingly alike—and not that different from what Grandpa and his schoolmates wore in New Haven or, amazingly, what Big Business (Gerald Levin excepted) still wears, at least to shareholders' meetings. In the 1890s the suit and tie spread through haberdashery like Gutenberg's Bible through Christendom.

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