Suitably Attired

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

By William Hamilton

"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.

When it started, the new look had considerable advantages: it united all its wearers in a single anonymous, international, and interacting commercial urban class—modern man. Playing at being human, possibly giggling Japanese Emperors stuck their divine hands into their first experience of pockets as courtiers tied their neckties. Scottish kilties lost a familiar updraft off the floor. Turkish rug dealers found it more awkward to lounge on their goods smoking their hookahs in woolen stovepipe trousers than it had been in the old, voluminous Kublai Khan cavalry-style pants; but the advantages outweighed any possibly estranging unfamiliarity. The suit offered every nineteenth-century man an identity beyond the tribe, the class, even the nation, of his birth. At least from a distance, the suit offered nineteenth-century man a new self.

Fashions, however, change—or anyway they used to. With sighs of relief, women climbed out of the Spanish galleons of nineteenth-century bustles and whalebone corsets into one new look after another. Men demurred. Perhaps because the suit and tie of 1896 were ahead of their time, and photographically promoted, and internationally significant, and as flattering as gift wrap on a wide variety of masculine figures, they stayed à la mode. Human males have a tendency to dress defensively. Unlike women, they dress not so much to look fabulous as to look acceptable. Even so, the old horseback-bred suit and tie should have had it by 1950: by then the future had become a vivid popular fantasy. Men seemed certain to appear eventually in sleek synthetic jumpsuits with magic belts they would use to teleport around the universe, taking an occasional pill to satisfy all their dietary needs. Futuristic tales of 1950 did not picture men of 2000 wearing more or less what Sherlock Holmes did.

What kept the suit in style was television. TV changed the visual world as powerfully and profoundly as photography had done before it. Everything on TV looked incredibly new and exciting, even Ed Sullivan in a suit. Little boys lying on the floor watching TV in 1950—and for the next fifty years—were imprinted with the male dress code seen on newscasters, hosts, quizmasters, sportscasters, evangelists, press secretaries, pundits, and even comedians: the coat and tie. For the aging suit, TV was Viagra. When anchormen moored by ties told viewers that Monica Lewinsky had given President Bill Clinton one so that she could see it around his neck when he next appeared on TV, we may have witnessed this totemic accessory's actual climax. Less than two years after this Pirandello / Marshall McLuhan / Danielle Steel moment of medium-message delivery, Gerald Levin, in the process of announcing that Time Warner had been sucked into cyberspace, made no necktie at all look even louder than Monica's notorious Ermenegildo Zegna.

Now it might seem that the eerily private and portable world facing us on our computer screens could drive dress back to loincloths, or at least bathing suits (though telecommuting may mean that you don't have to go out to work, you still have to answer the door). Bringing the world to you but not you to the world, cyberspace is not a dressy place.

But ceremony is a dressy place. Ceremony celebrates rank and order in public. A traditional hallmark of ceremony is the unrelaxed situation of the principals. We nobodies lining the parade route like to know that an uncomfortable effort is being made by those we watch; it's the price they should pay for being so much grander than the rest of us. Kings and Popes will tell you that neither the headgear nor the thrones are ergonomic. Standing at attention in uniforms in the Army, privates learn they must not twitch or slouch or scratch. Since they must ultimately be prepared to surrender even their lives to their institution, this first submission is a vital paradigm. Something referentially ancient and attractive and suitably irksome must be found for males to wear to the ceremonies indicating (and possibly thereby proving) the existence of organized civilization.

"I don't know—I just don't think we should go around here looking like pizza deliverymen," an annoyed forty-year-old investment banker told me, glaring at the door he'd just shut between us and the elegantly paneled lobby in which some of his colleagues wore golf shirts. "Goddamn it, I think we should look like somebody. Somebody in charge."

Menswear executives I interviewed all agreed that this fall will tell the tale. One said, "If the casual look was a trend, the suit will come back. But if this is evolution, it won't." A well-cut vice-president said, "This fall will be the one in which the suit and tie either make a big comeback or become extinct."

Can our great corporations continue half in suits and half in golf wear? How will the future mark off its officers from its enlisted men? Will casual funerals bury the dead in sweaters? Born with photography and regenerated by television, the relic of horsedrawn times may turn out to have been kicked upstairs by the new technology—the same way ermine and embroidered robes were by photography. The suit, if cryogenically preserved in cyberspace, may find a more democratic but equally ceremonial and possibly eternal life.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/09/suitably-attired/302283/