The suits in Kingsman: The Secret Service, the new spy romp starring Colin Firth and Samuel L. Jackson, double as weapons. They’re bullet-proof. Their shoes contain little vials of neurotoxin that can be shot, with deadly results, at enemies. Their umbrellas—and what British gentleman would dare be found without an umbrella?—shield their carriers from explosions. The garments, and their attendant accessories, come from a quaint London tailor shop that doubles as a small munitions factory. It provides its customers with killer suits that are, quite literally, killer.
Which is absurd! But also appropriate. Because, whether you’re talking about the bespoke creations of Savile Row or the sheeny affairs on offer at the Men’s Warehouse, every suit is, in its own way, weaponized. It blends not just various wools, but also power and status. Suits as we know them today—sober, simply cut, insistently be-neutraled—were initially a response to the plague in Europe; they were meant, in their public rejection of flamboyance, to recognize that there are more important things in life than fashion. They were meant to indicate one's seriousness of purpose. They were meant to indicate respect. They were also meant, at least initially—a counterpoint to the ruffles and lace and strategic squeezings typical of women’s dresses—to indicate maleness.
Hundreds of years later, we still read all those things into suits. As sartorial symbols, suits still suggest conformity and mystery, seduction and menace, agency and the lack of it. The Kingsman suits, like the weaponized exoskeletons made familiar through Iron Man and Batman and the U.S. military, treat suits not just as reflections of power, but also as sources of it. "Manners maketh the man," goes a Kingsman motto; here, the suits are manners. The suits maketh the man.
It’s worth noting, though, how anachronistic that idea is in the world of 2015. The suit, so deeply a part of the culture of the 20th century, is struggling in the 21st. Modern moguls, (in)famously, prefer jeans and hoodies to traditional suits. Banana Republic’s recently launched menswear collection, which the company nicknamed "The Startup Guy," was notably lacking in suiting. "Over the past few years," Virgin's Entrepreneur blog remarked in 2012, "we have seen the revolution of a new age of entrepreneurs, people who have left the suit in aid of feeling more comfortable at work."
But it's not just self-designated pre-billionaires who are rejecting the confines of the suit in favor of more freewheeling workwear. In offices around the country, jackets are being replaced by standalone shirts and, in chillier months, shirt-and-sweater combos. Women are choosing sheath dresses over the much-derided pantsuit. Guys are choosing chinos and slim-cut jeans over aggressively matchy suit pants. Ties are being replaced, as sources of color, with sassy pocket squares. The shift has been so marked that About.com, that arbiter of cultural trends, was prompted to ask, "Are the Days of the Suit and Tie Passed?" An Australian newspaper, more bluntly, recently proclaimed "the death of the suit."
The suit, to be clear, is not currently dying. But it is, as it always has been, evolving—past the days of head-to-toe matching, past the days of neutral-only conformity, past the days of dryclean-only. And that transformation is being reflected in pop culture. James Bond may still be doing gin-soaked gymnastics in a suit; he has met his match, however, in a t-shirt-clad Jason Bourne. For every Thomas Crowne, delighting in modern-day Magrittery, there is an Edward Lewis, who'd prefer to go barefoot in the park. For every Bill Lumbergh, taking sadistic pleasure in the squeeze of his suspenders, there is a Peter Gibbons, who chafes at it. For every person who loves the word “slacks,” there is another who cringes at it.
But suits—bespokio ad absurdum—have recently gone even farther than simple ambivalence, taking on a distinctly sinister quality. Or, more accurately, a distinctly pathetic quality. Take How I Met Your Mother's Barney Stinson, who treats his suit collection the way most people treat their children—and who is roundly mocked for it. Take The Office's Andy Bernard, whose bright-colored, perfectly tailored garments—very likely copied wholesale from back issues of GQ—are candy-colored reminders of his desperate, and quixotic, desire to be liked. Take New Girl's Schmidt, whose obsession with suits is similarly effective as a symbol—of desperation, of pettiness, of priorities that are pathetically out of whack.
The list goes on. Crazy, Stupid Love features a dapper Ryan Gosling making over the lovably schlubby Steve Carell by way of a slim-cut power suit; in short order, the movie makes clear how existentially empty such makeovers can be. Don Draper's suit—a relic of the midcentury, as depicted in the early aughts—is as menacing as it is magical. Suits are no longer, in the manner of Gordon Gekko's Cloroxed collar, efficient symbols of success, financial and otherwise; they're also efficient symbols of the lack of it. They're sort of sad. We are, as a culture, at best ambivalent about suits; we are, at worst, over them.
In that sense, you could read Kingsman's emphasis on the suit as a last gasp of the suit in its current form. You could read the film’s Swiss Armied suiting as evidence of pre-emptive nostalgia for a bygone era of fashion. Formality is a fluid thing; today's wedding attire was, a century ago, the stuff of evenings in spent with one's family. What will the suit become?
Matthew Vaughn, the director of Kingsman, is for his part hoping the suit of the future will be inspired by the suit of the past. He launched the menswear label Kingsman—developed with the film’s costume designer and the online retailer Net-a-Porter—earlier this year, to coincide with the film’s U.K. release. His logic in doing that, besides the fair assumption that many men, given the chance, would prefer to look like Colin Firth, was that the suit—as an idea, as a market good, as a giver of comic-book powers—has retained, even in 2015, much of its traditional symbolism. “The suit,” Vaughn explained, “is the modern gentleman’s armor.”