In July of 2010, the user WhoMD posted a request with the following title to a student doctor forum: “Short sleeved suit?”
“I bought the suit below,” WhoMD explained, providing a link to a picture of the garment in question, “because of an interview in August which will be very hot. I thought it looked professional but just wanted other opinions. I can return it.”
Those who clicked through to the link’s image expressed their relief: The suit, a Tahari number, included a short-sleeved jacket, belted to cinch the waist, and a skirt. It was meant to be worn by a woman.
“Cute,” said one. “Glad you’re a girl and not a guy though.”
“I hope you’re a chick,” said another.
“Yeah,” agreed another, “I was going into this thread assuming at [sic] the OP was a guy. Would’ve said he’d look like a male stripper.”
“love it! i too was imagining a short sleeved suit on a guy. not ok.”
To all of which WhoMD responded: “thanks. I am a chick by the way. I don't think I’d have the guts to wear that if I was a male haha.”
Haha indeed. Suits may be an equal-opportunity affair, gender-wise, as species of professional attire; they’re most readily associated, however, with dudes. Which is why it was a little bit surprising, and also a little bit jarring, and also a little bit hilarious, when the Swedish brand Acne Studios released its Spring-Summer 2016 menswear line to reveal suits whose jackets sport ... short sleeves. Cuffed short sleeves, no less!
This is, on the one hand, yet another instance of fashion being fashion—designers working with the limited material they have, literally, to advance not just streetwear trends, but also ideas and provocations. Suits, the prototypical pieces of menswear, are particularly apt to that end because they’re unparalleled as symbols of conformity: Suits have been passed down, adjusted but not fundamentally unaltered, from the courts of King Charles II and King Louis XIV in the 1600s—drab, largely uniform getups whose point was to prevent expressions of individuality. The suit today, GQ points out, is “the one article of men’s clothing that sees immense change season to season through different fabrics, fits, and price, and yet hardly changes at all.”
In that sense, Acne’s sassy half-sleeve makes sense. Thom Browne is credited with and/or blamed for making the short suit a thing; now Acne is trying to put its stamp on the cropped shirt sleeve.
The short-sleeved suit for men, though, is also remarkable in its ability to complicate the conversation WhoMD and her bevy of advice-givers had back in 2010. That short sleeves should be acceptable—and “cute,” and all that—on a suit made for a woman, but not on one made for a guy, is the stuff of thoughtless double-standard, just like so much else in fashion. Menswear features short-sleeved shirts; there’s no reason jackets shouldn’t, er, follow suit. The only reason is the biases and expectations we tend to group under the collective heading of “tradition.” The only reason is that we expect that it’s women who will expose their flesh in professional settings, not men.
Acne is playing with those double standards, toying with them, subverting them—turning them into questions. The brand’s androgynous presentations of the garments in its 2016 catalog—combining them with collarless shirts, ribbon-like belts, and handbags—makes that even more clear. The brand is asking, on the one hand: “What does it mean to be a suit?” But it is also asking, on some deeper level—by way of ribbons and pockets and insistently sassy short sleeves—“What does it mean to be a man?”