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Donning a Suit

29th May 2013

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Much as I hate to tell you this, we are all going to be cast out of our cushy student life sooner or later and into the ‘world of work’. You know - that place everyone seems so determined to convince us is the ‘real world’.

There is nothing that marks out this transition so clearly as the business suit, or ‘lounge suit’ as it was originally called, which we are all probably going to have to don at some point or other. We see their drab colours every day on the street; we hear the creak of their starch as their unfortunate wearers try to move in them. We are all going to have to face them.

But what does it mean to wear a suit - to face down the dreaded ‘formal office-wear’? The Economist calls the suit the "battledress of the world’s businessmen" and "the uniform of capitalism", while Alex Bilmes, editor of Esquire, told the BBC that when you put on a business suit, "You are putting on a suit of armour." Impressive and somewhat intimidating claims…

When you see one of these "uniform[s] of capitalism" on the street, what do you think? What does it make you think of the wearer?

A friend of mine recently told me it made her find the wearer more attractive. When I’d finally picked my jaw up off the floor and gathered up the fragments of my shattered and shocked psyche, I realised this was actually a very common view. This seems to have a lot to do with the fact that, whatever the rest of us think, for many suit-wearers the ‘uniform’ is a mark of pride, like the knightly armour Esquire’s editor compares it to - a symbol of the wearer’s membership in a worldwide club.

The business suit’s attractiveness arises from the air of importance conferred by its smartness and formality (as well as the wearer’s pride… and the ball-breakingly annoying fug of smugness that some wearers give off). The business suit has, as The Economist claims, ‘become a symbol of conformity’, but it symbolises conforming to an elite set - a ruling, apparently more attractive set.

Why then? Where has this ‘battledress’ of the modern Mad Men-watching elite come from? Well, interestingly enough, from the elite… but not the modern capitalist elite: the royal elite of Seventeenth Century Britain. Prior to this, Sumptuary Laws like those of Japan had forbidden merchants and non-aristocratic wealthy people from wearing sumptuous and rich clothing. The wealth of the mercantile classes in particular had been considered low and immoral because it had been taken from the labours of others.

After a particularly virulent outbreak of plague in 1665, however, Charles II compelled his court to give up their sumptuous, vibrant clothing as a show of good will towards the mercantile and lower classes. Charles II made the elite wear the drab and simple clothes the other classes had been forced to wear, and set a trend for the upper classes in later years.

While the trend for drab and simple clothing had begun with the court of Charles II, one of the modern business or ‘lounge’ suit’s other key traits - its close, body-hugging cut - comes from ‘Beau’ Brummel, George IV’s avant-garde, fashion-pioneering friend. Still following the trend for drab colours, Brummel caused a stir by designing provocative and risqué garments cut very close to the body in, as The Economist puts it, "an attempt to emulate Greek statues of naked men."

So, perhaps this is something to consider the next time you see a 60-something executive creaking down the street in the ‘uniform of capitalism’? Far from marking any sort of conformity, one of the lounge suit’s direct antecedents was closer to a mark of revolt and sexual liberation!

The business suit’s history becomes most tangled about 150 years ago, around the time of its evolution into the form we see today. The lounge suit developed, as the name suggests, as a form of casual-wear for the aristocratic upper classes. It was quickly taken up as what The Atlantic magazine calls a ‘dress-up item’ by the other classes. As a point of convergence between the aristocratic elite and the other classes, it became the ideal form of attire for the ever-burgeoning capitalist middle-class. Its status now as the formal wear of the elite neatly demonstrates the rise of the capitalist middle class to the status of society’s elite, replacing its aristocratic predecessor.

Even after the lounge suit’s final genesis, it was far from a simple story of capitalist uniform or conformity. The ‘Zoot Suit’, from the 1930s associated with American jazz culture and worn by oppressed groups such as American blacks and Latinos, made sure of this. So far from a ‘symbol of conformity’ was the Zoot Suit, in fact, that there are even riots named after it: the Los Angeles ‘Zoot Suit Riots’ of 1943, where off-duty white servicemen brawled with blacks and Latinos wearing Zoot Suits.

The modern business suit that gives the elite inhabitants of the ‘real world’ such pride and attractiveness - the ‘symbol of conformity’ - has no simple history. When we’re finally forced to face it, it won’t be any simple symbol we reluctantly (I don’t know about the rest of you, but reluctantly is definitely the word for me) put on. It will be a complex blend of royal diplomacy, sexual avant-gardism and professional efficiency.

Maybe The Atlantic’s claim that when you put on a suit, "you are part of a proud anarchic tradition", is a little strong (and in many ways, over-optimistic), but when we do ultimately face the demon of ‘formal office-wear’, we can at least keep in mind that we are not simply donning a drab uniform, but slipping into a complex and many-sided debate.

Inevitably, however, whatever the history of the business or ‘lounge’ suit, its meaning in the present day is defined by the culture and people of the present day. It is defined by what you think when you see a business suit creaking down the street. And as a whole, however attractive some of us may find it, we do really seem to see the business suit as the ‘symbol of conformity’ and the ‘uniform of capitalism’.

Businesses have picked up on this and many are trying to dispel the negative implications of this stereotype by allowing staff to wear more casual clothing to work. A poll by First Direct found that over a third of professionals are now wearing jeans to work and only 18% regularly wear a tie. Those who now defend the business suit against this merciless tide of casualness only underscore what has become stereotyped about it: its conformity, formality and general smartness. The head of design at Jermyn Street Design tailors told the BBC that "what's good about the suit is you get the uniformity of everyone looking smart."

If the best they can offer us in defence of the business suit in the present day is ‘uniformity’, perhaps many of us won’t have to face the demon of ‘formal office-wear’ when we graduate after all! It will be the demon of ‘smart-casual’…

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