Form, Function and Style
For over 400 years the tailored suit has dominated wardrobes the world over. Its simple forms, inspired by royal, military, religious and professional clothing, have provided a functional and often elegant uniform for modern life. But whether bespoke or tailor-made, on the street or in the office, during times of celebration or of crisis, we typically take the suit for granted, ignoring its complex construction and many symbolic meanings.
The Suit unpicks the story of this most familiar garment, from its emergence in western Europe at the end of the seventeenth century to today. Suit-wearing figures such as the Savile Row gentleman and the Wall Street businessman have long embodied ideas of tradition, masculinity, power and respectability, but the suit has also been used to disrupt concepts of gender and conformity. Adopted and subverted by women, artists, musicians and social revolutionaries through the decades – from dandies and Sapeurs to the Zoot Suit and Le Smoking – the suit is also a device for challenging the status quo.
For all those interested in the history of menswear, this beautifully illustrated book offers new perspectives on this most mundane, and poetic, product of modern culture.
Be as in love with your jeans, sweatpants, or flannels as you want, it’s hard to refute the sumptuous feel of a finely tailored suit—as well as the statement of power that comes with it. For over a century the suit has dominated wardrobes, its simple form making it the go-to attire for boardrooms, churches, or cocktail bars—anywhere one wants to make an impression. But this ubiquity has allowed us to take the suit’s history for granted, and its complex construction, symbolic power, and many shifting meanings have been lost to all but the most devout sartorialists.
In The Suit, Christopher Breward unstitches the story of our most familiar garment. He shows how its emergence at the end of the seventeenth century reflects important political rivalries and the rise of modern democratic society. He follows the development of technologies in the textile industry and shows how they converge on the suit as an ideal template of modern fashion, which he follows across the globe—to South and East Asia especially—where the suit became an icon of Western civilization. The quintessential emblem of conformity and the status quo, the suit ironically became, as Breward unveils, the perfect vehicle for artists, musicians, and social revolutionaries to symbolically undermine hegemonic culture, twisting and tearing the suit into political statements. Looking at the suit’s adoption by women, Breward goes on to discuss the ways it signals and engages gender. He closes by looking at the suit’s apparent decline—woe the tyranny of business casual!—and questioning its survival in the twenty-first century.
Beautifully illustrated and written with the authority a Zegna or Armani itself commands, The Suit offers new perspectives on this familiar—yet special—garment.
‘The Suit: Form, Function and Style’, by Christopher Breward
APRIL 21, 2016 by: Review by Shahidha Bari
In the 1984 film of the Talking Heads concert “Stop Making Sense”, singer David Byrne cheerfully bops along to the band in an oversized grey two-piece suit that ripples like water with every flex of his gawky frame. As dress historian Christopher Breward observes, the absurdly proportioned blazer lampoons both the ostentations of yuppies and the monstrous egotism of artists; there are allusions, too, to Japanese Noh theatre and the laconic installations of Joseph Beuys.
The Beuys is a nice touch, since Breward’s book The Suit has its own spare, modernist elegance. It presents a decisively uncluttered history of menswear, cutting a clean line through 18th-century French military uniforms to dandies, Pasolini films and 20th-century Italian tailoring, all the while insisting on the suit’s “all-pervasive influence in modern and contemporary cultures”.
Breward’s conception of what constitutes a suit — long-sleeved buttoned jacket, long trousers, sometimes a sleeveless waistcoat — allows for an expansive approach. He politely amends the conventional dress history that cites the origin of the suit in Charles II’s championing of the “cassock” (avidly recorded by an agog Samuel Pepys in 1666), noting prior debts to Arabian vests and military-wear. The suit variously symbolises post-Reformation sobriety, aristocratic models of governance and the moderation of mercantile classes, but it also owes a debt, he asserts, to the invention of the tape measure and tailoring techniques developed in the 1820s that allowed the idea of the civilised body to be mass-produced.
Along the way, Breward nods to all the usual smartly dressed suspects: Beau Brummell, Thomas Carlyle and Oscar Wilde make appearances, and diligent discussions of mods, Mao jackets and zoot suits follow. When the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall crops up, querying the decency of the suited and booted “free born Englishman”, the objection reads like a dyspeptic peeve next to Breward’s encomium to fine threads, and although the author concedes Hall’s point, he also demurs, mildly defensive, suggesting how readily the fabrics and fashions of empire have permeated English style.
There is, perhaps, a kind of gallantry too in Breward’s efforts to extend to a more global perspective: he attends to the Chinese Zhongshan zhuang, or Mao suit, with its high-buttoned collars and patch pockets; the closed-neck coat, or Nehru jacket, modelled on the Indian sherwani; and, most fascinatingly, the austere chic of Japanese iki style, whose clean lines have had an astonishing afterlife in the work of designers Kenzo Takada, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto.
Breward takes unmistakable pleasure in his subject. Specialist textiles are lovingly itemised: “smooth worsteds, soft Saxonies and rough Cheviots”, rich with heritage and mystery. What’s missing, perhaps, is a sense of something darker and unhappier that also lingers in the suit. The late historian Anne Hollander is quoted observing that there is a kind of “irritating perfection” here, a completeness at odds with the jagged edges of modern life. Breward acknowledges this but prefers to dwell on the suit’s ability to establish “a code of human and social relations”. He notes the shamefaced bankers shuffling out of Lehman Brothers in expensive sportswear after the bank’s collapse in 2008: “Nothing could have symbolised better a collapse in public trust,” he writes.
More alluring for Breward is the natural sympathy he spots between suits and architecture, the connections to the clean and rational aesthetics of Loos and Le Corbusier. And there is something profound and arresting in the unspoken suggestion that we might think of the suit too as a kind of habitable structure in which life takes place. Breward’s is a book with all the buttons neatly done up, persuasive in its assertion that the suit and the “human civilisation” it signifies will endure. And yet, oddly, it is in moments of disarray or deviation that the suit seems most provocative. How telling that in a handsomely illustrated book, the most striking image of all is of a woman, photographed by Helmut Newton, cropped hair slicked back and cigarette in hand: silent and unassailable in her Yves Saint Laurent tuxedo.
The Suit: Form, Function and Style, by Christopher Breward, Reaktion, RRP £18/$27, 240 pages
Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London
The evolution of men’s suits
Despite its classic appeal, the suit is constantly evolving. Christopher Breward measures up its sartorial impact and wonders how it will next reinvent itself
Sunday 27 March 2016 06.00 BST
Formal suits are one of those overlooked but enduring elements of modern life. For almost 400 years their presence in public life has been constant. Despite predictions of a demise in their popularity, their unobtrusive contours still clothe the bodies of men and women in all walks of life and all regions of the world. And beneath the monotony of appearances there is a poetry to their simple forms. The very fabrics and weaves of the suit’s construction read like an ode to the traditional landscape: Saxonies and Cheviots in plain or Panama, hopsack or Celtic, Mayo, Campbell or Russian twill, Bannockburn, Eton stripe or Glenurquhart check.
Aside from its status as an icon of unchanging heritage, the suit has also adapted itself subtly and cleverly to change. Indeed, there are many fashion journalists who now look to this staple of menswear for signs of creativity and innovation that have been lacking in womenswear for years. The financial crisis, environmental concerns and a generation of consumers attuned to questions of ethics and quality have created a space in which a vibrant, if niche version of contemporary sartorialism can thrive. In this context, the longstanding values of perfect form and fitness for function attached to the cult of the suit have endured, prospered and look set to continue.
An evolving form of technology in its own right, the suit offers a canvas for those in the clothing industry who have become neophiles, championing future possibilities. In the present and coming marketplace, suits made to measure through the precision of body scanning and produced by digital printers, engineered to resist staining and creasing or to preclude the need for wasteful and damaging dry cleaning are either familiar items on the shop rail or at prototype stage.
In the realms of science fiction and experimentation the suit has lent itself to investigations of everyday clothing as armour against violent attack and surveillance, as a communications device for the transmission of big data, and as a membrane for medical and psychological intervention, feeding drugs to the body or enhancing mood. Its adaptability has ensured its survival as an icon and vehicle of modernity.
In just the past century then, the suit has been used for the purposes of trade, politics and nationalism. It has been adapted by mainstream designers and subverted by subcultures. Its currency has held value for the established professions – the lawyers, bankers and undertakers – while inspiring artists, writers, musicians and film-makers.
And in the more mundane circumstances of everyday life, though I find myself reaching for the tweeds and denim of sad middle-aged habit too often, the charcoal suit does still emerge from my wardrobe on occasions that demand more careful observation. In that sense my wardrobe habits have not evolved too far from those that dictated appearances for my father and grandfather’s generations. In all of this I find some reason to hold out hope that the suit will endure for another 400 years, provided those values of reason, democracy, beauty and progress that characterise civilisation endure with it.
The Suit: Form, Function and Style by Christopher Breward is published on 18 April (£18, Reaktion Books )
The new sapeurs
Look alive: sapeurs in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo.
Look alive: sapeurs in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. Photograph: Per-Anders Pettersson/Corbis
Inspired by the revolutionary ideas of André Matsoua in the 1930s and fuelled by the cosmopolitanism of pan African music and dance that thrived in the 1950s and 60s, returning emigres from Paris fuelled a revival of political dandyism in the 1980s and 90s. Now the young men of Brazzaville and Kinshasa assert their aspirational styles as a form of ownership of the means to freedom. Suits were never made simply to conform. The Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes and its followers, the Sapeurs, have promoted a vibrant revival of the suit in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The Burton classic
Three men training as tailors looking at the inside of a suit jacket
Tinker tailor: a team of tailor trainees at the Burton firm in Guisborough, Cleveland, in 1960. Photograph: Walter Nurnberg/Getty Images
Montague Burton founded his suit business in Chesterfield in 1903 and it grew to become one of Britain’s largest chains of clothes shops. Our understanding of the suit as a badge of healthy, respectable British manliness owes much to Burton’s ethos. Between the 1920s and 1970s most British men would have passed through Burton’s doors to purchase their first suit, imbibing as they did its military precision, moral rectitude and quiet taste that informed a reassuring sense of what was normal. Loud colours, extreme cut and any tendency towards unsporty softness were viewed with extreme suspicion.
The 1940s Edwardian
Man holding gloves and an umbrella, wearing a bowler hat and a tight-waisted suit
Fancy dress: the New Edwardian style. Photograph: Woolmark Archive
There is something so satisfyingly elegant about the New Edwardian suit, that aristocratic fad that hit the streets of Mayfair and Chelsea in the late 1940s and early 1950s. A revivalist fad among ex-guardsmen, aristocratic loafers and interior designers, its wasp-waisted outline set itself against the baggy hang of the demob suits that served for the majority of the male UK population. The style’s accessories – bowler hat, polished shoes and umbrella – provided regimental glamour, while velvet collars, embroidered waistcoats, ticket pockets and covered buttons recalled the bonhomie of racetrack and music hall: suit as fancy dress.
The Armani gigolo
Richard Gere in American Gigolo wearing a suit, shirt and tie, hands at his waist
‘Armani suits signalled a sense of femininity’: Richard Gere wearing Armani in the 1980 film American Gigolo. Photograph: CinemaPhoto/Corbis
Giorgio Armani deconstructed the suit in the 1980s, sloping the shoulders, lowering the buttons and adopting lighter fabrics. His suits signalled a sense of femininity, an abandonment to the caressing feel of fabric on the hard surfaces of the male body. This was a frisson celebrated in his designs for the lead character Julian, played by Richard Gere, in American Gigolo. Julian’s narcissism became the signature theme for a decade’s flirtation with style.
The Japanese minimalist
Man with an Afro, hand casually in pocket, in open-necked shirt, long-sleeved jacket and loose silky trousers
Sleek chic: a model wears Yohji Yamamoto AW15 for Men’s Paris Fashion Week. Photograph: Sipa/Rex/Shutterstock
‘Iki’ is the ancient Japanese understanding of understated elegance, a concept that has proved useful in the translation of the rules of the European and North American suit to other contexts. In the 1970s Japanese designers brought a hybrid interpretation of East and West to the Paris catwalks. Kenzo Takada, Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto developed an austere, decentred suit. Beloved of architects, avant-garde film directors and advertising moguls, it proclaimed all the sophistication that Savile Row sometimes lacks.