A man looks best in a suit. At least, that's what many of us are told. In the West, there has long been a culture that fosters the ideal of formal masculinity as the image of a suit and tie. In the corporate world, politics, weddings, graduations, the suit is generally what men are expected to wear to portray ideals of respect, authority, and taste. Well, I think there is a deeper issue within this standard of dress that can be drawn back to hegemonic, heteronormative masculinity.
The Art of Tailoring
Traditionally, the suit maker, better known as the tailor, works with proportions, aiming to manipulate and improve the human figure. In other words, it is about confectioning a garment to someone’s body in ways that complement and adhere to them in the best way possible. Rooted in these principles of customization, bespoke tailors have always faced a lengthy process of measurement taking, fabric cutting, and piece sewing to achieve a unique product on every occasion. Thus, tailoring was, and is an absolute luxury considering the time and effort invested into each garment. Still today, a typical bespoke suit can accumulate around 40 hours of work altogether. This said, this article is not a criticism of this tedious and rather admirable process itself. Cutting a suit, or any garment for that matter, is still rightfully a technique greatly regarded in many influential clothing designers of our time. Instead, I am raising the point that we've established a romanticized image of the suit because of its history, and that perhaps there needs be a reconsideration about why it remains the epitome of Western masculine fashion.
The History of the 'Gentleman' Commissioning a tailored garment is a privilege only accessible to elites capable of affording a tailor’s services. Thus, as much as the suit’s origins are based in admirably detailed craftsmanship, they are equally rooted in a classist social divide. It's no secret that fashion often, intentionally or not, articulates social status. Historically, ‘gentlemen’ of the 18th century wore silk suits to express a male appearance that was understood by European elites as fashionable. These suits often reflected a man’s status and functioning in society, recognized as products of luxurious fabrics and skilled artisans, thus becoming a symbol of exclusivity, privilege, and success to non-wearing and suit wearing men.
As the relationship between suits and class are made evident by the combination of elegant fabrics and lengthy craftsmanship, there is an equal connection to be made between suits, class, and a gendered establishment of masculinity. Suits are not a mere symbol of professional and financial success, they are also a standard expression of hegemonic masculinity against which other representations are measured. Historically, a gentleman was associated to values of virility, restraint, and politeness—to name a few. A man could demonstrate said qualities through dress, using clothing as the most visible marker of polite, refined taste, diminishing a certain coarseness and ruggedness. Gentleman traits like virility, restraint, and particular gestures of politeness are part of a narrow view of masculinity, one that men are still subject to today. These dominant ideals are reinforced by none other than suit-wearing elites, but also by aspirational suit-less men aiming to achieve the ideals associated to a tailor’s product.
The Industrialization’s Contributions Having defended tailoring as a craft, whilst still criticizing classist and limiting masculine ideals that have constructed the significance of a suit, let us look to the 20th century. This time, notably at the latter stage of the industrial revolution, marks the emersion of a ready-to-wear suit for the Western, industrialized man. To be clear, ‘ready-to-wear’, contrary to the bespoke suit, is clothing made without following any particular measurements, instead resulting in a more generic fit that can be worn by many different individuals with similar bodily proportions.
This said, the early 20th century saw an an increased market demand for suits during the interwar period (1919-1939) in the United Kingdom, mainly caused by retail innovations and more financially feasible products. In terms of the innovations in retailing, there was a surge of consumerism created by an increase in the number of physical locations where men could purchase clothing. This development amplified the accessibility of suits, which in turn only further popularized them for the everyday man. So, menswear was marketed to its most prominent ready-to-wear consumer: the working class. An emphasis on value, rather than quality, was a strategy to entice lower classes to look their ‘best’ too. Newfound accessibility, alongside an intentionally targeted marketing strategy meant that anyone from coal miners to bankers were dressing alike in gentleman attire, regardless of its quality. In transitioning from the once luxurious, privileged garment to a revolutionarily attainable staple for men’s wardrobes of all social statuses, ready-to-wear suits were generally of lower quality in a number of ways. For one, in order for suits to reach a low level of affordability, certain luxurious materials could not be reproduced for the masses. Of course, this is why most ready-to-wear suits still today consist of some variation of a basic textile blend.
Furthermore, the actual process behind measuring, cutting and sewing together a suit were drastically changed, as the rise of the industrialized suit went hand-in-hand with the rise of a mechanized production process. All of the processes in suit factories were mechanized to increase efficiency. Although this process was progressive in democratizing the garment, it does take away from the customizable and unique foundations of the tailoring practice. Despite this, the suit remained a way of reflecting perceived values of success and refined taste. I'd go so far as to say that the ready-to-wear suit became about replicating the technical qualities and social significance of the bespoke suit, without necessarily holding the fundamental qualities. Not to mention, the mass-produced, industrialized suit was made possible largely thanks to its uniformity. There is a point to be made that the mass-production and acceptance of the suit in menswear was made possible by how they had largely gone unchanged for a century. As in blues, blacks, greys, and browns, with the occasional shift in fit, or a pop of colour from the pocket square to create some distinction. I'm exaggerating a bit, but seriously, the suit has barely changed since the 1900s. Thus, the 21st century ready-to-wear suit is not only long-time founded in classist and unprogressive masculine ideals, it is now also arguably a product of conformity and impersonality.
All this said, my point here is not to discredit those who wear ready-to-wear suits (myself included), but simply to put into question what the actual value of a ready-to-wear suit is? Is it simply to replicate the aura of its tailored originator? Is it to put up the image of gentleman-like qualities? And, how much of this meaning is truly within the garment itself, versus the ideal which has been ingrained in our culture? Ultimately, I'd love for formal menswear to change, and incorporate other styles and garments to allow for alternative masculine expression. In other words, I'm kind of tired of seeing so many suits.