by Nicole Schloss
“It is a useful garment spiritually. If you wear a suit you show the world you belong. Why? Because you are wearing a form of dress for men which…has come down to us from 1670, gradually altered to show the change from aristocratic to democratic rule, to show, by allowing it to be affected by sport, that man is free to exercise his body” (Amies 44). The male suit today is the most ubiquitous and standardized style of dress for men. Government leaders, job seekers, middle class businessmen and storeowners alike have all conformed to this seemingly drab uniform, but this has not always been the case. The suit is a product of both modernity and the Western world’s shift away from monarchical rule, a trend that can be observed through art, without which, we would have very little knowledge of these rapidly changing styles. The French suit, in particular, is implicitly aligned with modernity and republican values due to the French Revolution and the bourgeois rejection of decadent forms in the move towards democratization. Popular to contrary belief, the suit did not originate in Paris or even Italy, as so much of high fashion has; rather, it came to Paris by way of England and Puritanical thought, favoring simplicity over decadence. As clothing is the most basic indication of one’s social status and power (Simmel), the suit took on its own forms in the nineteenth century, evolving into what it is today.
The male suit’s origins were brought to France by way of English hunting costumes. Malleable wool pants and coats allowed men to be comfortable instead of constrained by breeches and stockings. The sans-culottes of the French Revolution appropriated this style of dress to negate the ways of the French monarchy, thus aligning democracy with the suit. The Great Masculine Renunciation (a term coined by John C. Flugel) in the mid-1800s was a period of panic in which all men rejected tight and bright clothing in favor of a more austere and dark style. The suit manifested itself in this stage, coming to epitomize male power and masculinity influenced by the Greek male nude (Hollander). Painters such as Manet and Renoir painted the emergence of the suit onto Paris’s landscape, showing the costume as civil, democratic, and one that emphasized only the positive characteristics of all men. Men used the suit as an escape, an attempt to try and fit in with the bourgeois class, especially at places such as the Moulin de la Galette.
Today we can see the versatility of the suit in editorials by David Roemer and Miles Aldridge. Both photographers elaborate on the world of power that a suit provides. Men can fly overseas to a business meeting clad in the best-tailored suits surrounded by all the luxuries they can afford. They dominate the workspace, inspiring fear in all who pass by. The suit has become more than an item of clothing for men; it is their most accessible and recognizable form of power negotiation, dating back to hundreds of years of continuity.