At Ease

For two centuries, we've been told that the suit makes the man. It's time to revisit our assumptions

by Natasha Mekhail / photographs by Tina Chang

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In the 19th century, anthropology was en vogue among rich Europeans. Easy commercial travel put them in contact with isolated cultures living in the world’s uncharted domains. Emboldened travellers jotted down notes on the “absurd” and “indecent” customs of men wearing bones through their noses and women naked from the waist up. And even though these self-appointed sages lacked the historical context and language skills to make sense of it all, their observations became definitive guides.

In his 1905 book, Heretics, G.K. Chesterton defended the world’s poorly represented. “When a man has discovered why men in Bond Street wear black hats,” he wrote, “he will at the same time have discovered why men in Timbuctoo wear red feathers.” Chesterton wanted to shake up the European notion of cultural superiority. His comparisons weren’t well received, but they got his society thinking about its own rituals.

I was reminded of Chesterton’s words a few years ago while working at a magazine publishing house in Montreal. It was a large, open-concept office in the “industrial chic” style of exposed pipes and cement flooring. Artistic tantrums were commonplace. People smoked in the stairwell. The filing cabinet became a cocktail bar on Friday afternoons. Pill popping was tolerated as long as it suppressed the tantrums. It wasn’t exactly a suit-and-tie kind of place. So imagine the collective surprise when an e-mail titled “employee dress code” popped into our inboxes. “’Jeans are not acceptable work attire,’” someone read aloud. “What the hell?”

We were caught off guard, but we knew the message had a target. She was a superstar who, at 24, was a force in Canada’s publishing world. Her role was to head up a large department store chain’s fashion magazine. Problem was, management felt her choice of attire – specifically, ripped designer jeans – wasn’t appropriate for meetings with the corporate client.

“I’m not changing,” she announced bluntly to the boss the next time he passed her desk. “And besides, these jeans cost more than your suit.”

Ouch, the rest of us winced inwardly, suppressing smiles.     

Wearing a suit seemed as ridiculous to my colleague as showing up to work in a Halloween mask. One look at her resumé would banish any doubts raised by her youth. So why wear a costume to play the part of herself?

People who scoff at suits say they change us. They’re unnatural. It’s rare to see someone go an entire day without removing their jacket or loosening their tie. Plus, they make the wearer look professionally competent regardless of whether that person is competent. It’s more important, in other words, to look the part.

We often hear "suits" used as a derogatory term: I had a great idea but the suits at head office killed it. “Suits” means a homogenous throng, the opposite of intelligent progress. In a way, the suit is like military garb. Groupthink – whether on the battlefield or in the boardroom – results from a loss of individuality. Military clothing of the past was designed to keep people in line and to scare the enemy. The Prussian army, for instance, wore tall mitre hats to make soldiers seem bigger. The Spartans wore long scarlet capes to warn that enemy blood would flow. Business suits, with their straight, uninterrupted line and boxy cut, are designed to broaden and elongate the figure. You’ve got to admit a pinstriped office is more intimidating than a denim one.

Because it ain’t broke, the suit has changed little over the last 200 years. Europe mastered the bespoke suit for its upper classes and America later championed ready-to-wear, doing for formal clothing what the Model T did for automobiles. Lapels widened and shrunk, legs ballooned and retreated, but as both an idea and an outfit, the suit has never needed an overhaul. It’s the timeless, flawless façade.

Popularized by British dandy Beau Brummell in the early 1800s, the granddaddy of the modern suit was sharply tailored: a bold, striped trouser contrasting a solid jacket and waist-coat (vest). Matching waistcoats and trousers were considered informal and reserved for sojourns to the country; the “lounge” suit, similar to what we wear now, wasn’t worn in town until the early 20th century.                                                                          

Suits were snug until the 1940s, then loosened. Vests disappeared for a period during the war when cloth rationing was imposed. The 1970s saw a return to the tight-fitting suit and waistcoat – John Travolta’s look in Saturday Night Fever. That decade’s penchant for polyester broke the rule that suits should either be wool or cotton. When disco was rejected outright in the 1980s, suits loosened again and the more conservative double-breasted version rose to popularity. Now both the classic loose-fit and tighter styles reminiscent of mob culture are prevalent.

For women, suits started as durable tailored coats and matching skirts for riding. In the 1920s, spurred by her own active lifestyle, French designer Coco Chanel invented the modern women’s suit. Until then, the relentless undulations of fashion victimized the fairer sex: corsets emphasized the waist, boning crushed the breasts, bustles built up the derriere. Chanel and the designers who followed brought a timelessness to feminine fashion that men had enjoyed all along.

As Anne Hollander argues in her book, Sex and Suits, the style cycle sought to complicate both women’s bodies and their lives. Men’s suits simplified theirs, leaving the mind free to follow more noble pursuits. Hollander called the early suit “an exquisitely balanced garment that fitted smoothly without wrinkles and buttoned without strain to clothe what appeared to be the torso of a Greek athlete.”

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