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Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress

Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress

Anne Hollander, Sex & Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress, Bloomsbury, $21.99, 176 pp., August 2016

Examining the relationship between genders as represented through clothing from Medieval times to the 1990s, Sex and Suits by Anne Hollander has become a classic within the field of fashion studies. Though written two decades ago in 1994, the book is still extremely relevant today—so much so that Bloomsbury recently reprinted the volume with a fresh, new cover art. Even in her final chapter, “Nowadays,” Hollander’s comments and predictions still hold true. In fact, as gender fluidity has been more openly discussed in the current social climate the text is possibly more relevant than ever.

I do not personally have any formal training in fashion studies so all the knowledge I have about fashion history and culture is from reading as many books as I can. Unfortunately this can prove to be its own challenge as searching for fashion books commonly results in either history textbooks or fluffy books on how to find your personal style. Indeed, as fashion historian Christopher Breward has famously written, there is a divide between theory and practice within fashion studies literature. Continuing, he muses about how “it is then significant that the creative and intellectual needs of the fashion student have mostly been met by an expanding category of publications [such as coffee table books and designer biographies] whose appeal is visual and descriptive rather than discursive…[but which are] sometimes truer to the commercial spirit of the culture...than any number of more abstract ‘academic treatises.’” [1] To that end, I was personally very excited to come across Sex and Suits because I thought it would give me a good idea of gender and sexuality in fashion over the last few centuries without taking the sometimes tedious approach of traditional hemline histories. That doesn’t mean this was a beach read, however. Hollander is truly a gifted essayist but the volume definitely took a good deal of concerted effort to sit down and read. Bridging material culture, cultural history and costume history, however, Sex and Suits stands as a great entry point into the world of fashion studies.

Just like many fashion scholars, Hollander found her way to fashion studies through the “back door.” A celebrated art historian whose formal education ended with her bachelor’s degree in 1952, Hollander spent the rest of her career interested in what clothing and its pictorial representation revealed about art and perception of the body through time. Her books, beginning with Seeing Through Clothes in 1978, are unique because she was able to explore these topics outside of traditional academia. [2] In Sex and Suits Hollander outlines the relationships between men and women through clothing from Medieval times through to the twentieth century. She primarily illustrates her points through references to fashion plates, paintings, and more recent photographs. She eloquently argues that clothing has been used as a symbol of sexual expression and equality (or lack thereof). Prior to the 1600’s womenswear and menswear were fairly similar because they were both made by the same male tailors. Women worked in clothing production as well but were primarily involved in intricate needlework and surface details, not modifications of form. Hollander traced the divergence of womenswear and menswear to King Louis XIV granting royal permission to a group of French seamstresses to form a guild of female tailors in 1675. Tailors then started making clothing exclusively for their respective sexes. Women’s fashion, she argues, thus became more and more “frivolous” due to female seamstresses’ specialty in embellishment and men’s fashion continued to develop at its respectable pace. [3] Hollander goes on to parallel significant changes to men’s fashion to significant artistic movements like Neoclassicism, Cubism, and Industrial Design. These concepts sharpened the form of the suit over time and associated their artistic integrity and respect to men’s fashion. The same concepts took centuries to apply to women’s clothing, but a big change finally occurred, she writes, when women started to wear pants. Articulating women's legs (men’s legs had been since the first suit of armor was forged) was a necessary step in the realm of sexual politics. Pants, Hollander writes, demonstrate women's full humanity, and that they have bodies more similar to men's than not.

A crowd of adults at a museum or a park now looks just like a school trip.
— Anne Hollander

When discussing the late twentieth century, Hollander traces the elevation from workwear to leisure wear to formal wear throughout time. Single fabric, ready-to-wear suits that were for lower classes in the late nineteenth century are now considered more than respectable; jeans and boiler jumpsuits are now considered fresh and fashionable. She even briefly mentioned that bomber jacket will surely come back in style again with an increased level of respect which is certainly true in 2016. In recent decades as gender norms become more blurred, gender distinction in clothing is diminished. Hollander argues that women in conventional male costume like a full tuxedo still gives off an old flavor of provocation, not parity of the sexes. The real solution “has instead been found in dressing everyone like the same colorful zipper jackets, sweaters, pants, and shirts worn by kids.” She even claims that “a crowd of adults at a museum or a park now looks just like a school trip.” Such clothing connotes freedom from the “burden of adult sexuality.” [4]

Finally, in an interesting reversal of her thesis, at the end of the book Hollander makes the provocative suggestion that men have been learning clothing habits from women in the last couple of decades—a marked contrast to centuries of women’s fashion copying from menswear. She stated early on that lowered necklines and bare legs were some of the few contributions to fashion that women have solely had. She mentions that saggy jeans that have been periodically popular with men can be interpreted as their appropriation of this bare skin idea. Men have also been taking on brighter colors and riskier shapes like the colorful socks you may even see in the boardroom or the interesting shapes of Thom Browne’s or Walter van Beirendonck’s designs.

Throughout Sex and Suits, I found Hollander’s writing both complex and precise, which is why it took some concerted effort to complete. Further, while the information in the text is very interesting and I trust Hollander’s credentials, I had a difficult time taking some of her statements at face value without some reference to historical fact. Giving the reader some reference points from which she may base her generalizations would make it easier to comprehend the trends and mindsets she discusses without some minor skepticism. For example, a few times in the book she references philosophical ideas of a period and while some of them seemed more than plausible, some reference to actual texts that illustrate these ideas would be helpful. I, personally, had never heard of the Medieval idea of a “single human sex, with Woman at a less fully realized stage than Man” that predated our “two-sex model” of sexual identity. [5] While I know this wasn’t a philosophy textbook, she was nevertheless too brief discussing major paradigm changes in gender relations. Her bibliography seems extensive but without any references in the text itself to her sources it is difficult to tell into which sources to dig deeper. This, in the end, is the text’s greatest shortcoming as the bibliographies of these canonical texts are typically an important way for the young fashion studies scholar to orient herself in a highly interdisciplinary and multi-methodological field that can, at times, be intimidating and difficult to navigate.

In the end, however, I found the book to be an immensely informative and interesting read. I would recommend it to beginners in the realm of fashion studies as it has definitely ignited my interest in the field. However, I caution the interested to remember that this is an unambiguously academic text, not a novel, and a powerful and convincing one at that; it even changed my perspective on the relationship between menswear and womenswear. Here, I had always felt women’s clothing was more “fashionable” and while we women do get to experiment more widely with our clothing options, Hollander argued that women’s fashion has always just been playing catch up to men’s. It goes way beyond just trousers.



[1] Christopher Breward, Fashion (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 11-12.

[2] William Yardley, “Anne Hollander, Scholar Who Linked Art and Style, Dies at 83,” New York Times, July 8, 2014 (accessed November 17, 2016),

[3] Anne Hollander, Sex and Suits (New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), 46.

[4] Ibid., 128.

[5] Ibid., 53.

The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris

The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris