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Book Review: The Suit: Form, Function and Style

Book Review: The Suit: Form, Function and Style

Christopher Breward, The Suit: Form, Function and Style, Reaktion Books, £18.00, 240 pp., April 2016

The garment written about by Christopher Breward in his new book The Suit: Form, Function & Style is not just any suit. Or rather, it is every suit, both its corporeal form and symbolic resonance. Breward examines the suit in all of its aesthetic, material, philosophical and political qualities. He looks at it as both a thing of beauty and refinement, and as an object of scientific achievement; as a symbol of tradition and conformity, and as an adaptable vessel of changing ideas of masculinity and modernity. Breward covers an impressive amount of time and range of thought, compiling all of the main writers, makers, and thinkers of men’s traditional fashion into one concise and beautifully packaged book.

The Suit is a recent publication from the London-based independent press Reaktion. While known for their focus on books about art, architecture, design, and food, they have less than a dozen titles on fashion, and of those only a few were written by experts on clothing or textiles; the rest are by specialists in other fields such as literature, dance, or philosophy. This doesn’t help to immediately identify where to place Breward’s book among other publications on men’s fashion. It doesn’t function as a chronological history of menswear, such as the beloved-but-out-of-print Farid Chenoune’s A History of Men’s Fashion (1996), or Daniel Delis Hill’s American Menswear (2011). Despite its beautiful color photographs, it is much more thorough than some of the recent “coffee-table” publications on Savile Row or British tailoring, such as Bespoke, by James Sherwood and Tom Ford (2010), or Best of British, by Simon Crompton with photographs by Horst Friedrichs (2015). Neither is it really in dialogue with more academic publications on the suit, such as Michael Zakim’s Ready-Made Democracy (2003), or David Kuchta’s The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity (2002). Fashion historians may be tempted to shelve it near other cultural history books, in conversation with John Harvey’s Men in Black (1997), or Ann Hollander’s Sex and Suits (1994, 2016), though there have been few others published in the twenty years in between. If anything, The Suit fits into the recent trend for “microhistories,” books that focus on a single subject, most notably Cod and Salt by Mark Kurlansky. This might suggest that there is renewed interest in the general public looking at male dress—not just aesthetically, but as a symbol of greater cultural importance. Breward does a nice job of bridging what could be seen as a gap between differing approaches to the analysis and appreciation of tailoring and the history of men’s clothing.

The book’s lavish color photographs go far to demonstrate elements of the suit that cannot be described with mere words. Paintings and photographs show well-suited men from the sixteenth- through the twenty-first century, showing off the particular sense of style that their time period found appropriate, and are offset by tailoring fashion plates and caricatures that show how fashions were both advertised and satirized in their time. Tailors throughout history are depicted at their craft, with emphasis on construction details and techniques. Historical costumes are shown properly accessorized on museums mannequins, and modern suits are presented through advertisements, movie stills, and designer runway photos.

The book begins, rightly, with “The Tailor’s Art” (called an introduction, though really a chapter of its own), tracing the relationship of men and their tailors from Renaissance Florence through Regency London to contemporary couture designers. While by no means a guide to suit construction, Breward nicely demonstrates the material reality of tailoring, from the choosing of cloth to the patterning, padding, lining, and darting that bespoke tailors rely on for their precision in fit. He ties the physical to the philosophical, showing how conversations around evolving standardizations of measurements and scientific cutting techniques were not just about how to make a suit, but a (to the Victorian tailor) noble striving for an ideal anatomical figure of the modern man, conceived through precise construction of scale and proportion.

In Chapter One, “Well Suited,” Breward focuses on the evolution of the suit as a way of standardizing male dress, and examines both the elevating and constraining ramifications of this civilian uniform. He uses Charles II’s introduction to England of the Ottoman-inspired vest in 1666 as his starting point for the origin of the suit, and examines the influence of military dress on the male wardrobe through the eighteenth century. Military precision is perhaps what led the suit to be associated with a stifling conformity, as a disciplinary way of enforcing status through appearances: keeping men in their place by sartorially demarcating military (or social) rank. The restricted color palette and boxy silhouette that came to be associated with the Industrial Revolution, Breward claims, “increased its longevity and made it so appropriate as a symbol for the dominant concerns of nineteenth century moral, philosophical, and economic life.” As this evolved into the twentieth century business suit, it continued to communicate a sense of respectability and responsibility. American industry contributed to the democratic use of suits in the office, from a sort of business costume conveying discreet uniformity to the rise of status-conscious power suits of the 1980s financial brokers.

Before a narrow palette of color and silhouette came to a complete dominance of suits worn in public life, there were still places lingering in the male wardrobe that allowed for the kinds of sumptuous fabrics and loose fit that would be unacceptable in a daytime suit worn in public. The Ottoman-inspired “banyan” robe, or dressing gown, was a popular item in which to have one’s self-portrait painted during the 18th century, demonstrating an at-home casualness. Breward considers the banyan as a foil to the rise of the stricter formality of the suit. As these fabrics from India and China were repurposed for English consumption as a sign of worldly aestheticism, so was the Western Suit infiltrating other nations, either by choice or cultural dominance. Chapter Two, “Suiting Nations,” takes the previously established dominance of the suit in Western Europe and looks at the ways other nations reacted to it. Breward, while side-stepping a bit around the lasting damage of colonialism, examines the danger inherent in traditionalist definitions of masculinity and national style, and the ways these have become fixed concepts of identity—essentially, as a visual determination of the haves and the have nots. Breward looks at clothing as symbols of resistance to Western imperialism through examination of the Nehru jacket of India and the Mao suit in revolutionary China. He contrasts this with the Japanese embrace of western suiting as a demonstration of “military, economic, and moral superiority.” The Sapeurs of the Republic of Congo are introduced as examples of a cultural reappropriation of the tailored suit, as they wear suits in the traditional silhouettes of western tailoring, but in combinations of bright colors and patterns that are far from the somber colors associated with Savile Row.

Chapter Three (mysteriously titled “Sharp Suits”) looks at those who have used the strictness of the suit in order to subvert the things that it traditionally stood for. Breward looks at the intentional disruption of the suit as a badge of conformity by those outside the patriarchal elite, namely by gay men and women. Excessiveness in fashion has been linked to effeminacy since long before the rise of the suit, but here Breward looks at the “too-fashionable” Fops and Macaronis of the eighteenth century, nineteenth century Dandies, and twentieth century New Edwardians and Teddy Boys—all of whom used clothing as a “weapon of style,” if not conscious social dissidence. Beau Brummell and Oscar Wilde are both given as examples of gentlemen who questioned prevailing attitudes of fashion, Brummell helping to move fashion towards a more restrained style, and Wilde standing for aesthetic rebellion against conventional dress. Outside of Britain, Breward examines the American Zoot Suit as a sartorial sign of defiance against racial and cultural norms. Italian designers Georgio Armani and Gianni Versace are credited for bringing a softer, more body-conscious aesthetic to the world of male fashion. Women’s tailoring is given a brief overview, from lesbians and performers co-opting male dress as symbols of subversion to Yves Saint Laurent using male formalwear as inspiration for his enduring line “Le Smoking.”

Chapter Four (“Seeing the Suit”) looks at the relationship between the suit and the aesthetic arbiters of the ages, from Impressionist painters, Modernist architects and film-makers to contemporary designers. Through this lens, Breward looks at the symbolism of the suit as a necessary element of social structure and the psychology of clothing. The way the suit provided a metaphor for stability and civilization of a modern world was co-opted by those who wanted a utopian system of social equality. In this way the uniformity of the suit continues to be seen as a symbol of modernity. Heroes of the screen show off their bespoke tailoring, from Cary Grant to a revolving cast of James Bonds. Menswear designers like Vivienne Westwood and Alexander McQueen are discussed as artisans who are both adept at emphasizing the beauty and appeal of traditional tailoring, but who are also interested in subverting and deconstructing it. As Breward says, the twentieth century version of the suit acknowledges the “gradual atrophying of its former power as a medium of social change and control.”

The book ends with a short, philosophic treatise on the state of menswear today, particularly how it intersects with traditional (if evolving) concepts of masculinity. While the deliberation here is both an insistence that we are watching a renaissance in menswear and also a determination that the suit will endure for another 400 years, the attention is on producers of bespoke suits and global luxury brands, which doesn’t perhaps pertain to a majority of readers.

If there is a fault in this well-conceived book, it is perhaps that it tries to do too much, attempting to cover too much material without enough analysis. The book examines nearly six hundred years of men’s clothing, impressively attending to both the rise of the suit and reactions against it. It’s not a book to be read chronologically, though if one were new to the history of men’s suits this certainly fills in most of the gaps if you’re paying attention. Because he is so expansive in scope, we miss Breward’s commentary on uniformity in dressing slightly outside the box of businesswear, as he only briefly mentions formalwear or sportswear, and how those elements of the male wardrobe evolved from or are influenced by the suit. While Chapter Two is purportedly about cultural diversity, Breward steps perhaps too lightly around issues of cultural dominance and colonialism. While he mentions race briefly in conversations of the Zoot Suit and Congolese Sapeurs, it would have been interesting to hear if Breward considers the suit not just a symbol of Britishness, but also of whiteness. He is noticeably neutral on issues of class, promoting all of the most exciting menswear designers of today, but not really mentioning how exclusive this world is because of their cost. While many admirers of the suit would no doubt desire to wear suits by Ozwald Boateng, Rei Kawakubo, or Thom Brown, who can afford to dress exclusively in this couture market? While there is a great focus on the relationship of suits and sexuality—a subject Breward has written about before, he doesn’t quite separate that from issues of gender, where it would have been interesting to hear what he thought of men who were not outside the cultural heterosexual elite but still wanted to dress with the panache often associated with flamboyance and therefore homosexuality. Women in suits are shown only in the context of lesbians dressing as men or high fashion nods to menswear as sexually provocative, with little consideration given to modern women (politicians, for instance) who have adopted the uniformity of the suit as a marker of power and stability.

There is no doubt that Breward believes in the beauty inherent in the craft of tailoring and in the longevity of this mode of dressing. We have waited so long for a book of this nature, we can only hope that more will follow in the same genre of cultural history that can expand on both the functional and symbolic ideas discussed by Breward.

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