The oppositional significations of the suit…

This month the Deputy Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly determined that members should be permitted to sit within the assembly without their suit jackets.

An Ulster Unionist assembly member commented: “Just think where this could go – Barry perhaps in his GAA top in the chamber and I’d have to put on my Northern Ireland football top to compete with him.”

Here the belief is expressed, however humourously that the suit serves, on one level, to mask more difficult significations of national identity, or that by wearing a suit sartorial (and perhaps political) chaos is held at bay a little longer.

But in itself the suit is inextricably linked with hierarchical business structures within liberal capitalist societies. This is the obvious consequence of it being used as the most overt symbol of business and business people.

Yet, it is interesting how the suit has, like any other symbol, been appropriated by those entirely antithetical to its most over significations.

From the start there were significations of ‘otherness’. It appeared in the 1660s following the Restoration in England, an emulation in part of mens clothing at Versailles under Louis XIV.

Beau Brummell, the dandy, took this one step further in the 1800s, using tailored suits with neckwear which foreshadowed the tie. What is interesting about dandyism is that it was a conscious effort to emulate the styles of the aristocracy by the middle classes. This uneasy tension between the ‘haves’ and the ‘wanting to have more’ is reflected in later periods of suit wearing. And it’s telling that Brummells style was adopted in France by those who sought to project a more bohemian imagery, or as noted on wiki:

There, dandies sometimes were celebrated in revolutionary terms: self-created men of consciously designed personality, radically breaking with past traditions.

Christopher Breward in Fashion (Oxford, 2003) has noted that:

Brummell’s genius lay in appropriating these items [of clothing] and reconfiguring them as a revolutionary costume which, in its misleading simplicity and openness to misinterpretation, establihsed a hierarchy based on the subjective rule of taste and beauty rather than a deference to a status based on such objective criteria as economic power or family lineage.

He further notes that:

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During the first decade of the nineteenth century, subcultural groups in Paris such as the Incroyables chose to mark their radical political and social views through extreme dress. This is reflected here in the high collars, louche unbuttoning of coat and waistcoat, and eclectic props derived from riding dress and English fashions which are in direct opposition to the antiseptic control of the dandy style.

The list of those who followed in an almost decorative use of the suit is obvious when placed in this light. Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm, Noel Coward and even more recent luminaries such as Quentin Crisp and Andy Warhol.

But their position within society as part of an artistic, sexual or cultural avant-garde demonstrates the mutability of the suit, as with any other aspect of apparel or the broader material culture, to contain within it numerous, even contradictory significations.

Youth culture took the suit, or perhaps the concept of the ‘dandy’, and reworked it to their own ends. Now this seemingly paradoxical appropriation is entirely logical on closer examination. The rise of youth culture was during the 1950s and 1960s, a period of time where there was a greater spread of disposable income amongst sections of the population who had historically had little autonomy or indeed ability to purchase anything other than utilitarian clothing.

Indeed the suit was, as Breward notes: “…offered to such a market by canny neighbourhood tailors of the late 1940s [and] boasted a capacious cut which stood in vivid contrast to the grey monotony of ‘demob’ clothing”.

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The choice of suits by mods is particularly interesting since it cut across other youth styles of the same period, such as those adopted by rockers whose jeans and leather styles were expressly borrowed from the periphery of the culture and also embodied significations of the urban and rural working classes. And again, perhaps it is not entirely coincidental that early mods were drawn more from the middle than working class and strongly influenced by suit styles appearing in Italy.

Moreover the process of emulation which we see with Beau Brummel and others is evident here as well. Freud once noted the power of “The narcissism of small differences” whereby minor differentiation in attitude can actually generate greater conflict that that between those with a wider differentiation of outlook. The outward similarity of form of the suit whether worn by mod or business person contained within significant potential for difference.

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Interestingly another trend within mod tended towards a more overtly working class approach, one which crossed over into skinhead. But the three button suit remained and in part this was picked up on by ska revivalists in the late 1970s and early 1980s (individuals artists like John Cooper Clarke – above – and others in New Wave wore bespoke suits, again as a form of oppositional statement).

None of this is to in any sense deny that the traditional male suit retained a cachet as a symbol of a certain brand of conservatism.

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This, perhaps unsurprisingly, operates in sometimes counterintuitive ways. Consider the way in which revolutionary fervour was displayed through the signification of the jacket and shirt without the tie. Examples of this range from the Iranian Revolution of 1979 where the revolutionaries, an eclectic mix of religious and secular elements, expressed their aversion to the Western oriented regime of the Shah (whose civil service and all officials wore the tie) by discarding the tie. This is evident even today, as with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But intriguingly a similar process was also seen in Israel, perhaps also for revolutionary or socialist reasons.

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A similar, if less hard-edged political signification was evident in the political identity projected by Independent community and socialist TD Tony Gregory in the Dáil where he managed to have standing orders changed in the early 1980s in order that he could enter the Parliament chamber in suit jacket and open necked shirt without the tie.

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Interestingly in subsequent years others of the left have retained the suit and tie. The most obvious recent example being Joe Higgins (former Socialist Party TD) who tended to dress in a beige or cream suit, with a tie thereby differentiating himself from the more usual pinstripe dark shades preferred by most TDs.

Freud once noted, in a different context, “The narcissism of small differences”, the point at which minor differences of thought or emphasis between individuals could lead to greater antagonism than more significant differences. The suit appears well able to contain this arena of ‘small differences’, of multiple, often contradictory signification.

And although Breward notes that “…there was a growing recognitions [during the 1970s] that … sartorial agitation was prey rampant and cynical commercialization’ it is, arguably, a testament to the enduring mutability of the suit that two politicians of the left could use it in such clearly distinct and essentially opposite ways and still retain this usage as an element of their political legitimacy and authenticity.

Ciarán Swan

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