In Western culture, the men’s suit is tied in with masculinity in a variety of ways. This is the first part of a planned three-part series teasing out some of the weird issues around suits and the wearing thereof.
Let’s start with the personal and move to the general. I’m generally considered a snappy dresser in the circles I move in, with a carefully designed wardrobe built around a signature look. In my case, that look is “time-travelling supervillain”.
You’ll note that I only wear double-breasted jackets, as I like the line of them much better than single-breasted. Seriously, a double-breasted jacket sucks in your waist and makes your shoulders look bigger. Why did we ever stop wearing them? I do own one single-breasted jacket, but that’s because it’s this one.
You’ll also note that I wear a gambler-style hat with added fedora dents, cocked at an angle so rakish it’s got three strains of clap. (Both surviving people who know what “rakish” used to mean are giggling right now.) I could go off for a while on my theory of hats and my general sartorial aesthetic, but let’s stick to suits for now.
I am, of course, not technically wearing a suit in any of those shots. I am wearing suit jackets or tuxedo jackets with various forms of trousers. I am also not wearing a tie, generally a requirement to be properly in a suit. Indeed, I am phasing out collared shirts from my wardrobe, so as to make it impossible to wear a tie. Goddamn, but I hate ties.
A similar style has arisen in Britain, with hip young gentlemen adopting the clothing and some of the manners of an idealized Edwardian upper middle class, calling themselves Chaps and smoking pipes (which I also do). They’ve even given rise to a perverse, half-satiric music style called, naturally enough, chap-hop.
The key to understanding what the chaps and I are doing with suits can be found in this chap-hop video. It at first seems incongruous that a guy would sing about the importance of proper attire and grooming while standing next to a dude dressed as Scooby-Doo, until you realize that they are both wearing costumes.
The iconography of the men’s suit is incredibly powerful in our culture, as well as being aesthetically rather sharp. It’s the fundamental image of male power, of the patriarchy itself. The guy in the suit is the guy in charge, we’re all subconsciously aware. There’s a whole world of gender and class and competition tied up in every notch lapel.
What the chaps and I (among others) are doing is wearing that imagery as a costume, as a deliberate evocation of the imagery of the suit without actually laying claim to the power or entering into the competition. We’re performing masculinity with the awareness that it is a performance. The iconography of masculine power becomes a menu, something from which one can pick out one’s favorite bits to put together a nice look and assemble a good costume. (For example, fuck ties.)
Of course, not everyone has the luxury of choice. In part two, I want to take some time to think about those who don’t get to decide how they perform masculinity.