Suits, Part One: Suit As Costume

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.

One of these men is dressed like he knows what he's doing.

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”.

Moderately snazzy

Noah Brand going down to the store.

Noah Brand dressed up for a date.

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.

Yes, I killed the Joker and stole his clothes. Problem?

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.

Admit it: you always vaguely suspected The Man looked like this.

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.

About noahbrand

Noah Brand is a mysterious figure with a very nice hat.
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39 Responses to Suits, Part One: Suit As Costume

  1. DysgraphicProgrammer says:

    Noah, I salute and and support your elimination of ties. The necktie is in my opinion the most ridicules piece of clothing ever invented. Why on earth would anyone want a strip of fabric tied around their neck? And an itchy wool suit coat? and an equally itchy dress shirt, fully buttoned? Is it just me is is this clothing *designed* to make the wearer maximally uncomfortable ?

    My personal style? Jeans, monochrome t-shirts, and monochrome visors. The jeans are chosen for their ability to cart largish books in the pockets. The t-shirts are 10 identical cotton shirts, each a different, but single, color. There are 4 visors, to keep the sun out of my eyes (because the sun gives me headaches). I keep the 4 dispersed around my work, home and car so that one is always near. They do not match the shirts.

    Barefoot whenever possible, slippers or sandals the rest of the time. Sneakers are for the dead of winter or working out. Dress shoes are for someone else.

    Why yes I am a bit aspie, why do you ask?

  2. Darque says:

    I love ties and despise hats. I must be your archnemesis noah.

  3. noahbrand says:

    @Darque: Well, if my usual look is anything to go on, sooner or later one of us is going to throw the other off a zeppelin… 🙂

  4. Kenshiroit says:

    Woohoo nice dress Noah 😀

  5. Leo Salloum says:

    Oh, I am loving this.

    I am so excited about this series. I want to mention that you are incorrect about ties, but that you are right about the exciting options that emerge once we treat suit-wearing as costume. For myself, I like to do a black pin-striped three piece number with the pant legs tucked into a pair of heavily distressed combat boots.

    Now, the look I described above is mostly one I wear for extremely formal occasions. I also have a one-button navy blue suit and a lovely little tan ensemble that (sadly) I need to lose a bit of weight to fit in again. I wear the combat boots often.

    It’s all about wearing something that looks like Roger Sterling, without ever being Roger Sterling. If even the hippies wear suits, then how do you know which dudes control the universe and which dudes are making fun of the dudes that control the universe?

  6. sonicrhubarb says:

    Ahh yes, the suit. It is powerful. And so is evoking parts of it, and re-appropriating it in your own style. I’m so in love with ties it’s ridiculous. They’re so fun to me. This crazy little splash of pattern, color, or texture (not to mention it makes me feel secure to have something tied around my neck, multipurpose!)
    Myself, I enjoy using the collared shirt and tie. But then bastardizing the look by leaving the collared shirt open, except for the top button of course because I am wearing a sharp, and rather funky vintage tie. And underneath I’m wearing a t-shirt with a contrasting color, like an accent color. The whole wearing a tie, but leaving the shirt open and using an accent color doesn’t sit well with everyone. But I think it;s brilliant. Who could ask for a better way to incorporate color into one’s wardrobe.
    Wearing pieces of a suit makes me feel authoritative, and gives me good posture. But it also makes me happy and giggly, so it s a good combo for me.

  7. superglucose says:

    And yet no one is as sexy as I am walking down the street with my long hair waving back a little and my thin and writhe figure obvious under the long-sleeve shirt and jeans, the careful “thwap-thwap” of my flip flops showing off how at-ease and ready to chill I am.

    😉

  8. J says:

    Love ties, even if i am just wearing a long sleeved shirt and no jacket. My normal dressy attire (bar a wedding or something super posh) is black pants, black jacket and a coloured collared shirt, usually purple or red.

  9. Brokensystems says:

    Always thought suits were kind of ridiculous, but to each their own. As far as performing masculinity goes, regardless of it’s shape or form, I will gladly pass.

  10. I have to say I’ve always automatically trusted someone less if they’re wearing a suit*, mainly because I’m aware of all the stuff you’re talking about here; the fact that people think that just by wearing a suit they will appear more authoritative and more like they know what they’re talking about. I guess I’m trying to counteract the subconcious power of the suit.

    I own one suit jacket, made out of a very soft brown faux-suede, and it’s the only one I’ve found that doesn’t make me feel like a child dressing up in their parent’s clothes. One of the problems I have with suits is that they are generally in cool coloures (black, grey or blue), and these coloures really don’t suit me and make me feel really uncomfortable. I especially never wear black if I can help it.

    *By this I mean “proper”, “sensible” businsess suits with ties etc, not the various deconstructed outfits you guys are talking about

  11. IDiom says:

    @Darque, I concur. Viva le tie!

    Side note; @noahbrand, I applaud your subversion of the bald look. As a fellow individual who rocks the baldness I am all about the dressing semi-formal (no tie, except on special occasions).

    The only thing to make the super-villian look ‘pop’ even more is to equip yourself with a ‘door knocker’ style beard (http://menshair.about.com/od/facialhair/ig/Facial-Hair-Styles/goatee.htm).

    Mwa hahah. You shall be seeing my rocketpack henchmen very soon.

  12. Barbara says:

    I am loving the collar-less shirt look you have there, Noah. My bf is also an anti-collar person, but aside from individually altering each dress shirt he likes, finding such shirts is very difficult. How do you do it? Is there a particular name for that style that I can search for?

  13. “I am loving the collar-less shirt look you have there, Noah. My bf is also an anti-collar person, but aside from individually altering each dress shirt he likes, finding such shirts is very difficult. How do you do it? Is there a particular name for that style that I can search for?”

    When I was younger my sister and me had a few and we always called them “grandad shirts”. That might have just been us being wierd though.

  14. Schala says:

    I was never a fan of suits, shirts, or ties.

    I find it looked too much like a uniform, made me out to be a numeroted slave without any importance or uniqueness. And the choices all looked bland (more of the same with small variations in color or tone, at best). Plus I never liked how ties looked, and never liked putting any kind of emphasis on my shoulders (I also don’t do so for hips if you’re wondering).

    If we’re talking costume-like clothing, lolita fashion is what I like. It’s really not something you want to get dirty (given the price), and it will draw attention because it’s unusual – but otherwise, I feel great wearing it. It actually looks pretty, unlike most other dresses I’ve ever seen worn outside grand occasions (ie non-grand occasion: cocktail dresses for example, or strapless summer dress, or cleavage-emphasizing summer dress – mostly dresses I find to look like window drapes, draped around someone, nothing special or pretty).

    Of course, lolita fashion is to be mainly worn casually, or maybe for a date – not for a wedding specifically. Beware that it is too hot for summer when outside (going for a walk for example) given the thickness of the overall fabric (it’s cotton broadcloth usually), even if it’s generally knee-high.

    And as for a masculine look, I prefer Matt Smith’s bow tie and fez combo for accessories. At least they’re less “I am clone # 345653” like.

    And now I’d really like if I lost 15 pounds to fit back into my Baby the Stars Shine Bright dress.

  15. Mercy says:

    The chao thing seems to be mostly popular among young tories, I’m wary of reading too much irony into it. Or rather, the irony is mostly self deprecating defensive irony like that used by metalheads: they really do wish they were edwardian aristocrats, they are also aware that most people consider this stupid and so pre-emptively mock themselves for it.

  16. @Darque, Noahbrand:

    “Zeus’s Thunder! Agnes, the Tiny Model Catapult!”
    “Oui, Sir!”
    “Ever the Lady, eh Agnes?”
    “Oui, sir!”

    Seriously though, I like dress shirts, but I don’t find many uses for ties. Interestingly, I’ve used smart dress in one of my videos. Behold! (And yes, I am a SHAMELESS Self-promoter):

  17. AnonymousDog says:

    A ‘suit’ is a set of matching coat and pants, with maybe a vest, all cut from the same cloth. A jacket or coat that does not have matching pants is a ‘sport coat’.

    ‘Formal’ technically means ‘formal evening clothes’ (tux or white tie and black tail coat) or morning coat and striped trousers. ‘Semi-formal’ means a business suit

    Personally, I wear a business suit while working, because I want to Fit In. I wear jeans and a sport coat (or what ever)while partying because I want to stand out.

  18. Jim says:

    “It’s the fundamental image of male power, of the patriarchy itself.”

    It sure is and it’s ironic, it’s a good example of “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” When suits came in they were as down-scale as bluejeans were in the 50’s. Suits read as bourgeoisie in an age when aristocrats still had all the social restige, jeans read as blue-collar for decades.

    BTW way, Noah, you look sharp. Do I remember you saying you feel you carry a little more weight than you should? You don’t, at least not in these picures.

  19. noahbrand says:

    @Barbara: I get my shirts from here, though I have recently discovered the existence of this, and am mournfully decrying my poverty.

    @Chris: I’d never heard the term “granddad shirt” before, but on searching, I discovered this site, which I find quite tempting. A possible way to maintain my basic look in a more casual mode.

    @Jim: Thanks for saying so. As to my weight, I would earnestly like to get my number of visible chins down to one.

  20. goodknit says:

    Thanks for raising the topic! I’m a professional, classical singer, so I dress in coat and tie, suit, or black tie much more often than the average fellow. And I think this discussion is missing a bit of subtlety, around the different ways a suit be worn. “Wearing a suit” is as varied a thing as “wearing a dress.”

    Wall street types often wear fitted suits with broad pinstripes, ties in big power knots and brash, arrogant pocket squares. When I lived in San Francisco, pimps would wear three piece silk suits in bright colors, with matching canes, hats, and shoes. But for a couple of hundred years in European and British cultures, tuxedos and tailcoats were the uniforms of menial workers and household servants (which is why classical musicians wear tuxes and tails on stage). The message a suit sends depends on the details: how many buttons? what fabric? tie or open collar? how is it tailored? Off the rack, or handmade? white shirt, or patterned? does the pocket square match shirt, tie, neither, is it absent? The suit is a language, and once it’s been learned, you can say whatever you want with it.

    Of course, it’s a language of privilege. So is any style of dress, though- every culture has a dress code, white collar, blue collar, or no collar. In urban US culture, clothing has GREAT significance, from religious identity to gang colors to school uniforms. And I own two suits, that I wear professionally, that which each cost less than $10.

    As a pretty femme man, I personally delight in appropriating the costume of kyriarchy, and using it to practice art, humanity, and love. And the thing is that folks take me more seriously and tend to listen to what I have to say, and no one dares to brush me off because I look young, liberal, or femme, not when I’m out in the city, looking fucking sharp.

  21. Schala says:

    I would like my boyfriend or friends to wear clothing that looks dandyish, to accompany my sweet lolita clothing, so it looks less like “he’s with a costumed girl” and more like “they’re a costumed couple”, even if the effect I’m really going for is “wow, nice clothes” (it is quite a bit quality, having cost 25,000 yen + shipping, even if you count that the brand accounts for a part of the cost) or indifference/uninterest.

  22. @Schala About Matt Smith, according to news, when he started on Doctor Who there was an uprise in bowtie sales because young men saw how many women thought he was hot. It amused me.

    As for other nice “suits”, this is my favorite: http://27.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_kwrjikm1zD1qa1vdfo1_500.png Nice jacket and a cutely undone tie, with a t-shirt and a baseball cap.

  23. RR says:

    I think this article was written just to show off Noah’s hat.

    I used to really like ties. Not because they were a choking neck constriction, but because they were a swappable piece of color and design. Even though I was very conservative. Plus it was like a distinctive marker – I went from late nights in the lab wearing jean/t-shirts, eating ramen soup and mac&cheese, to a real job.

  24. Jim says:

    “@Jim: Thanks for saying so. As to my weight, I would earnestly like to get my number of visible chins down to one.”

    I understand that and that’s a question of taste anyway. But there are just some phenotype realities we all run up against. I was a teenager when straight blond hair was in fashion. Mine was brown and ringlety – oh well. You look to be of German or Central European ancestry. Those people look round and filled out even on a tuberculosis diet. It’s a feature, not a bug. Wait a few generations when skinny Celts and Somalis aren’t in style anymore. My point is you have a lot to be grateful in the looks department and don’t let Celts and Somalis colonize your body image!

    As for the chins, you can try to restrict carbs, but not if you want to be vegan. And like I say, there doesn’t seem to be much need for it.

  25. I like when gangsters wear suits, like in RESERVOIR DOGS. Subversive!

    “We need shotguns for this shit”

  26. Cwiles704 says:

    I still suck at working my ties. I’m not desperate enough to use clip-ons, but once I get a good knot, I leave it there and NEVER UNTIE IT EVER. I also get paranoid before I have to see anyone throughout the day constantly checking it to make sure its totally straight. People get really anal about other people’s ties.

  27. sonicrhubarb says:

    I find that when I wear ties, people have a tendency to get in my personal space, and play with my ties…I’m guessing that isn’t a common expression of approval among men…? Don’t know what it is about wearing it that seems to give guys that kind of permission…

  28. Danny says:

    1. Ties are a product of the devil.

    2. My Afro rejects the thought of a hat.

    3. I personally prefer functionality over looks.

    4. Although I think my age is starting to catch up to me and find that my collection of simple tshirts just don’t do it for me anymore. Wardrobe shopping will commence next year.

  29. trinity91 says:

    I like the fact that my bf prefers trousers and button downs to jeans and tshirts. I tend to wear what most people would call a combination of business casual and “church” clothes, and having a guy in sloppy jeans and tshirts makes me feel like I stand out too much. Mostly though I find being comfortable to be the sexiest thing on earth, and he feels uncomfortable in jeans, so the trousers are his I am comfortable item, and it makes me all tingly inside.

  30. Anonymous says:

    Given the lack of a tie, I’d suggest a shirt with decorative buttons or (better) traditional studs instead of buttons (so the shirt has buttonholes on both sides and you insert the stud through like a cufflink on a French cuff.) I see you’re already using a button cover for the collar button, good choice.

  31. noahbrand says:

    @Danny: Go where I go: ZootSuitStore.com. Clothing with actual style and snazz, not the Men’s Wearhouse and their two hundred shades of drab and boring.

    Also, for the fop on a budget, I recommend My Own Tuxedo, where you can buy ex-rental formal wear at huge discounts. I’ve got a lovely lapelless jacket that I got off them for thirty bucks, and a friend of mine recently picked up half a dozen vests in different colors, having finally found a cut that can accommodate her breasts.

  32. Danny says:

    noah while I have the utmost respect for anyone making their own style suits just aren’t me.

  33. “noah while I have the utmost respect for anyone making their own style suits just aren’t me.”

    That’s why people make their own style.

  34. Danny says:

    Well duh I thought that’s we were getting at here.

  35. Jay Generally says:

    (Honestly, everything I say is past tense or hypothetical; money is very stretched in my household so all of my posh duds have been outgrown and given away without being replaced. But someday!)

    I’m going to back Noah on: the superiority of the double breasted jacket, hats, and pipe smoking. I’m going to have to go with the pro-tie camp. Regarding hats, I wear my hair long and my noggin is huge so I’m a bit limited in my hat options. When my hair’s back in a pony-tail, I tend to go with a fedora which means that, with my glasses and Evil Spock facial hair, people tend to point and scream hipster a lot. Ah, well… When I let my hair down I might wear a topper, but I really seek to wear my one true hat-love: bowlers. I also have a passion for fingerless gloves and canes.

    It’s funny that you should mention Time-Travelling Supervillain, Noah. I’ve specifically been told that combining my long-hair, double breasted jacket, bowler hat look with my general bigness, I look like the sort of affable thug who stands around doing amusing things in the background while his more erudite boss sits in the foreground back-and-forthing with the hero(s). You know, the sort who cheerfully attempts to contribute to his boss’s conversation, but is actually comically undermining his boss’s attempt at a somber setting and just won’t take the repeated hints to shut up? Oh lulz, how unlike reality that is!

    Er… Right?

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  38. Tobu says:

    I have to admit, my “power” ensemble is a black tailored waistcoat over a collared dress shirt (sleeves unbuttoned and rolled up to the elbows, gambler-style, in casual settings and rolled down/buttoned for formal occasions). Nothing like borrowing a bit of masculine imagery to make people sit up and pay attention.

    Being a lady, though, I can skip the tie and jacket, wear the shirt in colors like wine red or spring green or orange-with-silver-and-gray-pinstripes, and choose to pair it all with slimline pinstriped dress slacks or a full ankle-length black wool skirt, if I like. (And I do.)

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