Author: Tom Bailey
20 Aug 2015
Emerging in the 19th century and widely adopted in the 20th century, the business suit has proven to be one of the world’s most dynamic items of clothing. The symbolic meaning of the suit is nuanced; in many ways, the business suit is synonymous with control, sighted in corridors of power the world over. Certainly, it has taken on a kind of symbolism in which the wearer is seen as someone important, responsible or accomplished, and part of the establishment. According to Dr Catherine Leslie of the Fashion School at Kent State University: “The business suit communicates a seriousness and membership in a type of club of success and power in western culture.”
In a workplace, everything from the cut, brand or accessories accompanying a suit indicates some sort of social stratification
However, there is another side to how the outfit is perceived. The term ‘suit’ was levelled negatively at any person seen to be aligned with mainstream, capitalist society in the hippy and radical circles of the 1960s and 70s. Indeed, it is ‘the uniform of capitalism’, as The Economist once called it. At the same time, the business suit has provided a sense of social levelling; in companies that still require suits to be worn, all employees – from interns to the CEO – are basically dressed the same.
Furthermore, in world politics suits have come to be seen by many as the uniform of a dignified, modern nation state. Yet, at the same time, others argue that suits represent the continued cultural legacy of colonialism, opting for either modified versions or rejecting them altogether in favour of traditional outfits.
The prototype and forerunner of the modern suit is often considered to have emerged in the court of Charles II in the 17th century. The Restoration monarch, following an outbreak of plague in London, decreed that those in attendance at his court lose their obnoxiously elaborate and peacocking garb in favour of more subtle outfits: a long coat, a waistcoat, and a cravat.
A sign of modesty among the powerful in a time of strife for most, the change marked the end of the days when power was measured by how ostentatiously one could dress. Michel Foucault wrote of power becoming depersonalised and anonymous with the advent of modernity, and the transformation in the case of Charles II is indicative of this; the men of his court were all in varying positions of power, but no longer demonstrated this through the elaborateness of their clothing. Instead, they gave an air of uniformity and blandness, in which the certainty of their power remained, but was removed from their own personal displays. The suit was simple and impersonal: a leveller among those in power. As observed in The Economist: “Forcing the elite to dress modestly suggested that power and place were no longer to be marked by yards of lace and frills.”
This uniformity has persisted in many professions where one is still required to wear a suit. As Grayson Perry observed in The New Statesman: “The real function of the sober business suit is not to look smart, but as camouflage. A person in a grey suit is invisible, in the way burglars often wear hi-vis jackets to pass as unremarkable workmen. The business suit is the uniform of those who do the looking, the appraising. It rebuffs comment by its sheer ubiquity.”
In a workplace, while of course everything from the cut, brand or accessories accompanying a suit indicate some sort of social stratification, essentially all are wearing the same uniform, with any clear aesthetic indications of hierarchy blurred.
The world stage
At the same time that the suit has become a symbol of modernity, it has also become a symbol of western cultural dominance. This has resulted in political leaders from across the world either embracing the two-piece uniform to display their nation’s entrance to modernity, or consciously rejecting the sartorial choice, in favour of indigenous clothing as an attempt to affirm their traditional values (often over the values left as a legacy of colonialism).
The suit is also worn by political leaders as a symbol of their inclusion in the ‘community of nations’. To wear a suit is to invest in the trappings of the modern nation state: rule of law, human rights, parliamentary or presidential rule, democratic process, industry, and sovereignty, even if only in name.
The adoption of suits by leaders has often coincided with their transition from international pariah status to acceptance on the world stage. The revolutionary generation of leaders of the Soviet Union were seen, in their time, sporting the Bolshevik leather jacket or various military uniforms. Yet, as the Soviet Union’s new generation of leaders took power after the Second World War, military jackets were replaced by two-piece suits, boots by leather shoes. Likewise, for decades, revolutionary Cuban leaders – Fidel Castro preeminent among them – wore their military fatigues, reminiscent of their guerrilla fighter days in the Sierra Maestra. Now, as Cuban and American relations thaw, President Raul Castro is more likely to be seen in a typical business suit.
A dressing down
It seems now, however, that the era of the suit may be coming to an end. Powerful people the world over are opting for a more self-consciously casual style. In many work environments over the past few decades, there has been a turn towards a more casual type of dress, either in the form of ‘casual Fridays’ or the ever-elusive concept of ‘business casual’. This is perhaps a further development in the blurring of clear aesthetic demonstrations of power, which can also be seen in the popularity of open-plan offices and glass meeting rooms.
As Lisa Small, Curator at the Brooklyn Museum, noted in a New York Times interview: “You wouldn’t catch anyone in a high-level retail establishment ignoring some guy who comes in wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers, because that guy could be a hedge fund manager. That guy could be running some dot.com.”
While world leaders are still firm adherents of the suit, there is a trend for leaders in certain capacities to appear to the public dressed in a more casual way, be it the strategically rolled-up sleeves on a dress shirt or the questionably fashionable weekend V-neck jumper. Faced with such trends, it is not inconceivable that, one day, the business suit will fall out of favour. However, the multiple symbolic meanings of business suits will ensure their endurance for a while longer. The suit has served as a depersonalisation of power and a social leveller in appearance, where all are equal to the eye. At the same time, it has come to be a symbol of power or membership of a certain in-group, be it on the domestic or international stage, in the realm of politics or in business. No clothing ensemble has ever been so dynamic, nor has any been endowed with so many different meanings.