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Suit as a mediating technology of organization

Abstract and Keywords

The suit, the garb of modernity, presents itself as a sheath, hiding the body and elevating the intellect. The aristocrats were all ostentation and conspicuous display; the bourgeois industrialists, in contrast, shed ornament in favour of demure, sober, proper, and functional attire suited to the business of business. This chapter shows the suit is not against fashion, but constitutes its own organizing force as fashion: it promises constancy, dependability, and an unthinking willingness to subject the private to the corporate body, with few exceptions.

Keywords: suit, fashion, ornament, body, civility

In the bourgeois era, the suit is the icon of menswear, and its triumph is global. The suit is worn by men around the world. Anne Hollander has rightly called it THE garment of modernity (Hollander, 1994: 113).

‘Suit’ comes from French ‘suite’ and refers to a set of garments made of the same cloth and colour, worn together: jacket, trousers, and eventually a waistcoat. It is a formalized garment, standardly worn with a collared shirt and a tie. The jacket can be single breasted—with usually three buttons—or double breasted with two columns of four to six buttons. Each cuff has three to four buttons. It can come unvented, single vented, or double vented. Its lapels come notched, peaked, or in a style called shawl, usually reserved for the dinner jacket. The trousers, flared, bell-buttoned, wide legged or slim can since Edward VII be turned up at the bottom. They eventually have a break and usually two pleats. The classical suit is a highly constructed garment: between the outer fabric and the inner lining of the jacket, there is a sturdy interfacing, called canvas. The suit is all about cut, the high art of bespoke tailoring. Its acid test is the wrinkle. Savile Row has become shorthand for this unwrinkled perfection of the trade: the body has to be smoothly followed in its movements. During the second half of the twentieth and the beginning of the twenty-first century, Italian tailoring became key for unconstructed, slim fitting unvented jackets with shorter, slim leg trousers.

Since the 1980s, the suit has started to lose its universality both in business and civil life. From universal business attire, ‘suits’ has become a shorthand term for middle and upper corporate management. The technical, the creative, and the academic world has widely abandoned the suit—or turned it upside down. Counter cultures and fashion designers have deconstructed and perverted its message.

The origin of the suit is to be found in British country wear and the clothes of the French third estate. If Fashion begins in the middle of the thirteenth century with men leaving behind their long folds to show lots of leg, the fashion of Modernity begins roughly around the French Revolution, with men concealing their legs in trousers—pantalons. While dress had, until 1789, largely separated society’s ‘estates’—the nobility from the clergy and the tiers état, and all the three from the peasants—fashion after the (p. 444) Revolution ceased to divide classes as openly, and instead divided the sexes (Outram, 1989: 156). Since then, the sexes have a different relation to fashion (Vinken, 2005). The spectacular modernization of male clothing consists basically in renouncing all ostentatious display. Access to power, authority, and wealth depends on the de-sexualization of the body. The suit is the means of that. The psychoanalyst John Flügel has wittily paralleled the Great French Revolution with what he called the Great Male Renunciation (Flügel, 1930: 111). Menswear does not carry the stigma of the fashionable. The modern opposition of male and female consists in unmarked vs. marked sexuality. This opposition defines post-revolutionary, modern fashion (Vinken, 2013: 36). Aristocratic display of the body and its erotic play of possibilities became, after the Revolution, the privilege—or burden—of women.

During the Great French Revolution, two parties opposed each other, named after their leg wear: the aristocratic ‘culottes’ stood against the ‘sans-culottes’. The sans-culottes did not go naked, but appeared in a garment that carried the ridicule in its name: the ‘pantalon’ derives from a figure of the commedia dell’arte. Pantalone is a vain, old, intriguing, lusting, and avaricious man, the very opposite of the elegant, generous, amorous courtier, who shows off his legs in tight tricot stockings, fitting like a glove. As a fashion fop Pantalone tries to imitate the courtier, but gets it all wrong: his trousers are not tied under or above the knee, but fall straight down to his shoes. These trousers, concealing the leg, became the basics of modern menswear.

Menswear in the bourgeois era was constituted in a deliberate contrast to the aristocratic fashion that came to its last flourish during the ancien régime. The story of the suit and thus the story of modern male-hood starts with the renunciation to show off—last but not least to show off the body (Kraß, 2006).1 The clothes worn by the aristocracy displayed masculinity. By adorning a wildly enhanced sex, they highlighted the potency of the male (Wolter, 1988). By fitting like a glove, they showcased a body that can run, ride, fight, chase, and dance—an elegantly disciplined body. The readiness for a phallically connoted violence remains readable in this well-trained body.

The bourgeois of modernity is eminently civil. He does not display a beautiful, capable body, but intellectual capacities. He renounces ostentatious adornment. The bourgeois man does not wear feathers and laces, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires; he does not peacock around in the brilliant colours of the rainbow; he does not display powdered lion locks; he does not enter a room in a cloud of perfume.

The bourgeois suit is the negation of the aristocratic attire: less became more (Loos, 1987). The suit manages the paradoxical speech act to cross itself out, to not attract any attention to itself. The suit comes in plain, muted colours: navy, night blue, light grey, anthracite. A lighter grey, brown, beige, and stone are possible, but bottle green remains border line. Black has largely become the colour of mourning and of the evening. The material of the suit has to be of solid colour, lacklustre and monochrome—usually wool—and not patterned or shining. No ornaments. Some traditional, almost (p. 445) invisible patterns are allowed—pin stripes, plaids, and checks. Splashes of brighter colour are reserved for the shirt, neck tie, or handkerchief.

The bourgeois is suspicious of everything ornamental and shining that distracts from inner values. Little by little, menswear gets rid of anything surprising, of fantastic frills that single the man out. The waistcoat, made from gaily coloured and patterned damask or brocade, from plaid velvet or embroidered satin, was a remnant of the glorious fashion of bygone days. Around 1835 already, it was supposed to be too showy and was reduced to the tie. The very desire for elegance became inelegant. The bourgeois citizen does not get tired of demonstrating that he does not have to distinguish himself through his clothes. The suit had become second nature to men, who covered up his first nature, the individuality of his flesh (Gautier, 1858). The enforcement of this radical puritanism was no easy game since it is not only less amusing, but surely more difficult to be dressed correctly than to be dressed elegantly. To be dressed correctly means now above all not to be dressed ostentatiously. The art of the artless is difficult to master. Distinction, in men’s fashion, is insider knowledge; you have to be able to discern the smallest differences. In male fashion, less is more and form follows function.

The suit is only barely and intermittently subject to the fashion cycle. While the female silhouette has changed radically over the last two hundred years, the male silhouette has evinced an astonishing, one might even say a classical constancy. The classic men’s suit is worn equally in public space, in the City, and in the private workplace, the office. The only alternative was, at least in rural areas, ‘traditional costume’. Even ‘evening dress’ for men is laid out clearly as the choice between tuxedo or tails, white tie or black tie (Figure 39.1).

Suit as a mediating technology of organization

Figure 39.1 Philip William May, 1864–1903, British, ‘Jack’ Millage, undated, black wash and graphite with pen and black ink on very thick, smooth, cream wove paper

(Source: Yale Center for British Art, Gift of Andrew Wilton)

Those who put their body on display are now, with the emerging figure of the ‘homosexual’ (Foucault, 1976), easily tainted as fops or ladies’ men. The bourgeois does not need ostentatious display, which seen as effeminate. He does not have to present, he simply is. Real men, sober and anti-theatrical, put their effort in the effortless. To dress as a man is an art one has to master. The question that accompanies menswear since, roughly, the Revolution, is not that of elegance or beauty, but to be dressed correctly. Distinction consists in not attracting the eye. The suit should underline the individuality, but sublate the sexual body.

The suit is an incarnation of civic, Stoic–Christian virtues the citizen should embody: continentia, modestia, abstinentia. The unadorned soberness, the disciplined austerity, the appearance of only the ‘personality’ in its unvarnished truth replicates the bourgeois ethics. The constantia of the person, who does not float with the tide, is highlighted by the constantia of the suit that varies only minimally. The suit constitutes the bourgeois man as an authentic being in opposition to the aristocrat who is cast by bourgeois discourse as somebody indulging in mere appearances, in empty but dangerous frivolities. The suit, to put it with Roland Barthes, does not connote arbitrarily changing artificiality—i.e., fashion—but its strict functionality without any ado (Barthes, 1976).

The corporate identity of the body politic and other corporations can only occur if each man’s unique, eccentric body becomes invisible. The suit fits loosely and does not cling to the body. Its muted colours are a rebuke to vivid aristocratic hues, and its (p. 446) material—wool, linen, cotton—negates the gleaming silks, the delicate lace, and the ostentatious furs of the nobility. The modern, classic suit is not fitted closely to the body, but idealized on the V form of statuary, with narrow hips and broad shoulders. Buttocks and genitals are covered by the suit jacket. There is no gaping of fabric between bare skin and garment, and with the exception of hands and face, all skin is covered. ‘Love handles’ and other imperfections of the human form are smoothed out, carnality de-materialized. No thighs swell under tightly clinging fabric. The ideal suit follows the movements of the body without losing its defining, idealizing function. Variation is quite minimal. The classic suit is largely external to the fashion cycle. Men are not ‘fashion-conscious’, or, in the more recent idiom: ‘trendy’. Once the Republic had been declared and the New Era had begun, there was no need for constant change.

In 1878, Theodor Friedrich Vischer highlighted the radical change in male fashion at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the change from an aristocratic order of estates to a bourgeois order of classes:

The male dress shouldn’t say anything for itself; rather the man should bring to the fore his allure, his face, his words and deeds, his personality … Our grandfathers (p. 447) thought it the most natural thing in the word that one person would distinguish himself by wearing a red frock lined with a golden ribbon and blue stockings, and the other by wearing a green one lined with silver, and peach-coloured stockings. We, blasé against such bathos, have finished off with all that. We just have a tired smile if somebody wants to distinguish himself through anything else but himself. … Although this disillusioned soberness of the male dress is not even half a century old, we could still say that it incarnates the very character of modern fashion, once it has become what by its very nature it was meant to be.

(Vischer, 1986: 63)

Under the header ‘fashion and modernity’, Friedrich Nietzsche promoted the suit as the very emblem of the fashion of the Modern: the suit fashions Modernity. In the collection of aphorisms Human, All Too Human—A Book for Free Spirits Nietzsche managed this improbable collusion of fashion and suit by turning upside down what till then was understood as fashion. According to Nietzsche, the suit expresses the virtues of a modern, industrialized, enlightened Europe. Fashion—and by fashion Nietzsche means the suit—does not divide and separate, it rather equalizes and unifies. Fashion’s true character is not seasonal change, but constancy: ‘On the whole, therefore, it is not change that will characterize fashion and the modern, for change is a sign of backwardness and that the men and women of Europe are still immature: what will characterize it is repudiation of national, class and individual vanity’ (Nietzsche, 1986: 364). While women and some idle young men, namely dandies, still strived to distinguish themselves by means of their clothes, European men had in their vast majority already reached Modernity: they were unified by means of their clothes, the suit. The fickle change in fashion—and change is, after all, what commonly defines fashion—will come to an end, if dandies and women finally grow up to become mature Europeans. To put it differently: it is the indifference towards all things commonly thought of as fashionable that distinguishes. The suit performs the paradoxical speech act to express through dress the indifference towards dress. The mature European, obviously an intellectual, shows in the way he dresses that he is ‘industrious and has little time for dressing and self-adornment, likewise that he finds that everything costly and luxurious in material and design accords ill with the work he has to do; finally, that through his costume he indicates the more learned and intellectual callings as those to which as a European he stands closest or would like to stand closest’ (Nietzsche, 1986: 363).

The suit, the only dress that corresponds to the norms of the Modern, is defined by not being stigmatized as fashionable. By making himself almost invisible, it stresses the personality only. It precludes the vain desire to distinguish oneself through lavish display, which is now associated with all things effeminate, aristocratic, decadent. The suit sublimates the sexualized flesh into character and personality, and constitutes a collective of equals. This suspension (Aufhebung) of the flesh into a body politic or a corporate identity is the very condition of access to the public sphere of a democratic republic.

(p. 448) But from the very beginning, the suit did not only have fans. One of its most prominent adversaries was the philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Graceless, the suit is a straitjacket for Hegel. He described the limbs as ‘stretched out sacks with stiff folds’. The suit was for Hegel:

something produced for an external purpose, something cut, sewn together here, folded over there, elsewhere fixed, and, in short, purely unfree forms, with folds and surfaces positioned here and there by seams, buttons, and button-holes. In other words, such clothing is in fact just a covering and a veil which throughout lacks any form of its own but, in the organic formation of the limbs which it follows in general, precisely conceals what is visibly beautiful, namely their living swelling and curving, and substitutes for them the visible appearance of a material mechanically fashioned. This is what is entirely inartistic about modern clothes.

(Hegel, 1975: 746)

Torn, the suit disfigures the natural beauty of our limbs. The dress does not follow the body: the body has to follow the dress. Men, forced to adapt their movements to the stiffly uncomfortable garment, are turned into mechanical puppets by wearing the suit. The sociologist Edmond Goblot also deplored the gracelessness of the suit: a woman who likes the suit is, according to Goblot, ready to give up on male beauty for the advantage of class and standing that the suit signals (Goblot, 2010: 41). She is into the man of means.

For fashion scholar Anne Hollander, the suit is, on the contrary, not only the most modern, but at the same time the sexiest fashion item ever. It turns every man into an antique hero, into a tiger, ready to jump; the suit teases out the lurking, velvety elegant eros. But such panegyrics are an exception.

By not singling the man out, the suit has as important a political function as the ostentatiously adorned clothes of the aristocracy—although an altogether different politics is at stake. The suit levels, equalizes, neutralizes, in short, de-sensualizes. The dark, simple suit of the post-revolutionary bourgeoisie creates the body politic, creates corporations of all sorts, establishes corporate, civil identity. The suit is the uniform of Republican democracies and their only legitimate expression. The suit transcends the way of all flesh into the constancy of the organized institution. It is the suit that sublates the particular body into a collective one. Day in, day out, bourgeois men stage the spectacle of the unspectacular. With lots of rhetorical effort, whose main task resists its invisibility, men display authentic a-rhetoricity. If the Republic is often represented through female allegories—Britannia, Marianne, Bavaria—the dominant institutions and organizations are male collectives. All the corporations of the modern states, their body politics, their administrations, their courts, their armies, their universities, their guilds and professions, were exclusively and are predominantly male. The modern states thus translate the theory of the two bodies of the king from the single person of the king to their collective institutions (Kantorowicz, 1998). The bourgeois male secularized body unites also two bodies in one. It is the private body of an individual as well as part of a body (p. 449) corporate (Weinelt, 2016). He is more than and not only the concrete person that holds an office. The organization outlives the person who holds the office. The second body is not situated in a transcendent sphere as with the king’s divine right, but guarantees the constancy of a body corporate within history beyond the individual who holds the office. The suit thus performs the permanence of the republican, democratic institutions beyond the individual. Officials (Funktionsträger) do not have to be dressed beautifully, but correctly for the office they hold. To fit in, not to stand out, is the goal. The suit has therefore been called a civil uniform: the Washington uniform of the politicians, the Frankfurt uniform of the bankers. To perform corporate identity, to perform the body politic, the garment you are wearing should not point to your flesh, and thus to your death, but make everybody look alike with only slight variations (Figure 39.2). The suit should not meet the eye and attract attention to itself: in order to be effective, it has to be overlooked. The suit is the ideal garment to perform this speech act. Such is its organizational power. It articulates through the clothes that clothes, mere superficialities, are not what you are about. It takes a lot of artful techniques and know-how to make the suit say that.

From the very beginning, this speech act that informs modern male-hood was contested—by appropriation and deconstruction of the suit. First came the dandies, who were defined by Carlyle as ‘clothes wearing men’ (Carlyle, 1869: 253; Garelick, 1998). Furthermore, Paul de Saint Victor called the dandy a ‘black prince of elegance’2 and thereby expressed Baudelaire’s dandyism best. Nothing could be more spectacular than the way they looked. The idea that they could not care less about how they dressed would not have occurred to anybody, their understatement was too ostentatious. The long line (p. 450) of the movements that countered the ideology of the suit cannot be traced here in its entirety, so we have to stick to a few examples.

The Zoots Suits just after the war, worn first by black men, overstressed the understatement of the suit and thereby undid the very speech act the suit was meant to perform. The Mods, of course, who were mostly blue collars wearing the suit, fitted it to the body so that there was clearly something very wrong with their way of wearing it. David Bowie wore the suit as a woman would her feathered cocktail dress and also undid the suit’s speech act. The Gentlemen of Bacongo, finally, the latest incarnation of the dandy, appropriated the suit of the colonizers and turned it into the most spectacular garment ever (Gandoulou, 1989; Tamagni, 2009; Loreck, 2011).3 By overstressing any single rule of the suit, they stood out.

Finally, the designers have deconstructed the suit by bringing back the singular, vulnerable, erotic, beautiful body that does not merge into a body politic. It was Pierre Cardin who started it all with his pencil suits that fitted the body like a dancer’s ballet outfit. Armani took out the canvas in his unconstructed jackets that followed the body closely and looked more like a pullover than like the properly constructed suit jacket. Helmut Lang continued the stressing of the erotic, individual, and mortal body within the suit, undoing its required sublation. It was Hedi Slimane for Dior, who introduced techniques of female haute couture to make the suit fit like a glove. Gucci featured fabrics that reminded us of the gobelins of the ancien régime: English roses exploded in all their gorgeousness. They certainly had nothing in common with the classically ‘cool wool’ materials. The play between skin and fabric, traditionally the hallmark of female fashion, invaded the male suit. Finally, Vuitton for the 2018 summer collection brought all the ostentatious glamour of the ancien régime back to the suit version ‘Versailles’. Might the bourgeois, republican speech act of the suit and its organizational force simply be undone by these counter-suits? They single the men out in their strength, but also in their mortal vulnerability, and turn them into heroic, effeminate birds of paradise. These bodies cannot be reintegrated into the republican body politic.


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                                                  (1) In disagreement with this thesis is the strictly empirically oriented British research that does not see any dialectical dynamics here (Breward, 1999).

                                                  (2) Paul de Saint-Victor, following an article in La Presse, 21 August 1859.

                                                  (3) For a fictional treatment of this phenomenon see Mabanckou (2010).