Suit(ed) For Success
A suit is the most important garment every man wears. They are the most formal of our everyday clothing and represent the primary dress code in a variety of works such politicians,lawyers, teachers, business-man. The suit originates from the 19th century and is an outer garment with two or maybe three pieces ( pants, coat and probably vest) made from the same material. At first, suits were known as the gentleman’s ‘lounge-suit’ . They were indented for leisure time and private uses in cities, to be worn at home and among relatives.
”… A gentleman might travel in his comfortable lounge-suit; but it was certainly not acceptable at the bank or the firm, nor at church, nor at highly formal social events in the day-time, nor for anything at all in the evening.”
(Anne Hollander 1995 p109)
Gradually this ‘lounge-suit’ that wasn’t supposed to be worn as formal outfit, rapidly evolved to an all-purpose clothing for every man despite his class or occupation. Nowadays, it has become the standard costume of the modern man and supposedly reflects the epitome of professionalism and not only. In Mawatching: A Field Guide to Human Behavior Desmond Morris says ”it is impossible to wear clothes without transmitting social signals. Every costume tells a story, often a very subtle one, about the wearer”.
So what does a suit states about it’s wearer? In the past during the aristocratic periods, wearing formal clothing would suggest nobility, culture, manners, power ,honor and the illusion of one being heroic. What does it represent in modern society? Is it discipline, seriousness, power , elegance , dynamism , masculinity, professionalism? Or is a reflection of the wearers values and preoccupations? Or does it send a strong signal that you are functioning within the acceptable bounds of official dress norms set by society?
The suit started in the seventeenth century but became popular the later nineteenth century and it’s rise has been connected to the industrialisation period where work has assumed a more central role to our lives, in which clothes would reflect our values. Johan Huizinga in The Waning of the Middle Ages (1924) writes that ”The modern male costume since the end of the eighteenth century is essentially a workman’s dress”(p39) and like any other dress, a suit makes a statement about it’s wearer. One of the messages it communicates is respectability and masculinity. For several decades since the 1900’s the suit played a vital role in a man’s social life. It added a sense of unity ? a sense of being part in modern society. That lead the suit to be viewed as a symbol and medium of a masculine identity, which illustrated values of hard work and professionalism. These markers of masculinity were supported by the economy and media, where the mass production of suits, affordable by the majority of the population , alongside it’s exposure as a structural and performative medium of male dominance have risen dramatically over the last decades. Further these indications of manhood have also been enhanced by the colour of the suit. Different colour suits can give an unique feeling to an individual. According to Colour psychology black suits connote authoritativeness, professionalism and masculinity, whereas grey colours soften the look and convey a high level of sophistication. Lastly, the need for men to be part of society led them to resemble one another. Although it is not clear why , in (REFERENCE)”Paoletti’s analysis of late nineteenth century cartoons suggests that the popularity of the suit was associated with the fear of ridicule. Once the suit has become a symbol of stereotypical masculine role, anything else would become the object of derision”. Whatever the reason was, the tailors of the time believed that they were promoting democracy, even though that didn’t mean that all men were regarded as equal.
Another message a suit is conveying ,based on a study from Longhurst, R that took place in the United States and New Zealand in 2001 , is (self) representation and maintaining the illusion of a determined , formed body (p99). When an individual enters a room filled with people, it is common for them to try and acquire information about him, such as the person’s socioeconomic status, his competence, his trustworthiness, etc. For those present these sources of information can supposedly become accessible through the outfit of the individual, thus allowing them to define from the start what can they expect of him. In this case the suit would indicate seriousness and a man who can be trustworthy. The suit also conveys an illusion of a strong, autonomous body that doesn’t require any outside help.
It’s purpose is
”to create a body line (edge) that looks hard and impenetrable. … business suits function to seal the bodies of men and women managers. Firm straight lines and starched collars give the appearance of a body that is impervious to outside penetration. … also of a body that is impervious to the dangers and threats of matter that inside the body making ways to the outside … (for example, farting, burping, urinating, spitting, dribbling, sneezing, coughing, having a ‘running nose’, crying and sweating) in most ….”
(Longhurst 2001: 99)
This can be seen in a lot of companies where senior executives and managers restrain themselves from eating, drinking or smoking in front of their employees.
Several studies have shown that it is even more necessary for female executives to attain a more ‘formed ‘body, due to gender stereotypes. In 1980 the woman suit, which emphasized the female shape, became a symbol of female sexuality working in offices. Thus, numerous times women were and even to this day are judged for their looks and not for the quality of their work. For women to avoid that, they need to distinguish themselves from their ‘bodies’ and create boundaries that ”would separate them from their male counterparts and from the secretaries” ( Jones 1992:3, in Longhurst 2001: p102).
Another study called The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing by Michael L. Slepian, Simon N. Ferber , Joshua M. Gold , and Abraham M. Rutchick (2015) emphasizes at how formal attire changes people’s thought process. Abraham Rutchick (professor of psychology at California State University, Northridge) states that “Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world,” In that study it was discovered that wearing formal clothing not only changes the way people perceive themselves and how they make them think more broadly, but also how formal clothes(for example suits) encourages an individual to use abstract cognitive processing rather than concrete processing. According to the study (Volume: 6 issue: 6, page(s): 661) ”concrete processing includes more subordinate and narrow mental representations, whereas abstract cognitive processing consists of super ordinate, holistic, and broad mental representations that facilitates the pursuit of long-term goals over short-term gains (Fujita et al., 2006)”. That can be explained in part by psychological distance where people who wear formal clothing are more rational and social distant. This social distance is being created by the intoxicating feeling of power. Having power is the ability to control resources that other people don’t. This leads the powerless who are normally people of ‘low-class’ to depend on the powerful and thus social distance is being born.
1. Meier, M. S., & Rivera, F. The Chicanos: A History of Mexican Americans. New York: Hill & Wang Pub. 1972