Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The suit: a symbol of masculinity?

Is the suit a dull uniform or a vibrant fashion statement? Dr Tim Edwards from the Department of Sociology examines this question, and asserts what the suit now means for the modern day man.

The suit is often perceived as dull, uniform in all senses, fatally unsexy and sometimes worse. This is for the most part due to a fixation on working class work dress in the late nineteenth century in the UK, and the apparently dour consequences of grey flannel for men’s happiness in 1950s North America.

Part of the difficulty also lies in a question of definition. The modern suit is commonly seen as a matter of matching dreary materials when, in fact, the suit is defined by form not fabric, and an army of men in grey sweaters may equally lack as much aesthetic inspiration.

In more historical terms, the suit is seen to originate from the ornate outfits of Louis XIV well over three hundred years ago, and the gradual adoption of the jacket (or coat), waistcoat (or vest), and trousers (or pants) combination with an undershirt underneath.

The French Baroque was hardly noted for its dullness, whilst if we zoom forward to the present day we have actors such as Armie Hammer wearing vibrantly coloured, tight cut, Gucci suits, which define what is underneath and add to his attractiveness and sexuality. One might see this as a one-off example, yet one only has to think of David Beckham, James Bond, Cary Grant, spivs, mods, velvet jackets, evening wear, bowlers or pinstripes to realise this is hardly an exception.

As its history makes clear, the suit is not automatically erotic or glamorous – the dreariness of most paunchy sack wearing politicians is a case in point – rather that it is equally exemplary of masculine sexuality as it is of dreary conformity. The reason for this centres on its form, as the suit often heightens male sexuality in widening shoulders, narrowing hips and aesthetically linking, in Freudian terms, the Adam’s apple to the genitals via the tie.

From a more contemporary angle it is interesting that the suit is worn less for work and more for play, as many occupations do not require such formality any more. Thus the shifts in men’s tailoring these days look less to the square mile and more to what Gary Barlow is wearing on X-Factor.

One may also query the linking of the suit to masculinity when, for example, in the 1980s it became symbolic of female sexuality at the office. Yet women’s tailoring often has little to do with men’s – not least in its use of the skirt and tendency to emphasise the bust and waist, let alone in the fluffy pink varieties donned by Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde – and, when it does, as in the case of Marlene Dietrich, it is famous for its mannishness.

So, despite over three centuries of variations and reincarnations, the suit still matters to men and remains of central importance to masculinity.

Dr Tim Edwards

Research interests

  • Analyses of masculinity, sexualities, fashion and consumer culture, the interface between social and cultural theory, and social divisions
  • The meaning of money
  • Gay male culture, AIDS, and the New Man

Supervision interests

  • Gender studies, particularly masculinities, sexuality, fashion studies, popular culture, some media studies (film particularly), and consumer culture more widely
  • Contemporary and postmodern theories and social divisions

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