Category Archive 'Beau Brummel'

15 Oct 2014

The Men’s Suit: Greatest British Invention Ever?

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Cary Grant’s North By Northwest suit, described by one critic as “by far the best suit in the movie, in the movies, perhaps the whole world.”

A.A. Gill, in the New Statesman, argues that the suit is Britain’s greatest invention of all time. It is certainly a British invention with an extraordinarily durable world-wide range of influence.

The suit is the polite taming, the socialising, the neutering, of riding and military kit. Those pointless buttons on the cuff were moved from lateral to vertical. You used to be able to fold the end of your sleeve over and forward and button it like a mitten, for riding in the cold. Incidentally, the buttons on the cuff should correspond to the number of buttons on the front, not for any practical reason, but just because that’s what they should do. The vents at the back are made for sitting on a horse. The slanting pockets are for easy access when mounted. The suit that we wear was, in essence, invented by Beau Brummell – an obsessive, highly strung, socially insecure, thin-skinned aesthete, snob and genius. And, of course, an Etonian. He wanted to simplify the extraordinarily otiose decorative court dress to give men an elegant line. When the bailiffs finally broke into his rooms, they found only a simple deal table with a note that said, archly, “Starch is everything.” Beau escaped to France, where people said he looked like an Englishman and he died in an asylum.

We have to thank the members of the Romantic movement for the sober colours of suits. It was their love of the Gothic that put us in grey and black but the suit stuck. It said something and it meant something to men around the world; it said and meant so much that they would discard their local dress, the costumes of millennia, their culture and their link to their ancestors, to dress up like English insurance brokers. There is not a corner of the world where the suit is not the default clobber of power, authority, knowledge, judgement, trust and, most importantly, continuity. The curtained changing rooms of Savile Row welcome the naked knees of the most despotic and murderous, immoral and venal dictators and kleptocrats, who are turned out looking benignly conservative, their sins carefully and expertly hidden, like the little hangman’s loops under their lapels.

Radicals have always had a problem with the suit, always underestimated it. They tried to co-opt it as the Sunday best of Methodism, the Saturday night of working-class lads released from overalls, muck and sweat. They wanted the suit to signify the working-class respect for achievement, the rite of passage to grammar and university, wedding and funeral. But the suit is not simply an empty sack, not just a few yards of worsted with some silly buttons. It has an innate opinion. It comes with the power.

Read the whole thing.


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