As someone who sometimes thinks seriously about trivial things, I want to consider that gendered mainstay of weddings, galas, funerals, and other sacred and secular events—the business suit. To make sense of countervailing and cyclical men's suiting trends, I need to seesaw through some history. My interest in this subject began as a small boy, after my parents and I emigrated from the Netherlands to the United States.
My mother loved Hollywood movies, which we spent many afternoons watching on our black and white TV set. As I absorbed those already classic films, I learned how to become American, or at least dress American. On that small screen Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, clad in their bespoke suits, seemed to own the rooms they entered. Years later I learned their look was actually a mid-Atlantic hybrid of English Saville Row tailoring worn with American movie star panache. While selling men’s suits during my college years, I further developed a point of view on style.
When my generation was younger, we wore Giorgio Armani’s interpretations of the late 1940s “Bold Look”—suits that were generously proportioned, wide-shouldered and equally wide-lapeled. This new/old style made us look like defensive linebackers. Armani’s doorway-filling ensembles had been previewed by Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsay Buckingham on concert stages as early as 1979, and rolled out by Richard Gere on the big screen in American Gigolo, 1980. Just compare any 1988 episode of TV's L.A. Law with any film noir from 1948 to see Armani's stylistic precursors.
Post-Millennium, with no other ready-to-wear options, men were eased into a reboot of post-war Kennedy-era Camelot style. It was best exemplified by the iconic muted glen plaid suit worn by Cary Grant in North by Northwest (1959), or particularly by his minimalist navy blue suit in Charade (1963). In my opinion, the phrase “What would Cary Grant wear?” (WWCGW) is still a good guide to follow.
In 1961 Brooks Brothers debuted its two-button Number Two suit—capitalism’s answer to Chairman Mao’s proletarian Zhongshan suit. Let's fast-forward to the early 2000s when the venerable retailer (established in 1818) introduced its revivalist Fitzgerald cut (JFK’s middle name). In turn, DNA from that suit silhouette lives on in their current Regent model. By endorsing natural shoulders and narrow to moderate width notched lapels, the American clothier continues to offer a modernist evolution of business wear, as modeled every weeknight by talk show host Stephen Colbert. The look is akin to threads sported by jazz artists Miles Davis at midcentury and more recently by Wynton Marsalis. As Marsalis once said, “The main thing we share with Brooks Brothers is that we are both classic and in the present.”
Conversely, most RTW labels lack the measured approach of that traditional maker and merchant. During the past twenty years menswear brands have popularized shrunken suits that make buttons like they’re about to pop and gym-toned arms look as if contained within sausage casings. These extra slim cuts lack the flattering drape and length of their Mad Men archetypes, thereby making most dudes look like their suits are a couple sizes too small—which they are. This childish impression violates the very purpose of wearing a suit, which is to confer dignity upon its wearer. Perhaps not such a trivial thing after all.
Brooks Brothers’ concession to current trends is demonstrated in the hip-hugging suspension of its trousers which undermines the otherwise idealized proportions seen during the Kennedy administration (1961—1963); although a lower rise makes sense after a hearty meal (cuffs—called turn-ups by the Brits—optional). I wonder if BB’s distillation of the business suit has achieved the timelessness of Levi’s 501s or the Pendleton Board Shirt, as well as their very own innovation: the oxford cloth button down shirt (OCBD). At the very least, the brand provides an understated alternative to the three qualities currently espoused in the fashion capitals—bigger, wider, and longer. For example, Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection exhibited last month at the Louvre included voluminous suits. The museum was a fitting venue because Vuitton’s outlandish creations really are walking artworks, rather than clothes most men would ever consider wearing.
Perhaps this over-scaled “shock of the new” (to borrow the term coined by art critic Robert Hughes) sent me scurrying back, sartorially speaking, to the ephemeral Cold War certainties of 1961. I should disclose that my recent purchase of a dark blue Regent number—grounded by longwing brogues—triggered this bout of Cognitive Dissonance Avoidance. Although I’ve made a choice, I still have some questions. With Milan and Paris showcasing jumbo scale at their respective Fashion Weeks, will the fashion-forward young man be diminished by pagoda-shouldered suit coats while drowning in the pooling lengths of high-waisted trousers? Away from Rue Saint-Honoré, will this louche new look have legs? Probably. As in the Eighties, the young always seem to pull it off.
©Alex Swart 2023