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Suits you sir. Power, politics, counterculture and the signification of the suit. June 10, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Chekov’s comments on the suit recently had me thinking. The male suit is certainly a fascinating topic of study. It is inextricably linked with hierarchical business structures within liberal capitalist societies. This is the obvious consequence of it being used as the most overt symbol of business and business people.

Yet, it is interesting how the suit has, like any other symbol, been appropriated by those entirely antithetical to its most over significations.

From the start there were significations of ‘otherness’. It appeared in the 1660s following the Restoration in England, an emulation in part of mens clothing at Versailles under Louis XIV.

Beau Brummell, the dandy, took this one step further in the 1800s, using tailored suits with neckwear which foreshadowed the tie. What is interesting about dandyism is that it was a conscious effort to emulate the styles of the aristocracy by the middle classes. This uneasy tension between the ‘haves’ and the ‘wanting to have more’ is reflected in later periods of suit wearing. And it’s telling that Brummells style was adopted in France by those who sought to project a more bohemian imagery, or as noted on wiki:

There, dandies sometimes were celebrated in revolutionary terms: self-created men of consciously designed personality, radically breaking with past traditions.

The list of those who followed in an almost decorative use of the suit is obvious when placed in this light. Oscar Wilde, Max Beerbohm, Noel Coward and even more recent luminaries such as Quentin Crisp and Andy Warhol.

But their position within society as part of an artistic, sexual or cultural avant-garde demonstrates the mutability of the suit, as with any other aspect of apparel or the broader material culture, to contain within it numerous, even contradictory significations.

Youth culture took the suit, or perhaps the concept of the ‘dandy’, and reworked it to their own ends. Now this seemingly paradoxical appropriation is entirely logical on closer examination. The rise of youth culture was during the 1950s and 1960s, a period of time where there was a greater spread of disposable income amongst sections of the population who had historically had little autonomy or indeed ability to purchase anything other than utilitarian clothing. The choice of suits by mods is particularly interesting since it cut across other youth styles of the same period, such as those adopted by rockers whose jeans and leather styles were expressly borrowed from the periphery of the culture and also embodied significations of the urban and rural working classes. And again, perhaps it is not entirely coincidental that early mods were drawn more from the middle than working class and strongly influenced by suit styles appearing in Italy.

Moreover the process of emulation which we see with Beau Brummel and others is evident here as well. Freud once noted the power of “The narcissism of small differences” whereby minor differentiation in attitude can actually generate greater conflict that that between those with a wider differentiation of outlook. The outward similarity of form of the suit whether worn by mod or business person contained within significant potential for difference.

Interestingly another trend within mod tended towards a more overtly working class approach, one which crossed over into skinhead. But the three button suit remained and in part this was picked up on by ska revivalists in the late 1970s and early 1980s (I’ve already noted here how individuals like John Cooper Clarke, and others in New Wave wore bespoke suits, again as a sort of oppositional statement).

None of this is to in any sense deny that the traditional male suit retained a cachet as a symbol of a certain brand of conservatism.

This, perhaps unsurprisingly, operates in sometimes counterintuitive ways. Consider the way in which revolutionary fervour was displayed through the signification of the jacket and shirt without the tie. Examples of this range from the Iranian Revolution of 1979 where the revolutionaries, an eclectic mix of religious and secular elements, expressed their aversion to the Western oriented regime of the Shah (whose civil service and all officials wore the tie) by discarding the tie. This is evident even today, as with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But intriguingly a similar process was also seen in Israel, perhaps also for revolutionary or socialist reasons.

A similar, if less hard-edged political signification was evident in the political identity projected by Independent community and socialist TD Tony Gregory in the Dáil where he managed to have standing orders changed in order that he could enter the Parliament chamber dressed without the tie.

Interestingly in subsequent years others of the left have retained the suit and tie. The most obvious recent example being Joe Higgins (former Socialist Party TD) who tended to dress in a beige or cream suit, with a tie thereby differentiating himself from the more usual pinstripe dark shades preferred by most TDs.

Surely not a case of one size fits all?


1. soubresauts - June 10, 2007

What struck me most about the FF-GP negotiations, in terms of appearances, was not that the six middle-aged-to-old men all wore dark suits and ties. It was that there wasn’t a woman among them.

I would have expected the Greens to do it differently, but, then again, the Greens’ current style seems to be to distance themselves from their origins (which include the feminist movement).

FF could have done a smart piece of one-upmanship by putting a woman in their team. Mary Hanafin, for instance.

I guess Brian Cowen wouldn’t have countenanced that. And I guess that Cowen wouldn’t countenance any serious concessions to the Greens.

Some people are blaming Sargent for the breakdown of the talks. Why is nobody blaming Cowen?

[Nice pictures BTW, WbS…]


2. WorldbyStorm - June 10, 2007

Funnily enough I thought much the same soubresauts. Mary White was there at the last press conference.


3. Pidge - June 10, 2007

“I would have expected the Greens to do it differently, but, then again, the Greens’ current style seems to be to distance themselves from their origins (which include the feminist movement).”
Or, perhaps it’s progressed to the extent where gender isn’t a consideration. 😉

Anyway, interesting piece there. Does Tony Gregory still not wear a tie?


4. WorldbyStorm - June 10, 2007

No, he doesn’t. And hardly will even if given the CC’s job, which he won’t be if I’m any judge of political events. (not that my track record is too good at the moment… 😦 )


5. Ciarán - June 11, 2007

It’s been mentioned on P.ie of course, but Paddy Power has opened the betting on Ceann Comhairle (Christ, is there anything you can’t bet on?)

It’s currently standing as:
Ruairí Quinn 13-8
Brendan Howlin 10-3
Rory O’Hanlon 9-2
Caoimhin Ó Caoláin 5-1
Tony Gregory 6-1
Michael Lowry 8-1
Emmet Stagg 10-1
Michael Woods 10-1
Mary Upton 10-1
Seamus Kirk 10-1
Michael Ring 16-1
Sean Ardagh 20-1
Dick Roche 25-1


6. soubresauts - June 11, 2007

What a line-up! I’d caution against betting on any of those characters. And, talking of suits… I’m reminded of this cautionary tale:

The doctor said, “Jack, the good news is I can cure your headaches. The bad news is that it will require castration. You have a very rare condition, which causes your testicles to press on your spine and the pressure creates one hell of a headache. The only way to relieve the pressure is to remove the testicles.”

Jack was shocked and depressed. He wondered if he had anything to live for. He had no choice but to go under the knife.

When he left the hospital, he was without a headache for the first time in 20 years, but he felt like he was missing an important part of himself. As he walked down the street, he realized that he felt like a different person. He could make a new beginning and live a new life.

He saw a men’s clothing store and thought, “That’s what I need… a new suit.”

He entered the shop and told the salesman, “I’d like a new suit.” The elderly tailor eyed him briefly and said, “Let’s see… size 44 long.” Jack laughed, “That’s right, how did you know?” “Been in the business 60 years!” the tailor said. Jack tried on the suit… it fitted perfectly.

As Jack admired himself in the mirror, the salesman asked, “How about a new shirt?” Jack thought for a moment and then said, “Sure.” The salesman eyed Jack and said, “Let’s see, 34 sleeves and 16-1/2 neck.” Jack was surprised, “That’s right, how did you know?” “Been in the business 60 years.” Jack tried on the shirt and it fitted perfectly.

Jack walked comfortably around the shop and the salesman asked, “How about some new underwear?” Jack thought for a moment and said, “Sure.” The salesman said, “Let’s see… size 36.” Jack laughed, “Ah ha! I got you there, I’ve worn a size 34 since I was 18 years old.”

The salesman shook his head, “You can’t wear a size 34. A size 34 would press your testicles up against the base of your spine and give you one hell of a headache.”


7. WorldbyStorm - June 11, 2007

Oh dear… 🙂


8. auds - June 11, 2007

You left out the other suit wearing political animal of note – the subspecies of political hack who puts on the suit when the rest of the world takes it off. Nothing like spotting the men who don’t wear suits to work producing a neatly pressed suit for the “meeting”.


9. WorldbyStorm - June 11, 2007

Very true… And then one might also cast ones mind back to the way suits were a sign of political virility in the 1980s, as with the Revolutionary Communist Party and certain members of Militant…step forward Mr. Hatton!


10. Pidge - June 11, 2007

Any mention of the prats who wear suits to college?


11. WorldbyStorm - June 11, 2007

It depends how it’s worn to college…


12. Ciarán - June 12, 2007

That was how we used to spot the DUP students at Queen’s.


13. WorldbyStorm - June 12, 2007

Snappy dressers perhaps, but did they have the income to go with it?


14. franklittle - June 13, 2007


In a landmark ruling, MLAs in the Northern Assembly now need not wear jackets. And yes, you guessed it, support and opposition on the matter broke down on nationalist/unionist lines.

What a curious little place it is.


15. WorldbyStorm - June 13, 2007

Gah! A couple of days late for true newsworthiness…


16. Suit Basics -The Silhouette – The Green Tailor - January 16, 2017

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