Unembraceable

Peter Wollen

  • Sex and Suits by Anne Hollander
    Knopf, 212 pp, $25.00, September 1994, ISBN 0 679 43096 2

My first thoughts, in connection with suits, are of Lucky Lucan, Joseph Beuys and the Thin White Duke, at the head of an imaginary horde of accountants, dandies, clubland heroes, zoot-suiters and funeral directors. It has taken me some time to realise that the question of suits is indeed a crucial question, not only about fashion but about sexual identity, national culture and art history. My slow awakening may well be typical. Whatever their knowledge of the great dress designers – from Worth and Doucet through Poiret and Schiaparelli to Westwood and Miyake – I do not think that many people could name a great tailor or men’s clothes designer who flourished before the Fifties, before Brioni and Cardin and Armani succeeded in wresting the hegemony from Savile Row. Yet Savile Row dominated male fashion for more than a century, just as the rue de la Paix has dominated female fashion. Tailors have never been given the credit that has gone to couturiers. They have stayed in the shadows, sitting cross-legged or wielding their tape-measures in traditional obscurity.

The story of modern male fashion – and that is the core of Anne Hollander’s provocative book – begins, emblematically, with Beau Brummell, who wore the clothes rather than made them. His tailors were Schweitzer and Davidson in Cork Street, Meyer in Conduit Street and then Weston in Old Bond Street, ur-tailors who, through their connection with the Beau, played their part in the massive and virtually universal transformation of the way men dressed. Brummell was particularly fond of Weston – ‘an inimitable fellow – a little defective perhaps in his linings, but irreproachable for principle and button-holes’. And it is at Brummell’s well-shod feet that we can lay not only the tradition of dandyism, but the Great Masculine Renunciation itself, the turn away from pomp and ornament and finery which gave us the Savile Row suit.

Hollander gives J.C. Flugel’s theory of the Great Masculine Renunciation short shrift. She interprets him as claiming that ‘when fashion became very flighty at the end of the 18th century, men simply quit, as if in protest.’ ‘Another way of describing this,’ she adds, ‘has been to say that men made a cowardly retreat from both the risks and pleasures of fashion, and that their dress has ever since been something of a bore.’ Not so, according to Hollander. Men’s fashion remained supremely interesting, a great and ‘impressive achievement in modern visual design’. In fact the Great Masculine Renunciation, in her view, heralded the arrival of true modernity, a step for which women had to wait another hundred years – until Chanel and Alix Grès and Vionnet.

Flugel had a great deal to say about the reasons for the Great Masculine Renunciation, but his views were often the opposite of Hollander’s. ‘Man abandoned his claim to be considered beautiful. He henceforth aimed at being only useful. So far as clothes remained of importance to him, his utmost endeavours could lie only in the direction of being “correctly” attired.’ Flugel saw the cause of this retreat primarily in ‘the social tendencies and aspirations’ that found expression in the French Revolution. The new social order demanded clothing that would diminish rather than emphasise differences of rank and status. Men therefore turned to a form of dress which was characterised, first, by its uniformity and, second, by its simplicity and sobriety.

At the same time, there was a sharpening of the distinction between the sexes, as men monopolised work and the public sphere and women were relegated to home and the private sphere. Hollander makes powerful use of Thomas Laqueur’s recent book, Making Sex, to support her arguments here. She draws on his proposition that an original one-sex model, in which women were seen as fundamentally the same as men was replaced by the end of the 18th century by a two-sex model, which differentiated sharply between the physiologies of the sexes and assigned to men an active, desiring, pleasure-seeking role, while women were reduced discursively to an inactive, passionless and supposedly ‘purer’ mode of existence. Henceforth, like the Beau’s pantaloons, the two sexes were bifurcated sartorially.

Thus, for Hollander, women were condemned to a world, registered in the fashion provided for them, within which they were de-eroticised and regarded as objects rather than subjects of desire. Women were ‘employed in creating themselves according to masculine visions – to build, as it were, a perpetual superstructure on the controlling shape of the corset, which was hidden from Man’s eyes, so he could forget he had originally made it’. Here Hollander’s view converges unexpectedly with that of Flugel, who argued that the male compensated himself for the Great Renunciation by projecting his suppressed desire onto the subordinate female. Men took an exhibitionistic pride in the ‘vicarious display’ of the well-dressed women who accompanied them. Naturally the women needed men to manage this imagery.

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