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.

As Hollander puts it, during the 19th century men invented fictions of women for themselves as novelists, as painters and also, in due course, as couturiers – she points out how Worth usurped the traditional role of the female dressmaker around 1860 and thereby transferred power over the image of women to the male designer, a situation which persisted until Chanel, Grès and Vionnet took it back. These fictions of femininity can be construed as compromise formations, which combined the vicarious projection of male exhibitionism with the representation of female purity and passivity: billows of tulle, constricting stays, rich floral embroidery, heavy trains and hoops.

Men, in contrast, wore serious and sober suits and gentlemen, at least, acquired them in Savile Row. Incomprehensibly, Anne Hollander never once mentions Savile Row. The master-tailors she admires, as the bearers of modernity, remain shadowy, anonymous figures, nameless craftsmen rather than would-be artists and creators like the couturiers. In fact, however, the careers of Henry Creed or Henry Poole, who more than any others gave Savile Row its international reputation, ran in parallel with that of Worth, who originated Parisian haute couture.

Tailors and couturiers alike built their international reputations in the 1860s, when Worth became dressmaker to the Empress Eugénie, while Louis Napoleon patronised Henry Creed, who had originally made Eugénie’s riding-habits. The same year Henry Poole became tailor to the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, and soon both Worth and Poole, who had actually helped finance the Emperor’s return to France, had established a vast clientele of kings, princes and grand-dukes, stretching across Europe and beyond. Worth dressed the Princess von Metternich, Poole the Prince, and so on. Both soon acquired a new clientele in the American plutocracy.

Parisian opinion noted that English tailoring had superseded French as early as the 1820s. During the 18th century, fashionable men in England had followed French fashions at court and in the city. The new 19th-century cut had its origins in English country clothes, less formal, more practical. Brummell’s great innovation was to turn this country clothing into acceptable dress for London society. Brummell hated the country. Country members at one of his clubs, Watier’s, ‘stank’, he said, ‘of horse-dung and bad blacking’. Asked about a tour to the North, he enquired of his valet: ‘Which of the lakes do I admire?’ ‘Windermere, sir.’ ‘Ah yes – Windermere, so it is – Windermere.’ He was obsessed with cleanliness, spending two hours every morning on his ablutions, brushing his flesh with a strigil of pig’s bristles and plucking out stray hairs with his tweezers. He polished his boots so that the immaculate white of the tie would reflect on their lucent surface. When walking in the street – and Brummell himself walked rather than rode – he asked his companion to keep his distance in case he splashed a speck of mud on him.

In my own efforts to understand how Brummell’s idiosyncrasies and obsessions turned out to be so strangely decisive, the most illuminating book I have read is Gerald Newman’s The Rise of English Nationalism. As many others have done, Newman describes how English patriotism arose from below during the 18th century and was directed specifically against France and Frenchness, but he lays particular stress on fashion as the crucial signifier of Frenchness. The great Whig aristocracy who, for most of the century, ruled the country, brushing aside weak Hanoverian kings, were identified by the patriots as Francophiles in their attitudes and, above all, as people of fashion. Theirs was a ‘theatre of greatness’, in E.P. Thompson’s phrase, involving wig, dress, cane, bearing, gesture, language, taste and wit. Its metteurs en scène were known as the Ton, the Quality, or simply the World. English nationalism, Newman argues, developed in antagonism to this élite aristocratic World of Fashion and its boundless sway. Radical patriots, such as Hogarth, Fielding, Smollett or Foote, identified their prime target as foreign foppery: ‘trulls, toupées, trinkets, bags, brocade and lace; / A flaunting form and a fictitious face.’

In the end, this proto-nationalist Francophobia generated a cult of fashion’s obverse – sincerity, innocence, honesty, frankness, originality, manliness and moral independence, qualities which came to be seen as typically English, and which were opposed to French effeminacy and counterfeit. These virtues, too, were seen as country virtues. It was in citified Mayfair that the macaronis gambled, preened themselves and ate foreign food from their butter plates. Brummell’s achievement, at the turn of the century, after the course of Revolution had discredited France, was to reform the Quality. He neither descended to the visible sloth and neglect affected by Fox after the French Revolution, but nor did he dress or act like a fop.

In fact Brummell was only retrospectively considered a dandy. During his own time, he was clearly distinct from the macaronis or the incroyables. ‘If John Bull turns round to look at you, you are not well-dressed,’ he observed to Harriette Wilson, ‘but either too stiff, too tight, or too fashionable.’ Yet only a few years after the Beau’s creditors forced him into exile, the young dandies were wearing make-up, enormously high shirt collars, stiff lapels on their coats and corsets to produce wasp-waists, with padding on the chest, the rump and the calves.

It was in response to these excesses of dandy fashion that Brummell’s doctrine was revived. Dandyism was satirised in England by Bulwer-Lytton (in his ‘silver-fork’ novel, Pelham, in which Russelton represents Brummell) and criticised in France by Balzac (‘dandyism is heresy to an elegant life-style’). Even Baudelaire, who saw dandyism as a new form of spiritual aristocracy, disdained self-regarding display: ‘Contrary to what a lot of thoughtless people seem to believe, dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance.’ For Baudelaire’s dandy too, ‘perfection in dress consists in absolute simplicity.’ All three of these writers referred back to a rehabilitated and by now legendary Brummell in order to make their point, but it was a losing battle. Dandyism (and Brummell) once again became confused with a flagrant aestheticism – Barbey d’Aurevilly and Montesquiou in France, Whistler and Wilde in England.

Aesthetic dandyism coincided with the beginnings of modern art. From Whistler’s circle came E.W. Godwin, better known today as an architect, who was put in charge of the new fashion department at Liberty’s in Regent Street. The success of Liberty’s led to the extension of the Wiener Werkstätte, which set up its own fashion department, under Eduard Wimmer-Wisgrill. The Wiener Werkstätte in turn inspired the French couturier Paul Poiret who, after a visit to Vienna, created the Martine Workshop as an adjunct to his fashion house. Martine led to the Omega Workshop in London, which also produced and sold avant-garde women’s fashions.

In 1898 the great Viennese architect Adolf Loos wrote a series of articles for the Neue Freie Presse on the state of arts and crafts in Austria, provoked by the Vienna Jubilee Exhibition. Of these, the two most telling were on ‘Men’s Fashion’ and ‘Ladies’ Fashion’. Both were part of a running polemic conducted by Loos against the decorative aestheticism of the Secession and its offspring, the Wiener Werkstätte, including, of course, its fashion department, which was particularly influenced by the work of Klimt. Klimt’s companion, Mathilde Flögl, was herself an outstanding dress designer in the aesthetic mode and Klimt, like Whistler, also designed dresses to be worn by the subjects of his portraits.

On the subject of men’s suits, Loos makes three main points. First, he attacks the idea that men’s fashion should be judged on the criterion of ‘beauty’. On the contrary, he claims, ‘it means to be dressed correctly.’ He condemns the cult of beauty expressed ‘in the form of velvet collars, aesthetic trouser fabric and Secessionist neckties’. Second, he praises Savile Row fashion as a model of its kind. In true Brummell style, Loos argues that the Englishman dresses ‘in such a way that one stands out the least’. Thus he turns Brummell’s example against its corruption into Continental or aesthetic dandyism. Third, Loos stresses that the tailors of London – he mentions Poole specifically – excel in cut and understanding of cloth. It is because of their technical expertise that they lead their field, just like English plumbers or shoemakers.

It is, however, Loos’s writing on women’s clothing – in which he points out that men’s clothing went through a long historical struggle before it reached its final modern form – that underlies Hollander’s fundamental thesis in Sex and Suits. ‘Men too,’ Loos notes, ‘had to fight for the right to wear trousers. Riding, an activity that contributed only to physical development but produces no material profit, was the first stage. Men have the thriving equestrian knighthood of the 13th century to thank for clothing that leaves the feet free.’ And he adds that ‘only in the last fifty years have women acquired the right to develop themselves physically. It is an analogous process: as to the rider of the 13th century, the concession will be made to the 20th-century female bicyclist to wear trousers and clothing that leave her feet free.’ Loos concludes with a passage of burning optimism:

We are approaching a new and greater time. No longer by an appeal to sensuality, but rather by economic independence earned through work will the woman bring about her equal status with the man ... Then velvet and silk, flowers and ribbons, feathers and paints will fail to have their effect. They will disappear.

Hollander differs from Loos in one crucial respect. She believes that men’s clothing is itself erotic and expressive of sensuality. Suits are sexy. Thus the great fashion revolution of the 20th century, which Loos foresaw, not only allowed women more physical freedom, more modernity, but allowed them to be as erotically appealing as men. At first sight, this seems a strange, even counter-intuitive conclusion, but Hollander supports it with an argument based on the erotic power of clothing which unambiguously suggests the natural and active body. Until the 20th century, fashion had ‘always equivocated’ about the female body, whereas male clothing, with its clear exposition of the underlying bodily form (two legs, a torso, with mobile arms attached), had an explicit and natural relationship with the body, one which women achieved only after a long delay.

Hollander goes even further and suggests that women’s fashion not only caught up with men’s in the 20th century, it actually became more erotic.

Male dress throughout European history had kept men’s bodies intelligible, but it had resolutely prevented them from looking too embraceable or caressable, in order that they not seem vulnerable; and I have claimed that female dress followed that part of the male example, with the addition of contradictory seductive signals. But by 1920, women’s clothes not only showed women’s structure, they also began to suggest how the female body actually felt to its owner, and how it might feel to the touch of others.

Here she is thinking of the neoclassical fashions of Alix Grès and Madame Vionnet and the trim but sporty Chanel suit. The work of these great female designers, she claims, gave a new erotic tactility to dress by its use of fabric and its precision in marking bodily movement.

Loos believed that modernity would bring an end to the reign of sensuality, which he associated, like ornament, with barbarism. A seductive and artificial eroticism would give way to rational and pragmatic functionalism; and sexual desire would then return to a more natural and healthy mode. Hollander sees the history of fashion in a very similar way, but insists on the eroticism of modernity. Like Loos, she is hostile to ornament and surface detail, unless they are plainly subordinated to cut and structure. She sees the modernity of male dress as based on tailoring, whereas female dress has always leaned towards drapery puffed up with superficial, non-structural embellishment. The tailored and close-fitting suit, in contrast to this traditional female dress, exudes ‘a raw sexuality’. Thus Chanel suits suggest ‘a quiet, feline sensuality that is no barrier to active work and thought’. Hollander makes Chanel into a role model for women, ‘the lover of many, but nobody’s wife, mother or daughter’, and claims that her clothes reflect ‘both her modern freedom and her essential honour’ – which is hard to take, in view of what is euphemistically called her ‘German period’.

In the end, Hollander’s vision, like that of Loos, seems to be one of a unisex modernity which gives sufficient scope for restrained individual choice and rule-governed self-expression – the modern consumer as Neoclassical artist – without seriously challenging sexual norms. The movement of women’s clothing is towards a modernity whose exemplary forms have already been set by men. Men are certainly not encouraged to reverse the process and swathe themselves in robes or gowns. Indeed, Hollander feels it is inconceivable that they will ever want to do so. Her discussion of cross-dressing is phrased in terms of women’s selective borrowing from men – Joan of Arc, George Sand, Marlene Dietrich, the famous Helmut Newton photograph of a model in a Saint Laurent suit, whose flared trousers conceal shoes with very high heels, accompanied by another woman, stark naked except for the same shoes and a Paulette hat.

The only exceptions to this pattern are a brief passage dismissing counter-cultural men in caftans and another, more tolerant, on men with pony-tails or long, curly hair. There is no interest, for example, in David Bowie’s floral dress or Boy George’s Body Map kilt or the many other examples of drag or quasi-drag one might think of. Essential modernity, in the form of the neoclassical male silhouette, is here to stay. The modern suit provides us all with ‘a joyful new vibrancy of solidly designed and constructed modern views and modern visions, visibly humming with potential action and inner energy’, so that both men and women now enjoy ‘visual equality’. At last, ‘the way for women to look as real as men had been perfected, in the context of a universal modern reality for everything.’

It is hardly surprising, given this kind of triumphalism, that Hollander sometimes worries about recent trends. The ‘modernity’ she celebrates was an English modernity. It cannot be detached from the triumph of Savile Row over Paris and a concept of uncluttered and unassuming manliness, sincere, straightforward and relaxed under stress, which was specifically English. She dismisses the idea that the 19th century produced, in the English suit, a form of national dress, but that I believe it did. Just as France created a model of the well-dressed woman, which cannot be separated from stereotypes of Frenchness, so England created a model of the well-dressed gentleman, a self-regarding stereotype of Englishness. As Loos unambiguously demonstrated, male English dress itself became a model of male modernity. In short, I suspect Hollander of being an Anglophile.

In relation to men’s fashion, this Anglophilia played a role in America similar to that which Francophilia once played in England. Fred Astaire bought his suits from Anderson & Sheppard. Gary Cooper and Clark Gable patronised Lesley & Roberts. Cary Grant went to Kilgour, French and Stanbury, who also made the suit which Astaire wore to dance in Top Hat. The archetypal American image of the well-tailored suit is inevitably an Anglophile image. The final ecstatic illustration in Hollander’s book is of a modern dancer in a modern suit, caught in flight towards the future. The tailored suit, of course, stands for just the kind of Anglophilia which the American élite prefers. Anne Hollander’s final word on the Calvin Klein suit is that ‘all the liberties taken with the original tailored scheme have so far not succeeded in extinguishing the form, but only providing its dynamic and seemingly endless possibilities.’ ‘Endless’?