The sovereignty of the suit

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Men’s dress suits haven’t changed all that much during the last 100 years or so.

Men’s dress suits haven’t changed all that much during the last 100 years or so.

Men’s classic business dress has long lineage

The suit might make the man, but who made the suit?

No, not the designer or tailor — the original idea.

If you don a business suit every morning, you’re wearing a ritual form of dress which originated in the court of Charles II, who was restored to the English throne when the country grew weary of the grim Puritanism of Oliver Cromwell.

The restoration court was permissive, even bawdy — and the new court dress, as prescribed by the monarch during 1666 was comfortable, colorful and modern.

Charles decreed that men at court were to wear a long coat, a vest, a cravat, trousers, a wig and (when outdoors) a hat. More than 300 years later, we’ve lost the wig, the vest and the hat, but otherwise we still conform to the sovereign’s dictates.

As centuries passed, court dress evolved into the business suit. Stiffly-posed men in 19th century photographs wear suits that, with a few alterations, could easily be worn by a Colorado Springs businessman.

During 1922, social arbiter Emily Post defined proper business dress. It’s either comforting or dismaying to note that her commandments are still in force.

“The business suit or three-piece sack is made or marred by its cut alone.” Post wrote, “It is supposed to be an every-day inconspicuous garment and should be. A few rules to follow are:

“Don’t choose striking patterns of materials; suitable woolen stuffs come in endless variety, and any which look plain at a short distance are ‘safe,’ though they may show a mixture of colors or pattern when viewed closely.

“Don’t get too light a blue, too bright a green or anything suggesting a horse blanket. At the present moment trousers are made with a cuff; sleeves are not. Lapels are moderately small. Padded shoulders are an abomination. If you must be eccentric, save your efforts for the next fancy dress ball … but in your business clothing be reasonable.

“Above everything, don’t wear white socks, and don’t cover yourself with chains, fobs, scarf pins, lodge emblems … you will only make a bad impression on every one you meet. The clothes of a gentleman are always conservative; and it is safe to avoid everything that can possibly come under the heading of ‘novelty.’”

In much of the Southwest and West, businessmen have abandoned the suit and tie in favor of more casual clothes. Open-necked shirts with slacks and a sports jacket are favored by business leaders in Phoenix, Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

In the latter city, dark suits appear to be the favored attire of one relatively small business subclass — casino floor managers.

In Colorado Springs, many bankers, politicians and lawyers still follow the dicta of Charles II and Emily Post. Perhaps surprisingly, so do many in the high-tech community.

“When those tech guys travel to the Far East, they wear a suit,” said Jerry Rutledge, who owns the eponymous downtown clothier. “A dark suit with a white shirt, probably French cuffs, and a subdued tie. That’s part of the culture of those countries — and if you want to do business there, you have to dress accordingly.”

Rutledge, who has sold suits from various downtown locations since 1962, said that Colorado Springs is “fairly formal” compared to other Western cities, but much less so than New York, Minneapolis or Chicago.

What’s the difference between a $99 suit and a $4,000 suit?

“Two things,” said Jerry Rutledge. “Workmanship and the quality of the cloth. This is a fiercely competitive business, and you get what you pay for. We do nearly half of our business in custom-made clothes, including shirts as well as suits.”

Vice Mayor Larry Small, a notably natty dresser, said that he “always” wears a suit during the day. Any exceptions?

“When I’m playing golf.”

True to his word, Small was wearing a dark gray suit with a white shirt during last week’s City Council meeting.

All of his colleagues were similarly dressed, except Sean Paige, who had apparently doffed his suit coat.

Councilman Tom Gallagher, who often eschews a suit, was resplendent in a dark blue three-piece number. Of the several dozen men in the audience, most were wearing suits.

The exceptions? Unkempt and slovenly members of the print media, who were warmly and informally attired.

Commissioner Jim Bensberg, who was in a meeting with senior county officials when contacted by CSBJ, said he was wearing a suit, as were all of his colleagues.

Would he stay in the suit, or change into something more casual after business hours?

“I’ll change,” Bensberg said.

Of the publishers of the city’s three most prominent newspapers, two (The Gazette’s Steve Pope and CSBJ’s Lon Mateczyk) wear suits daily. The third, the Independent’s John Weiss, never does.

“I wore a suit at my wedding, and between 1993 and 1994 I wore a suit at work,” Weiss said. “I was trying to fit in and be legitimate …. But then I realized that the whole point of being the publisher of an alternative weekly was that you didn’t have to wear a suit.”

Charles II, whose licentious, unbuttoned ways symbolized the merry era during which he reigned, would no doubt be surprised that the court dress that he once decreed now symbolizes a dour conservatism.

And the “suits at corporate” would be just as surprised to know that their preferred attire was created by a man who had 12 mistresses and 13 children, none by his queen.

2 Responses to The sovereignty of the suit

  1. So, John, what are you wearing?

    Dick Burns
    December 18, 2009 at 3:17 pm

  2. Could it be that that real impetus for a suit and no tie is the secular leadership in Iran? Check them out in their next news conference!

    Ed Ward
    December 18, 2009 at 5:31 pm