The Economics of “The Man in the White Suit”

Gary McGath
Jan 10 · 3 min read

Two and a half decades before Obi-Wan Kenobi, Alec Guinness played the inventor Sidney Stratton in The Man in the White Suit. Stratton devised a new fiber that could be made into clothes that would never wear out or get dirty.

The reaction from both the clothing mills and the unions was outrage. He’d put the mills out of business and the workers out of work! People would never again buy new clothes! In the finale, a mob representing both groups chases him down the street. Even an old washerwoman berates him for destroying her business.

The reaction is plausible. Both groups include a lot of people who want to protect the status quo against innovation. The manufacturers try to strong-arm him into signing a contract letting them suppress his creation. Stratton thinks the fiber will be a huge benefit to people, saving them from the need to replace their clothing.

It’s a great movie, showing entrenched interests vs. the innovator. Stratton’s final line should be one of the famous quotes in movie history, along with “May the Force be with you.” The line is simply “I see.” You’ll have to watch the movie to learn what he sees.

An industry-destroying fabric?

The movie doesn’t explore the economic issues in any depth. Would this new fabric have wiped out the clothing industry?

Some innovations certainly have destroyed industries or reduced them to tiny niches. I live in an area called “Carriage Town, USA” because it was once a center for making horse-drawn vehicles. Try finding a carriage maker today. The washerwoman in the movie would soon have been out of business, even without Stratton’s fabric. Washing machines in homes and laundries have wiped out one-person washing services.

These advances didn’t create mass unemployment. People got jobs in the automotive industry, in laundries, and in related businesses. The myth that technological advances destroy people’s livelihoods has probably been around since the wheel replaced dragging stuff over the ground.

In this case, it’s not clear that the new material would have made cotton, linen, and polyester obsolete. It has serious disadvantages. It can’t be cut; that makes alterations impossible. It can be dyed only when the fiber is created. Forget about printing T-shirts made from it. Making anything but solid colors would have been difficult with the technology of the fifties.

The fabric repels water, due to its permanent electrostatic charge. I’d venture that it would feel odd to wear. Besides, who wants to wear the same clothes for ten years?

If it was cheap, the fiber would find a market niche in durable, low-cost clothing. It could be great for work clothes and sports uniforms. But would it be cheap? We learn that the manufacturing process involves heavy hydrogen and radioactive thorium. That sounds expensive, not to mention dangerous. The eponymous white suit glows in the dark. People may not have been aware of the problem in 1951, but you wouldn’t get me to wear those pants!

It’s still a terrific movie. The writers weren’t trying to get into economic details, just to show the conflict between the innovator and entrenched interests. It does a great job of that. Guinness was a great actor in any role (in Kind Hearts and Coronets, he played eight parts!). The movie is available on DVD.

Gary McGath

Written by

Freelance writer, lover of liberty, music, and cats. Computer geek. Other interests include bicycling, history, philosophy, and science fiction.

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