Thus fashion on one hand signifies union with those in the same class, the uniformity characterized by it, and, uno actu, the exclusion of all other groups.
—Georg Simmel, 1904
Accreted power tramples over the will of the individual — because that is what power does.
— The Economist, September 8, 2018
A cornered animal bristles its fur to appear larger.
To dress for power is to extend the body, like the retractable claws of a predator; to convince by size, silhouette, and animus that you possess the authority either to reward those who please you or cause swift and immediate pain to those who offend.
Until the French Revolution in 1789, the French court dictated men’s fashions. Puffy sleeves, enormous wigs, high-heeled booties, all to give an impression of largeness and virility. The idea that the higher the appearance of a person’s head, “the closer (they are) to God” has perennially applied both to pope hats and Dolly Parton wigs.
Elevator heels, holstered weapons, and aggressive back-combing notwithstanding, the suit, since the beginning of the 20th century, has been the primary psychological exoskeleton by which the professional man — that evolved landshark in three-season, worsted super 150s — may protect his image, declare his status, and potentially intimidate those in his purview into obedience and submission.
It is impossible to describe the evolution of the modern suit without invoking the innovations of Beau Brummell, who redefined the look of the Regency age.
To Brummell’s jaundiced eye, the conventional costume of his day was unforgivably tainted by such court holdovers as overly tight breeches, ruffly lace sleeves, long bejeweled cutaway coats, garish waistcoats, or accessorizing with too many chains, braids, and buckles.
Brummell’s innovations—daily bathing, custom-tailored stirrup trousers, a veritable fetish for starch — made him an intimidating figure for anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path while wearing last year’s knee breeches. While most habits of the French court were passé, ridicule was still enormously potent: Brummell, a celebrated wit, delighted in bullyragging to the stumps anyone whose dress he perceived as befouled by foppery. Many such anecdotes are still remembered and beloved today:
Brummell asked a friend of his what he called those things on his feet. “Why, shoes,” he replied. “Shoes, are they?” said Brummell doubtfully, and stooping to look at them, “I thought they were slippers.”
Brummell chucked all poetry, loucheness, individuality, and frippery associated with the court in favor of more somber, subdued, and manly cuts and colors. The dandyism for which Brummell was famed was decidedly butch. The most famous of Brummell’s enduring quotes invariably betray his deep distaste for anything flashy, which he considered womanish:
To be truly elegant, one should not be noticed.
Poets lamented; Charles Baudelaire was plunged into depression when he noticed himself in an abruptly Brummellized society clad in black and gray and declared the new fashion a symbol of mourning for a world in which even the potential for beauty had died.
Indeed, the austerity of the business suit, according to fashion historian René König, had its roots firmly planted in personal and sexual repression: “The man’s suit of today is a direct descendant of the Puritan dress, a political demonstration against the ostentation of the (French) courts.”
Unobstructed by threats of socialism, the bourgeoisie professional class found itself devoid of natural enemies (save each other), and the subdued new style began to be seen as symbolic participation in capitalism’s unstoppable rise.