I Can See By Your Outfit That You Are A ….. : Fashion, the Suit, and Knowing your Place

Posted: January 16, 2011 in Uncategorized

The Renaissance saw an explosion in the realms of the trading, production, science, and the arts. Trading and the money to be made with it brought goods and new thoughts about what the material culture of the west meant. Galileo may have trained his telescope on the heavens to find the new organization of the world, but he as well used to apparatus to get the jump on traders by perusing the sea for ships returning from trade expeditions to corner markets in the vibrant merchant city of Venice. The new influx of textiles and domestic items gathered in trading; and the development of new textiles, dyes and sewing; pushed tailoring in the renaissance in innovative directions and spawned hordes of innovative markets in the courts of Europe for garments and accouterments around the dressing of the self. This expanding consumer and visual milieu came to create new needs and desires but often overlooked in the heady broth of new Renaissance money and desires was the influx of new ideas which  habituated new ways of sensitivity and social address. And naturally the social address became more and more important and demanding during this period with the nature of garments and the social address of clothing (and its accessories).

Hans Maler, Portrait of Matthäus Schwarz 1526

Into this new and slightly obsessive attention to the status of garments and dress, strode Matthäus Schwarz (a lead accountant working for the well-off merchant family the Fuggers of Augsburg). Beginning in his 20’s and going into his dotage, Schwarz was to commissioned for himself a total of 135 watercolors which would accent his slim figure in manicured and immaculately garments. The Watercolors would come to be bound into a portfolio album and would become known as the first attempt to form a fashion “canon” titled (later) the Klaidungsbüchlein ( the Book of Clothing). The Album details a flurry of garments and accessories from red stockings (for men) to (the carrying of) Bluish handbags which detailed the growing concern and importance of localizing ones place in the social hierarchy through the outward appearance of the cloth, cut and carried accessory.

Matthäus Schwarz, Book of Clothing , 1520 - 1560

It was at this time that the concept of Fashion came to be founded and quickly solidified (in its seasonal transitory way) in the social realm. The Italian word “moda” was harvested from its Latin form to make a clear cut distinction between garments which were to be “fashionable” markers in the social courts and the ordinary clothing and dress of the “lesser” classes (not to mention labor and peasant classes) which was considered mere costume (this was the distinguishing terminology of the time, Fashion and Costume). The French in the 16th century acquired the term and the English adopted the phrasing of “fashion”,  to denote the same type of  dressing style of upper class consciousness, from the Latin term for “making”.  In 1550 Andrew Boorde was to first use the term “fashion” in his “First Book of the Introduction of Knowledge” by having a scantily clothed English man state: ‘Now I will wear I cannot tell what, all fashions be pleasant to me.’ Boorde’s book is considered the first text published in Europe to show, in a set of woodcuts in the book, differing dress indigenous to variety of different countries and peoples. The plea which the English man is making in Boorde’s book, while almost completely sans clothing, is meant as an impassioned arguement for an awareness of the issue of “fashion” in order to formulate and create the important and particularly “English” mode of dress determinately different than the rest of the world.

Woodcut Dutchman Andrew Boorde's A compendious regiment or a dietary of healthe (1547)

Though many of a moralistic or utilitarian turn bemoaned the waste and pomp of the new styles of fashion, and the time wasting concerns and social obsession with them, members of the courts and the burgeoning moneyed classes found the new fashion and its continual alternations a easy means to distinguish the elites from those of a less worthy group.

Yet these calls for constant expense, and the continuing turnover of “recent and important” fashions, were not without stress to both the new and the old elites and during the Renaissance the many governmental bodies felt to need to pass a multiplicity of Sumptuary laws. These laws, which derive  from ancient Roman dictates about what  expense (sumptus) could be made by citizens, were a means for the state keep in check the amounts that could be outlaid into garments and accessories, and so lighten the burden of competitive consumption which could quickly get out of hand between hierarchically spirited members of the elite. However to still ensure the denotations of rank, which the fashion clothing was meant to ensure, the Sumptuary laws also would include strict guidelines on the materials, colors and cut, which could be donned or displayed by differing social classes.

Le Courtisan suivant le Dernier, depicts a French courtier casting aside his lace, ribbons and slashed sleeves accordance with the Sumptuary Edict of 1633

Some allowances needed to be made in the Sumptuary laws, however, even inside of the class concerns of fashion. Unmarried women of a upper echelons, for example, would be expected to wear fashion of their rank, yet were not able to generate proper income to keep to this regime of fashion due to being excluded from the possibility of work, owning land, or like economic prohibitions.  With obvious limited income, and a necessity of wearing the proper fashion, dispensations were granted in the law for alternative garments or accessories which certain segments of the society could wear.

In the 17th and 18th centuries the idea and discussions of fashion (and whether it denoted decadence or purity, what it said about “proper” humans, whether it was “uplifting to the spirit and society”) came much more to the fore and codified this notion and its industry even further. The English Puritans, along with their Calvinist counterparts, came to recognize, ideologically, a distinction between the markings of wealth through work and that just acquired through lineage.  Using the idea of Godly Omniscience and Predetermination (god knows all: god knows if you are going to heaven: If you are going to heaven god would not make you suffer in this world: If you have money you are going to heaven) the Puritan and Calvinists began to see the acquisition of possessions and of money as  signposts of God about Goodness and the determinations of the Spirit.  The transitory material items of the moneyed vocational classes were therefore marked as “goodly luxury’ along with the fashions seen as indicators of this.  The new justifiable and goodly luxury was a marking of divine providence and the external markers of fashion could be seen as one with this.

Not long following the Great Plague of London (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666) Charles the II felt it necessary to contain the elaborate court life style and imposed a set of rules to implement an image of reserve and deference to bring its access (of image) in line. This Order came as a shock to the Upper classes and the court as most Sumptuary laws up to this point had been imposed to keep a lower class from the ostensible dress of the elite (and which would confuse the issues and address of class). This Edict by the King caused a distinct reversal and almost immediately created a cut back on the elaborate markings of class employed by the court who carried out this order by donning a more simple style of dress which came to be filled by the odd attire of shirts and pants  The simple cut of the modern suit was born and though the court style was to revert to more elaborate and sumptuous attired in the 200 years that followed the simple “suit” cut  was to move from the ratified atmospheres of the court to infiltrate the merchant classes and the landed gentry.

Adding to this arc, London, the later part of the 18th century, was to witness a vast and fluid influx of textile workers and fabric workers from surrounding and war weary European nations. These textile and fabric workers had been fostered in the work of uniforms for fighters of all nations in the Napoleonic era and applied the cut and concerns of the military to the tailoring traits brought with them to the work of a growing and influential England.

George Brummell, watercolor by Richard Dighton (1805)

Foremost to bring about this application of the military cut to the young imprimatur of the suit was George Brummel.

Having been part of the pre-throne ascendant George IV’s military unit (which was itself a mere fashion statement for the young prince-regent), Brummel had become aware and enamored of the cut and tailoring of the high fashion and culturally elite military uniform which this unit proudly wore as image only (no fighting for this unit).

King George IV 1809 John Singleton Copley (note Military Cut)

Up until this point in the time of fashion, linen wore beneath clothing had tended to the heavily padded variety as its historical trajectory has been as the buffer between the wearer and the use of armor and heavy protective gear. Beginning with Matthäus Schwarz’s concern with the slim body (he even had nude portraits of himself painted depicting this aspect of his body), then the image-austerity measures of Charles the II, and ending with the “Plaything Regiment” of George the IV, the bulky cut and heavy padding of costume and fashion had begun its decline and in its garment conscious place came the detailing the figure through cut and cloth.

After leaving the regiment, and with these ideas nestled in his mind,  Brummel brought these ideas to the tailors of Londons new and burgeoning garment community of Savile Row (whose tailors, who was already inclined to this notion of dress) and proposed and paid for a set of  slim figure Breech’s (pants) and Jackets (coats) which would lie close of cut to the body. Once more the pre-ascendant George was to influence the direction of dress and give credence to the new cut and somber colors (color would diminish the focus on the form of the body by drawing attention to itself) by adopting the stylings of Brummel. The Prince-Regent gave his highest mark of satisfaction to the new “look” by beginning to wear the garment grouping (with cut) in the social arena of London and the court itself.

Robert Longo, Untitled Men In The Cities, 1981 ( Frank), (JoAnn)

During the 19th century, though still resonating from its fashionably military roots and courtly responses, the proto-suit began to gather influences from other sections of the social elite.  Doctors and Surgeons required more flexibility of movement and the majority of padding for the suit, especially in the coat was forgone.  Specific garment items could be imported from other segments of society as long as they fulfilled the proper notions of class worth and from the medical class the ability to roll up sleeves to avoid contamination was necessary and the suit jacket obtained a set of buttons and button holes to reflecting this aspect of the doctoring class (and remains with buttons still unnecessarily on the end of suit jacket sleeves). Vents on the bottom back of jacket coats were implemented by military necessity but elaborated in the jackets for the sportsman and gentried class who used horseback riding for leisure (city elites rarely rode). Pants were slimmed and utilized and came to be usable garments for both courtly appearance, leisure activity and, even short winter walks in city and country (the lapels could be crossed over the breast and chest to shield from wind and cold)

Annika Larsson, PERFECT GAME, 43 min DVD loop, 1999

By the end of the 19th century the suit as its present form had been formed with cut, colors (somber and matching) and ensemble.

Robert Longo, Untitled "Men in the Cities" 1985

Along with this formation of garb of the suit came from France an growing fascination for the replacement of the common scarf with the more elaborate Neck scarves used by the fighters of Croatia to denote unit fellowship and military spirit, the cravatel. Appearing in London of this period and replacing the unappealing (to this class) utilitarian scarves of wool and cotton the new cravat could be patterned and colored to indicate social status in a extraordinarily socially functional way through the use of school colors, military pattern and the like.  Going through a slimming down itself (and obtaining elaborate methods for tie-ing it about the neck) the Necktie was appended to the suit in the later part of the 19th Century when the suit came to dominance as apparel for the social, as well as, the (growing) politically powerful merchant and banking classes of the period.

Annika Larsson, CIGAR, 7.13 min DVD loop, 1999

The cusp between the 19th and 20th centuries called for a sense of “modernization” to the world. The members of the society who controlled and came to think of themselves as the industrialized, dynamic and forward looking called for the utilitarian dress for the Prophet of the Machines and for the Dreamers of the Future.  Adopted as the obvious choice, the Suit now is common attire for the many that hold fashion paramount as indications and markers of status, convention, utility, and universal world-view.

Yves Klein: Anthropometries of the Blue Period. 1962  (includes documentation/Performance of the Fire Paintings, at the end of video.)

Yves Klein is in Charge and In a Suit (and the women are naked, defenseless and a “Tool”). The Suit as Power over Classes, Genders, and Others.

audience members for Yves Klein's perforance of the Anthropometries, 1962

Texts to Note about the subject:

Dressing Up, Cultural Identity in Renaissance Europe by Ulinka Rublack, 2011 Princeton University

The History of Costume, from the Ancient Mesopotamia to the Twentieth Century by Payne, Blanche; Winakor, Geitel; Farrell-Beck Jane,   1992  HarperCollins

The Male Image, Men’s Fashion in England 1300-1970, Penelope Byrd, 1979  Batsford

The Cut of Men’s Clothes 1600-1900, Norah Waugh,  1964 Routledge


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