Listen to this story



Power Trip

A Brief History of the Power Suit

From the French court to JFK to Patrick Bateman in ‘American Psycho’

Illustration: Noah MacMillan

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.

Late 1700s or early 1800s engraving showing Beau Brummell dressed in a fur-trimmed cloak, spats, and a top hat. Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images

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.

TThe end of the 19th century vigorously expelled the private self from the workplace. Public presentation became decidedly conformist; a man in long trousers and a top hat was intentionally declaring that industry had slain his libido and/or bought all its future rights. The look was intended to suggest restraint, mastery over all temporal urges, “goal-orientedness,” punctuality, and accuracy. The modern gentleman sought to present himself as unflinchingly ready to exploit others with even more ruthlessness and ingenuity than the aristocratic serfdoms he presumed to replace.

With industrialization came migration into major cities. Workers seeking their fortunes had opportunities for reinvention. Status seeking meant wearing the properly coded garments.

Rationalism replaced feudal loyalty and brought with it a need to split the self into at least two distinct parts: a performative social workplace persona and a personal self that needed vigorous and constant repression. The necktie is symbolic of this emotional self-control — the strangling of feelings in order to belong to a professional social order of other goal-oriented, bourgeois men who distrust their true selves enough to smother them.

A man carrying a cane dressed in a frock coat and top hat, circa 1855. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Gentlemen of the Victorian era (1837–1901), now fully enslaved to the whims of the tailors of Saville Row, paired their formfitting frock coats with trousers, which first appeared around 1800. The frock coat, sometimes with velvet trim on the collar, was the look of more money than you.

Frock coats and trousers held manhood in thrall until they were overtaken in the 20th century by the three-piece suit.

Suits — that is, jackets and pants tailored from the same material — were originally known as “lounge suits” and were first created for sporting activities like cycling or hunting. Tweeds, among the first fabrics to be used for both pants and jacket, essentially began as the reviled tracksuit of today.

In 1849, between the introduction of the first sewing machine in 1830 and its mass production in 1850, gold was discovered in the California hills. Four plucky brothers with the seminal last name of Brooks introduced the world’s first off-the-rack suit to cater to the new money of prospectors — an atavistic bunch of excitable Yosemite Sams who didn’t have enough patience to suffer dentistry, let alone be groped during multiple fittings by soft-fingered tailors. Due to its shorter, dartless, wholly unformfitting jacket, it would come to be known as the “sack suit” or “box suit.”

By 1870, the box suit was entrenched in North America.

It stayed, and stayed, and stayed. All innovations in conservative men’s business wear came to a screeching halt some 170 years ago. The box suit remains virtually unchanged to this very day; Brooks Brothers still sells its №1 Sack Suit in the same cut as the one from the turn of the 20th century.

A tailor’s illustration of six men’s suits circa 1890s — early 1900s. From left to right: a long roll frock (not to button); a three button sack; a tuxedo dress suit (no buttons, no outside pockets); a clerical suit; a full dress suit; and a Chesterfield. Circa 1890s-early 1900s. Photo by Bettmann/Getty

It remains the least symbolic and most inoffensive mens’ fashion ever created. Since its inception as a fashion statement, the box suit is as good as saying nothing at all and merely handing over your tax records.

Nearly all U.S. presidents have worn Brooks Brothers box suits since 1918. Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in a Brooks Brothers suit; it is widely speculated that John F. Kennedy was as well. Coroners did not release the label of Kennedy’s last suit. It is also speculated that this was at the request of Brooks Brothers.

TThere were a few notable fluctuations in the suit in the 20th century, when the fashion industry was still consolidated enough to promote enormous changes in fashion that were visibly identifiable by decade — but none of them really affected what was worn in conservative or executive circles.

There was the 1920s, with the wide Oxford trouser leg and something of a return to Fitzgeraldian foppery à la The Great Gatsby, thanks to the Ivy League and World War I fabric rations being of no consequence to the polo set. The Prohibition era, likewise, gave us fashion superstars like Al Capone and Legs Diamond, who gave not one fuck about the rest of mankind in such devil-may-care surpluses of pelt as double-breasted pinstripes and raccoon coats.

L: Al Capone — Public domain. R: Legs Diamond — Photo by Bettmann/Getty

Wars invariably had their effect on menswear. Too much may be said about World War II and Nazi tailoring, particularly since many of Germany’s more memorable looks, such as those of the SS, were created by future business-suit mogul Hugo Boss.

Using wartime rationing as an excuse, tailors began insinuating military cuts into the business suit — making the double breast passé, narrowing lapels, and getting rid of the vest in the name of austerity — but this was as much or more about changing the silhouette to force the purchase of new suits than anything else.

The gray flannel suit popularized in 1950s was, at first, associated with wage-slave middle-class conformist schmuckery — lowly commuters on trains to planned suburbs — until the Prince of Wales sported one. Then it became iconic.

The Rat Pack and the cult of Sinatra brought Italian menswear back into vogue — skinny suits and skinny ties cut in shiny sharkskin — just in time to outfit a new species of apex predator executives: the Mad Men of Madison Avenue, who struck gold in the new uncharted boomtown of the American mind by perverting Freudian psychology to manipulate consumers.

Photo by Jack Albin/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In the 1960s, while the antiestablishment movement enjoyed bold new artificial colors and a return to long-haired gender-bending, the conservative establishment remained stalwart in Brooks Brothers box suits.

The 1970s, though largely regarded as the hangover and aftermath of the 1960s, saw a brief return to an almost courtly level of individualism and blatantly objectified male sexuality in men’s suits that would have cheered up Baudelaire immensely due to the unexpected charismatic dominance of John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. The condom-tight white suit and platform heels were later risibly worn by Al Pacino’s Scarface in the 1980s (which, instead of relegating the white three-piece suit and black shirt to a Halloween costume, secured it as a classic in the aspiring narco-capitalist wardrobe.)

The men’s fashion backlash against the 1970s in the ’80s is somewhat comparable to Beau Brummell’s loathing of the French court in terms of its visceral disgust. Fashion-wise, the 1980s treated the ’70s like a blackout night that resulted in a persistent STD.

The “power suit” earned its named and reached its apotheosis in the 1980s with the popularization of Giorgio Armani, whose generously cut, shoulder-padded gangster suits came to represent the predatory, laissez-faire capitalism for which Wall Street remains infamous. With the suits’ superior wools, notched collars, double breasting, chalk stripes, and inward-turned pleats, the only missing signifier of Prohibition-era gangsterdom was a tommy gun.

Photo by Vittoriano Rastelli/CORBIS/Getty Images

The 1980s are also notorious for businesswomen’s first attempts to conceal their nudity in the workplace with Italian suits made for women. They were invariably criticized for appearing “too masculine” or too much like a slutty librarian in a music video who would rip down her hair bun, take off her glasses, and make violent love to an unwitting high school boy.

While the most famous movie portrayal of the financial world’s ethical zombiism in the 1980s was Michael Douglas’ portrayal of Gordon Gecko in Wall Street, Christian Bale’s role as psychopath Patrick Bateman in American Psycho is more edifying about the importance of subtlety in suit dominance in the executive class.

Luis: That’s a wonderful suit… Don’t tell me, don’t tell me, let me guess… Valentino Couture?

Patrick (distantly): Mmm-hmm.

Luis (fondling suit): It looks so soft.

Patrick (slaps his hand away): Your compliment was sufficient, Luis.

After the stock market crash in the 1980s, Wall Street was rebuilding itself on penny stocks and tape painting. In the movie The Wolf of Wall Street, tailors on the selling floor measure men’s arms and lay muslin on their pinstripes while the brokers bellow obscenities into telephones.

“Every day, money-crazed kids beat a path to my door,” Jordan Belfort says. “If we hired ’em, they’d drop straight out of college overnight and spend whatever allowance they had on a new suit from our Stratton tailor.”

In terms of motion, the 1990s were fashion doldrums, notable only for grunge, minimalism, and suit jackets occasionally being layered with hoodies, due to editorial stylists for men’s magazines getting excited over sartorial mashups.

TToday’s power suit exudes either the presence of money or the ability to steal it. Its primary driving force and ethos is utilitarianism. It remains the primary staple of a political wardrobe because of its psychological invisibility. A Brooks Brothers suit symbolizes absolutely nothing, particularly when worn with no ornamentation save a wedding band and a cloisonné flag lapel pin.

The power suit — like a ski mask or a necklace of human ears — is an instrument of the political economy that surrounds it in time. It tells us that while technology and social climates have changed, power has remained exactly the same. The box suit reassures us that capitalism is as unlikely to evolve past criminal collusion and exploitation as the Brooks Brothers №1 Sack Suit is to suddenly grow tails.

Power suits for political women (who have much less room to experiment than first ladies) have long embraced the more regal Iron Lady looks of Margaret Thatcher. Lately, as is evidenced with veteran players like Hillary Clinton, the Woman of Power look has guttered out into boxy, monochromatic pantsuits in television-popping, unnatural, casino-palette versions of the primary flag colors: vermillion and electric blue. They are as loud as they are unflattering.

Photo by Eric Robert/Sygma/Getty

“I’m sorry,” says Patrick Bateman, the American psycho, to a black homeless man in an alley with whom he has been attempting to relate. “I just don’t have anything in common with you,” Bateman tells the man moments before stabbing him to death.

At the end of American Psycho (spoiler alert), Bateman, in an existential crisis, goes to great lengths to have his killing spree stopped. He commits ever-more outrageous atrocities, openly confessing them to everyone he encounters. Nobody believes him. Everyone in his immediate society is too impressed by his presentation — or they’re too narcissistic, self-absorbed, and invested in the collective myth of their elitism — to hear his words or care. The Valentino Couture suit is the perfect dazzle camouflage, turning even the blood of multiple hookers virtually invisible.

So instead of being arrested or executed, the poor American psycho in his beautifully soft bespoke power suit just miserably… persists.

Cultural X-ray. Bat-shark. Lame-retardant. Your ad here, $1M.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store