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In My View by Eric Musgrave: Reports of the death of the suit are exaggerated (yet again)

Eric Musgrave
07 April 2022

Menswear has been in the news for good and bad reasons lately.

The Victoria & Albert Museum is running its first major exhibition devoted to men’s fashion. On until 6 November, Fashion Masculinities: The Art of Menswear is well worth a visit despite its shortcomings. See below for my take on the show.

Less positively, the fashion obituary writers had it in for men’s suits yet again in March after the Office of National Statistics dropped the category from the basket of 700-plus products it uses to measure inflation.

The ONS this year removed 15 items (including coal and doughnuts!), added 19  and left 715 unchanged. Much was made of the eviction of men’s suits for the first time since the basket was devised in 1947 but there was less prominence for the fact the ONS introduced a men’s formal jacket or blazer to ensure men’s formal and business wear was still represented.

So, all in all, a sartorial equivalent of the legendary headline: “Small earthquake in Chile - not many dead”.

The demise of the suit is a regular favourite topic of the consumer media, probably rivalled only by its casualwear cousin “Denim is dead”.

That sales of men’s formal suits are declining should be a surprise to no one. The story could have been written with some justification since the mid-1960s. As a committed fan of good tailoring myself, my reaction is “So what?”

The recent demise of formalwear retailer TM Lewin, which has been placed in administration for the second time in 21 months, prompted the latest splurge of words pointing out the bleedin’ obvious – blokes do not wear as many tailored suits as they used to.

Men have never had so much choice about what they can wear and in the UK changes in social mores and accepted standards of dress means we have something approaching a free-for-all in menswear.

Yet tailored garments – whether with jackets and trousers in matching cloth, or in a contrasting jacket and trouser combo – remain a wardrobe staple for many. Not everyone, but many.

In my photographic history of tailoring, “Sharp Suits”, which is still selling well worldwide in its third edition, there are more than 150 images of men’s outfits, undermining the old complaint that “suits are boring”.

On the contrary, suits are supremely versatile.

For some, suits are only a workwear option. I wonder how many companies still have a stated dress code for employees. Leaving aside staff who must wear a uniform – which stretches from coffee shop assistants to delivery drivers – do firms still lay down a strict clothing policy anymore?

I am genuinely interested.

It should have come as no surprise to anyone – least of all the management at TM Lewin – the enforced closure of offices for the best part of two years would impact the sales of, err, office wear like suits.

It is still not clear how office life will return and that includes what men will be expected to wear when they get there.

In many large professional areas, like finance and property, I expect a tailored suit to remain de rigueur.

The recent speedy retreat from selling tailoring, formal shirts and ties in-store executed by John Lewis and Marks & Spencer was a surprise to me but only time will tell if they have over-reacted and thrown a well-dressed baby out with the bathwater.

The tailored suit as we recognise it today started to appear around 1860, championed by the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, who wanted something less restrictive than the frock coats and morning dress that was viewed as correct masculine costume at the time.

So the suit has had a good innings. If many men do not want to wear one and do not have to wear one for work, good for them.

Plenty of men, however, still choose to wear a suit when they want to “dress up” to go out socially or attend a special event like a wedding or a trip to the races.

All those writing the suit’s obituary overlook that plenty of men – I am one of them – like to wear a suit, often choose to wear a suit and are ready, willing and able to pay a decent price for one.

As general suits sales have declined, so sales of better-quality made-to-measure options have increased, according to my friends in the trade. The increase in popularity of three-piece suits (even poorly-fitting ones like Gareth Southgate’s M&S job) is part of this trading-up trend.

I know from my own experience that once you upgrade to made-to-measure and beyond to proper bespoke tailoring it is very difficult to go back to off-the-peg.

I can see selling tailoring will become a smaller, more specialised discipline across our industry but there will be still plenty of money to be made for those brands and retailers who do not believe everything they read in the papers.

Long live the suit.

 

Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear at the V&A

Over in South Kensington, aspects of the meaning and motivation of menswear is explored in the V&A’s show, which features quite a few tailored suits.

I wholeheartedly recommend a visit to anyone interested in beautiful clothes for men although I agree with my colleague Marcus Jaye that the show lacks focus and it is unclear what it is trying to explain to the visitor.

Fashioning Masculinities: The Art of Menswear comprises around 100 looks and 100 artworks, displayed thematically across three galleries entitled Undressed, Overdressed, and Redressed.

The show was put together by Claire Wilcox, who is senior curator of furniture, textiles & fashion at the V&Aand Rosalind McKever, the museum’s curator of paintings and drawings.

Their views and analyses often are far removed from my own.

The museum’s press release and the captions accompanying the exhibits are full of phrases that would sit nicely in Pseuds Corner in Private Eye.

For example, “The show traces how menswear has been fashioned and refashioned over the centuries, and how designers, tailors and artists – and their clients and sitters – have constructed and performed masculinity and unpicked it at the seams”.

I cannot recall having “constructed and performed masculinity” at any time but maybe it has slipped my mind.

Or “Innovative creations and diverse representations highlight and celebrate the multiplicities of masculine sartorial self-expression, dressing beyond the binary.”

The co-curators seem very excited at the idea of men dressing as women. The “finale” of the exhibition presents three “iconic gowns worn by American actor Billy Porter, British actor Harry Styles and British drag performer Bimini Bon Boulash”.

Dresses for Harry Styles, Billy Porter and Bimini Bon Boulash at the V&A

Iconic here seems to mean they received a lot of likes on social media for dressing up in flamboyant female outfits. Apparently they “(bring) visibility to a reimagined future for gendered dress”.

No, I do not know what that means. Are we surprised a drag queen wore a dress?

One big problem I have with the V&A show is it confuses menswear (everyday clothes worn in regular settings), and dress or uniforms (formal outfits with a clearly defined purpose), and costume (such as deliberately unconventional theatrical apparel, designed and worn to be noticed).

The three are very different and what a media-conscious performer like 28-year-old Harry Styles puts on for a Vogue cover shoot can scarcely be presented as regular menswear or the start of a widespread trend. It’s theatrical costume, not menswear.

Without offering any evidence, the co-curators state: “Masculine fashion is enjoying a period of unprecedented creativity.” They may be right given that there has never been so much choice available but their field of vision is very narrow with a lot of references to queer interpretations of menswear.

Straight guys design well and dress well too.

In another perplexing phrase, we are told “designers are appropriating sheer fabrics to create ensembles, alluding to a new honesty about menswear”. I had no idea menswear was dishonest because I do not understand what this means.

In another clunking chunk of wokery in the eveningwear section, the co-curators write: “Today the tuxedo is a visual shorthand for patriarchal privilege. It has been co-opted by women and LGBTQIA+ communities who wish to overturn historical hierarchies and reassert their own power”.

Really? Or do they just like wearing a tuxedo because it looks good and feels good?

Despite its failings, Fashioning Masculinities, which is sponsored by Gucci with support from American Express, is worth the £20 admission price just to admire the craft and artistry that has created many of the clothes and the accompanying artworks.

Among my favourites are a superb silk English Court suit from 1780-90 embellished with breath-taking embroidery and a vibrant evening suit in a vivid green Lord of the Isles tartan made for the Duke of Windsor in the 1960s. Even its turned-back cuffs and covered cuff buttons are things of beauty.

My biggest complaint about the show is that its relentless search for worthy “meaning” in almost every outfit completely misses the fact that for many of us men’s fashion is about fun. We dress well to look good, feel good, make an impression and, in certain stages of our life, attract a partner.

Despite the failings, I enjoyed this compact celebration of elements of the masculine wardrobe.

Tickets are on sale at vam.ac.uk/masculinities.

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