B A R R Y L A N D .



sex and suits.








emails from GOD.
some correctives to righteous fwds

you've heard it talked about, but what is it, and what do we do with it?

anna k.
a few luminous passages that show you why it's a certified Great Book

the sceptered isle.
diaries from my adventure in sunny england

a dense meal from the English language's father superior

cathedral builders.
a close observation on what it must have been like



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Why do we have such contradictory ideas about suits? I hear from one side that society is getting away from suits, and that fewer and fewer men are really bothering to dress in them, opting, in the name of comfort, for open-collar shirts and jeans or khakis. Yet, from the other side, I open my eyes and see that we're in an exciting time for the suit.

Taking, for instance, the most popular mass medium — television — as our looking-glass, we see amazing suits all over the place. Letterman, of course, is one of the best dressed men on TV, gorgeously draped in miles of double-breasted suits that are conservative yet manage to pack a swanky punch. Virtually all the late-night hosts wear great suits, with Conan O'Brian snappily dressed in a permanent post-college résumé suit, and Leno invariably in a three-button suit that, though not quite ideal for his body type, is still stylish.

Prime time, though, is where the suit shines. If the 80s were all about families and sweaters (Cosby, Full House, Family Matters, Mr Belvedere...), the 90s are all about friends and suits. A good majority of the male characters on every show spend at least some time every episode in a suit. Just flipping through, we see David Spade and his office mates (wearing suits of varying innovativeness), the "Veronica's Closet" guys (the flaky white guy wears smooth up-to-the second suits, and the black guy wears more outre rigs — orange with orange tie and orange shirt — both stunningly well-chosen), of course Frasier and his brother Niles (who are practically advertisements for the classic suit). Even "Friends" characters are finding excuses to suit up. And if there is a best dressed man on television, it has to be Eric McCormack, who plays Will on "Will & Grace": every week he's so impeccably dressed he may reach Cary Grant status (perhaps the reason he, a gay leading man, is acceptable to the middle American audience is that he is so consistently armored in the uniform of the alpha male).

And what are women wearing? Is there any force so powerful happening in women's fashion? Again, a brief click through prime time shows that, for the most part, women quite simply don't have a thing to wear. That lament, so scorned by boyfriends and husbands, turns out to be true in the deepest sense: there is very little a woman can wear that will speak to the moment the way a man's suit does. (The perennial Little Black Dress is about the closest thing there is, but it is, by definition, somewhat limited.)

It could be argued that the rich lives of prime time characters have little to do with the average American. Nonetheless, this explosion of suits couldn't happen if it were unacceptable to us. We want to see men wearing them.

Which is actually a strange thing. Jesse Jackson was presumably unaware of the irony as he picketed Columbia University, chanting, "Hey hey ho ho, Western Culture's got to go," wearing: 1] a shirt that had an extra appendage forming two triangles at the base of the neck; 2] a brightly colored strip of cloth tied around the neck and hanging down the front; 3] leg-coverings that loosely approximate and define the individual legs; 4] an over-the-shirt garment that goes slightly below the buttocks, made of the same cloth as the pants, and cut with a kind of collar of its own that reaches down the front and bends back flat against itself. Anyone observing on that day could have predicted that his anti-Western Culture agenda was doomed to fail, because it was insincere: he himself was clad in the very symbol of the Western male.

It takes us a moment to realize that the suit isn't the only choice for men to wear: we could be wearing robes, or Shakespearean-style leggings with poofy shorts, or strategically placed gourds. But for some reason this same overlapping outfit has been with us for over 200 years.

A few years back, the art critic Anne Hollander turned her perceptive eye to the history of the suit, and came up with some surprising ideas: that men's fashion is actually ahead of women's fashion, and has been for some time; that men's fashion has been about the human body as idealized by Greek sculpture (v-shaped torso, articulated legs, flat stomach), while women's fashion has been about variously displaying and concealing the neck and shoulders and decolletage, while shrouding the legs; that when we began giving women power, we gave them legs, in the form of higher skirts or pants; and, most compellingly, that the suit allows a man to be "sexy and serious" at the same time.

Which is exactly the problem with what women have to wear: what do you wear to the office? A man can wear a suit and be sexy and serious; but only recently, and unevenly, have women begun wearing things that are both. Usually, a woman has to choose between frilly sexiness and sterile seriousness. This leads to, or at least reinforces, a major aspect of society's sexism: that men's sexuality is "central, serious, and interesting," whereas women's is "irrational, shallow, and dangerous."

As usual, in books like this, it ends with some prophecies about the future of the suit. But, amazingly, they don't seem false or unrelated to the trajectory of the book: her predictions are quite plausible and intelligent, and in fact we can already see some of them coming true.


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 B y the turn of the [nineteenth] century, elegance had shifted entirely away from wrought surfaces to fundamental form, and away from courtly refinement to natural simplicity. And so tailors elevated the unfitted rough country coat into a triumph of art, whereby crude natural man became noble natural man, with references to ancient sculpture built into the structure of his clothes. With the help of nearly imperceptible padding, curved seams, discreet darts and steam pressing, the rough coat of dull cloth was gradually refined into an exquisitely balanced garment that fitted smoothly without wrinkles and buttoned without strain, to clothe what appeared to be the torso of a Greek athlete.

....The subtle lines of the coat formed an abstract design based on the underlying curves of human bone and muscle, and the matte texture suggested the smoothness of skin. The careful modelling allowed the actual body to assert itself only at certain places when the wearer moved, to create a vital interaction between costume and person, a nonchalant counterpoint again with echoes of an animal easy in its own skin. The discreet padding in the upper chest and shoulders was carefully thinned out over the chest and back and disappeared in the lower half of the coat, so that the effect was of a wholly unpadded garment, and apparently natural covering.

To go with this apotheosis of rough gear, the plain linen shirt and cravat, which might have been worn soiled and sloppily knotted by rough-living country gentlemen, were laundered into incandescent whiteness, lightly starched, and then folded with a sculptor's care around the neck and jaw, to produce a commanding set of the head on the heroic shoulders.... Adding spice to this potent mixture was the exciting urban contribution from across the Channel, the sans-culotte costume of the Revolutionary laboring classes. This similar Neo-classic "natural" mode could eventually be blended with the English version, refined and translated from the barricades to the drawing-room, bringing the spirit of revolt and suggestions of plebeian effort to the already powerful combination of ideas embodied in the new masculine costume.

....His garments made him look honest, since the seams showed and the weave was apparent in the plain fabric — and rational, because of the perfect cut, fit, and proportions, which also gave him his artless good looks. The whole achievement had been accomplished entirely by simply reworking the old seventeenth-century scheme of coat, waistcoat, and breeches, with a shirt and some kind of cravat. It replaced the same scheme made of nude muscles that had been the Classical expression of the same virtues, and now gave the impression that the nude hero was even more natural when dressed.


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 T he modern masculine image was thus virtually in place by 1820, and it has been only slightly modified since. The modern suit has provided so perfect a visualization of modern male pride that it has so far not needed replacement, and it has gradually provided the standard costume of civil leadership for the whole word. The masculine suit now suggests probity and restraint, prudence and detachment; but under these enlightened virtues also seethe its hunting, laboring, and revolutionary origins; and therefore the suit still remains sexually potent and more than a little menacing, its force by no means spent during all these many generations.


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 I n the second act of modernism, during the first quarter of this century, a new radical view of the beauty of form was again accompanied by a certain retreat from color. The most extreme visions of Cubism tended to eliminate vivid hues in their concentration on the multiple truth of form. In architecture a new respect for the intrinsic beauty of naked steel, glass, and concrete helped to revive a taste for formal value uncluttered by busy adornment, including the distracting beauty of color; and this taste was further supported by masterpieces of black and white photography and cinematography that celebrated only shape, line, and surface texture. All this helped to keep the new versions of the modern masculine suit, now celebrating formal abstraction in new ways, on the same path toward muted color that they had originally taken during their first Neo-classic appearance.


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 I  would claim that the naked male body, coherent and articulated, must still be the ghostly visual image and the underlying formal suggestion made by any ordinary male Western costume, however closely the surface is covered, just as it was made by the suit of plate armor or the first Neo-classic suit. The modern suit survives partly because among all the more showily revealing varieties of current male dress, it has kept its ability to make that nude suggestion.


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 I t's clear that modernizing clothes for women has meant copying men's clothes, directly or indirectly, one way or another. To even the balance, however, we can see that many men in the last third of this century have already taken up the the formerly female game of finding pleasure in expressive multiple guises. In one man's closet, the new, colorful leisure versions of active gear make sharp contrasts with well-cut business suits and formal sportswear like tweed jackets, classic shirts lie next to extreme sweatshirts, and everything is meant for wear in the same urban milieu. We may now find the curious spectacle of a man privately at ease fifteen stories above the city street, sipping wine and reading Trollope in a warm room furnished with fragile antiques and Persian rugs, dressed in a costume suitable for roping cattle on the plains or sawing up lumber in the North woods. Once, only women and children offered such visual effects.


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 I t's in fact clear that "uniforms," so vigorously despised in much current rhetoric about clothes, are really what most people prefer to wear, garments in which they feel safely similar to their fellows. Once in uniform, they can choose their personal details, feel unique, and then sneer at the members of other tribes who all seem ridiculously alike in their tribal gear. For the past two centuries, men have dreaded looking like fools much more than women have; and so the dress of the male tribe has had a somewhat stronger uniform quality than the female one.....One known reason for fashion's deep appeal is the way it provides the ability to look like everyone else, in the ancient tribal way; but at the same time, it provides a choice of tribes.


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 F ashion has been the modernizing agent for clothes, the system that has made it possible for form in clothing to keep generating its own development and refer to itself — to turn dress into a modern art. When we study the dynamic modern form that dress has acquired in the West, we soon notice that it engages mainly with the temporal phrasing of sexuality. It doesn't just define differences between male and female dressed bodies, but describes a sexual relation that has a changing temporal life. The social meaning is dependent on the sexual one, because the sexuality is what gives the form its force, its power to have social meaning at all.

Modern masculine tailoring has been one salient example of the way form has been developed by fashion. It began by taking a set of standard, desirable kinds of masculinity, and unifying them in a modern way into a well-integrated abstract visual scheme. The formal composition had both a fundamental sexual charge and sufficient flexibility to take on changing social meaning — to appear inclusive or exclusive, snobbish or democratic, stuffy or easy, to be grim and boring or to be sleek and subtle, to stand for ruthlessness and deception, or for candor and integrity — but also to pursue an independent and dynamic formal trajectory that has yet to reach its end.