Book Review: Christopher Breward's The Suit

Like the decade-old book of the same name by Machiavelli scholar and erstwhile seduction specialist Nicholas Antongiavanni, Christopher Breward’s 2016 The Suit is that rare thing: an intellectually ambitious #menswear book worth reading and pondering.

Breward presumes and asserts the continued importance of the men’s tailored suit, a position that before the last decade might have been unpopular. However, and interestingly, he diverges from recent received wisdom in suggesting that the genesis of the modern suit extends back to the pompous Restoration finery of King Charles II of England, 150 years before Beau Brummell (commonly thought of as the proponent of what has become the modern suit), and that the suit’s antecedents lie not just with the garments of the English upper classes and bourgeoisie, but in different garments worn all over Europe. He pursues this internationalist approach throughout The Suit, leading to fascinating examinations of garments such as the Mao suit and the Nehru jacket. In other words, he’s one of the few recent authors to suggest an international conversation in men’s classic clothing – at least one that extends beyond London, Hollywood and Italy.

In fact, Breward, a university professor who has curated various fashion exhibits, covers so much time and ground in The Suit that I wish that he had been able to develop more profound conclusions. Despite his interesting subject matter, at times a few of his conclusions and the reasoning supporting them appear too facile to do justice to his intellectual approach. References to Hardy Amies as “the dean of Savile Row tailors” raise eyebrows – only his shop’s fortuitous address, snapped up in the bombed-out aftermath of World War II, connected Amies to Savile Row. The man was a dressmaker who seized the notoriety he earned for dressing the Queen and made of it a soapbox to sound off with retrograde ideas about tailoring, ideas that raised the profile of licensed ready-to-wear men’s clothing carrying his name from one department store to another the whole world over. If, towards the end of his long life, Amies’ shop also offered some form of custom men’s clothing, the man himself preferred to order clothing from other tailors on Savile Row. Similarly, Breward suggests that the vivid suits and accessories of the Congolese sapeurs made famous in Damiele Tamagni’s Gentlemen of Bacongo are a “rebuke against colonialism,” an easy conclusion to jump to. Tamagni himself proposed, more interestingly, that the sapeurs began to dress in brightly colored, ornate suits, shoes, and hats as a reaction against a sort of postcolonialism, the African dress adopted and promulgated for political reasons by strongmen like Mobutu Sese Seko of the former Zaïre, different dress concealing rapacity similar to that of recently overthrown colonial overlords.

But these are occasional snipes and quibbles at what is, in the end, an interesting exercise worth further pursuit. Breward’s breadth of scope allows an exploration of uses of modern men’s clothing as a tool of social order. I’ve read far more books on men's clothing than is healthy, but very few of them have undertaken this with anything like Breward’s obvious intelligence. If the various evolutions of 19th-century dandyism from Brummell to its politicization in France, to fin de siècle decadence are fairly familiar, his discussion of the suit and its subversion by contemporary artists is fresh – and a mention of Yinka Shonibare is always welcome. If the book’s epilogue seems slightly Panglossian in lauding the suit’s “timeless adaptability” and hoping it endures “another 400 years,” at least the author has something new to say, and says it well. What The Suit can offer is engagement: ideas interestingly enunciated, novel theses and perspectives on different types of international formal clothing contributing to the conversation – or cacophony – informing what today passes for classic menswear. #Menswear has a new classic, oxymorons be damned.

Like the decade-old book of the same name by Machiavelli scholar and erstwhile seduction specialist Nicholas Antongiavanni, Christopher Breward’s 2016 The Suit is that rare thing: an intellectually ambitious #menswear book worth reading and pondering.

Breward presumes and asserts the continued importance of the men’s tailored suit, a position that before the last decade might have been unpopular. However, and interestingly, he diverges from recent received wisdom in suggesting that the genesis of the modern suit extends back to the pompous Restoration finery of King Charles II of England, 150 years before Beau Brummell (commonly thought of as the proponent of what has become the modern suit), and that the suit’s antecedents lie not just with the garments of the English upper classes and bourgeoisie, but in different garments worn all over Europe. He pursues this internationalist approach throughout The Suit, leading to fascinating examinations of garments such as the Mao suit and the Nehru jacket. In other words, he’s one of the few recent authors to suggest an international conversation in men’s classic clothing – at least one that extends beyond London, Hollywood and Italy.

In fact, Breward, a university professor who has curated various fashion exhibits, covers so much time and ground in The Suit that I wish that he had been able to develop more profound conclusions. Despite his interesting subject matter, at times a few of his conclusions and the reasoning supporting them appear too facile to do justice to his intellectual approach. References to Hardy Amies as “the dean of Savile Row tailors” raise eyebrows – only his shop’s fortuitous address, snapped up in the bombed-out aftermath of World War II, connected Amies to Savile Row. The man was a dressmaker who seized the notoriety he earned for dressing the Queen and made of it a soapbox to sound off with retrograde ideas about tailoring, ideas that raised the profile of licensed ready-to-wear men’s clothing carrying his name from one department store to another the whole world over. If, towards the end of his long life, Amies’ shop also offered some form of custom men’s clothing, the man himself preferred to order clothing from other tailors on Savile Row. Similarly, Breward suggests that the vivid suits and accessories of the Congolese sapeurs made famous in Damiele Tamagni’s Gentlemen of Bacongo are a “rebuke against colonialism,” an easy conclusion to jump to. Tamagni himself proposed, more interestingly, that the sapeurs began to dress in brightly colored, ornate suits, shoes, and hats as a reaction against a sort of postcolonialism, the African dress adopted and promulgated for political reasons by strongmen like Mobutu Sese Seko of the former Zaïre, different dress concealing rapacity similar to that of recently overthrown colonial overlords.

But these are occasional snipes and quibbles at what is, in the end, an interesting exercise worth further pursuit. Breward’s breadth of scope allows an exploration of uses of modern men’s clothing as a tool of social order. I’ve read far more books on men's clothing than is healthy, but very few of them have undertaken this with anything like Breward’s obvious intelligence. If the various evolutions of 19th-century dandyism from Brummell to its politicization in France, to fin de siècle decadence are fairly familiar, his discussion of the suit and its subversion by contemporary artists is fresh – and a mention of Yinka Shonibare is always welcome. If the book’s epilogue seems slightly Panglossian in lauding the suit’s “timeless adaptability” and hoping it endures “another 400 years,” at least the author has something new to say, and says it well. What The Suit can offer is engagement: ideas interestingly enunciated, novel theses and perspectives on different types of international formal clothing contributing to the conversation – or cacophony – informing what today passes for classic menswear. #Menswear has a new classic, oxymorons be damned.

Like the decade-old book of the same name by Machiavelli scholar and erstwhile seduction specialist Nicholas Antongiavanni, Christopher Breward’s 2016 The Suit is that rare thing: an intellectually ambitious #menswear book worth reading and pondering.

Breward presumes and asserts the continued importance of the men’s tailored suit, a position that before the last decade might have been unpopular. However, and interestingly, he diverges from recent received wisdom in suggesting that the genesis of the modern suit extends back to the pompous Restoration finery of King Charles II of England, 150 years before Beau Brummell (commonly thought of as the proponent of what has become the modern suit), and that the suit’s antecedents lie not just with the garments of the English upper classes and bourgeoisie, but in different garments worn all over Europe. He pursues this internationalist approach throughout The Suit, leading to fascinating examinations of garments such as the Mao suit and the Nehru jacket. In other words, he’s one of the few recent authors to suggest an international conversation in men’s classic clothing – at least one that extends beyond London, Hollywood and Italy.

In fact, Breward, a university professor who has curated various fashion exhibits, covers so much time and ground in The Suit that I wish that he had been able to develop more profound conclusions. Despite his interesting subject matter, at times a few of his conclusions and the reasoning supporting them appear too facile to do justice to his intellectual approach. References to Hardy Amies as “the dean of Savile Row tailors” raise eyebrows – only his shop’s fortuitous address, snapped up in the bombed-out aftermath of World War II, connected Amies to Savile Row. The man was a dressmaker who seized the notoriety he earned for dressing the Queen and made of it a soapbox to sound off with retrograde ideas about tailoring, ideas that raised the profile of licensed ready-to-wear men’s clothing carrying his name from one department store to another the whole world over. If, towards the end of his long life, Amies’ shop also offered some form of custom men’s clothing, the man himself preferred to order clothing from other tailors on Savile Row. Similarly, Breward suggests that the vivid suits and accessories of the Congolese sapeurs made famous in Damiele Tamagni’s Gentlemen of Bacongo are a “rebuke against colonialism,” an easy conclusion to jump to. Tamagni himself proposed, more interestingly, that the sapeurs began to dress in brightly colored, ornate suits, shoes, and hats as a reaction against a sort of postcolonialism, the African dress adopted and promulgated for political reasons by strongmen like Mobutu Sese Seko of the former Zaïre, different dress concealing rapacity similar to that of recently overthrown colonial overlords.

But these are occasional snipes and quibbles at what is, in the end, an interesting exercise worth further pursuit. Breward’s breadth of scope allows an exploration of uses of modern men’s clothing as a tool of social order. I’ve read far more books on men's clothing than is healthy, but very few of them have undertaken this with anything like Breward’s obvious intelligence. If the various evolutions of 19th-century dandyism from Brummell to its politicization in France, to fin de siècle decadence are fairly familiar, his discussion of the suit and its subversion by contemporary artists is fresh – and a mention of Yinka Shonibare is always welcome. If the book’s epilogue seems slightly Panglossian in lauding the suit’s “timeless adaptability” and hoping it endures “another 400 years,” at least the author has something new to say, and says it well. What The Suit can offer is engagement: ideas interestingly enunciated, novel theses and perspectives on different types of international formal clothing contributing to the conversation – or cacophony – informing what today passes for classic menswear. #Menswear has a new classic, oxymorons be damned.

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