Progressives and The Suit

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This isn’t a political blog, but clothes have an inherently political dimension. For decades now, jeans have coasted on their association with egalitarianism and honest, proletarian integrity. Similarly, the M-65 field jacket – in the Army approved “Olive Green 107″ color – was transformed in the 1960s by counterculture types, who re-pressed the jacket to serve their anti-war aims. In a great essay on the history of the US military service jacket, Troy Patterson once wrote in the New York Times: “Country Joe at Woodstock, John Lennon at Madison Square Garden, and Jane Fonda on the Free the Army road show all treated costume as commentary.”

Today, clothes continue to be political. Most notably, far right movements are using the suit to give their hateful ideology a veneer of normalcy. Richard Spencer, for example, wears herringbone tweeds, gold coin cufflinks, and a sweptback, hipster hairstyle known as a “fashy” (or “Hitler Youth,” as the style was worn by members of the Nazi brigade). And he isn’t the only one. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bumped into someone on the internet – from Twitter to Reddit to StyleForum – who will express how much they love prep, but also thinks “Jews should be thrown into ovens.” (Nevermind the obvious irony that Ivy style has been heavily shaped by Jewish immigrants and clothiers). 

In some ways, there’s a natural association between conservative tailoring and conservative politics. In his book Rebel Style, Bruce Boyer nicely frames the 1950s and ‘60s culture wars in terms of clothing:

After World War II, the burgeoning middle class looked in two different directions for the more outward manifestations of style: either to a version of the Eastern WASP Establishment for the traditional business uniform and the slightly more casual Ivy League attire; or to the underclasses, which favored the more heady and urbane zoot suit or rural motorcycle/ blue-collar look. Most middle-class young men – particularly those who had been in the army and enrolled in colleges through the economic incentives of the GI Bill – looked to the Eastern Establishment for inspiration. As epitomized in the film The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), Establishment dress was the somber business uniform of corporate America in an era of understated power.

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As Boyer puts it, establishment types wore the suit; anti-establishment types took to chambray shirts, white tees, leather jackets, and jeans. Those stereotypes hold less power today, but they’re still useful in explaining why the suit represents what it does. And, to be sure, tailored clothing still mostly survives in the offices of banking, law, and government – the three pillars of establishment capitalism. 

That association with patriarchy, power, and traditionalism only goes so far in explaining why the far-right like suits. After all, I’m not talking about everyday conservatives (who I like), but rather extremists. In a 2013 Salon article, Richard Spencer said the alt-right has to look good in order to make their views palatable to middle-class Americans. If his movement means “being part of something that is crazed or ugly or vicious or just stupid, no one is going to want to be a part of it.” To counter the stereotype that people like him are “tattooed, illiterate rednecks” (his words), he wears sport coats and button-downs. 

To be honest, every time I read one of these guys, I want to burn my entire wardrobe. But good tailoring is a beautiful thing, and it shouldn’t be beholden to some nut jobs. 

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So, I thought I’d put together some photos of progressives in suits, from academics to actors, philosophers to politicians. The thing to remember is: the suit is the lingua franca of menswear. A common clothing language, shared between speakers whose native languages are different – political, religious, or otherwise. 

It’s not hard to find photos of progressives wearing suits well. Many classic style icons had left leaning politics. President John F. Kennedy, most obviously, but also Paul Newman, who was a lifelong Democrat. Newman was a vocal supporter of gay rights, even in the 1960s, when speaking up about such issues was less safe. Similarly, Marlon Brando often took very public stances on civil rights, including marching on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr. 

Beyond the regular names, there are the underrated style icons – Gore Vidal (pictured at the very top of this post debating William Buckley, a conservative thinker who outclasses most today), Lewis Lapham (featured in a Put This On video), Sidney Poitier, Gregory Peck, and Julian Bond. Even less appreciated is Stanley Marcus, CEO of Neiman Marcus. In his book Minding the Store, Marcus wrote about his struggles in reconciling his work with his politics. During the Jim Crow era, African Americans were barred from trying on clothes in department stores, as it was believed they’d “defile” them. Marcus not only racially integrated his shops, he pushed for racial integration in Dallas, which lost him a lot of customers. He told them: “good fucking riddance” (OK, not the middle part).  

I also think about the people who inspired me to wear tailored clothing in the first place – mid-century jazz musicians, postmodern French philosophers, and writers such as Robert Lowell and George Frazier. All wore their clothes in that dégagé way I think makes tailoring look especially good. Tussled hair with unlined, floppy collars and three-roll-two sport coats. Even if the style is kind of prep school today, they put it together in a manner that felt edgy. 

To be sure, there are plenty of examples of sensible, middle-of-the-road conservatives who have worn tailored clothing well. This post isn’t so much to bash conservatives as it is to say good tailoring is for everyone. Even if enthusiasts, such as myself, find themselves in the company of some pretty rotten people these days. 

(Thanks to Voxsartoria, Reginald-Jerome, and David for their help with this post)

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