While consumerism relies upon our being just as fickle as the sartorial seasons, the history of fashion suggests at least one consistency: that a garment once considered “casual” will eventually be thought of as “smart-casual”, then as “businessware”, and finally as something in which one could reasonably expect to be sued or buried. Decommissioned accessories such as the cravat or even ones as recently defunct as the fedora hat were at one time no more formal than a pair of jeans, yet as our waistlines have slackened from our stomachs to our hips (and continue to fall in that direction towards increasingly worrying depths), the subculture-of-smart which had previously been confined to City brokerage is now enjoying a resurgence.
Despite our shallower pockets and the apposite fact that many of the businesses on London’s Saville Row have become less like tailors and more like shops by stocking ready-to-wear suits, films like An Education, television programmes like Mad Man and videogames like LA Noire have had men wondering how one should fold a pocket handkerchief and how high a tie clip should be worn (to which the answers are “in any way you like” and “just below the ribs”).
These aesthetical considerations seem at first glance to be directly opposed to the neutrality, and indeed the banality, of suits. Yet given their increasingly formal status since the 1960s, wearing a suit outside of social ceremony—simply wearing one out, for instance—would nowadays suggest a personal conviction not far removed from that which accompanied the outfit in its infancy. In both 1790 and 2012, to wear a suit while not under social duress is to make a point.