History of the Black Suit, Part 1.
General History and Evolution of the Black Suit for Daywear
The solid black suit you ask? How did it ever become the subject of controversy? Exactly how does such a neutral choice become imbued with enough emotionally charged angst to make it the DMZ of men’s style? After all, wasn’t there a time when all of serious and polite society was dressed in black from head to toe? How then did it creep out of use and then back in for men’s day wear? What were the elements that made this choice of color naff for one generation and the perfectly acceptable choice for a new one?
Part of the answer might actually reside in the collisions of generational high and low fronts which separate “Old Boy” from “Home Boy”. Recently, I had occasion to exchange correspondences with someone who is rather more of a clothing historian and obsessive about fashion minutiae. Apparently, if his thesis is to be believed, and it is a fascinating one, it was the very fact that late Victorian and Edwardian society wore so much black for day wear that the “new” lounge suit wearers purposefully avoided black. It seems, they wanted to distinguish themselves from their stuffy forbears. After a while, black became the more cloistered choice with additional and various reasons invented by retailers to demonize it as a selection and steer buyers to the more readily available charcoals and navies.
During this period (Roughly 1920-1980), black became an increasingly odd choice for daywear. When the solid black suit was seen, it was usually seen on people whose occupations demanded it for purposes of mourning, formality or purposeful social color differentiation from the clientele. Further, the black suits were often not of the best quality, reinforcing the idea that a solid black suit was an inappropriate choice for a man of taste. Throughout the mid twenties to the late 70s a black suit was an odd choice for a lounge suit indeed.
Certainly, the black solid suit must have fallen squarely off the ivy league bandwagon for fashion designers (and eventually, the entire fashion industry) to choose it as the suit color to distinguish themselves from those tedious corporate or ivy league types. Armani, Versace and subsequently Donna Karan and others began to use black as the newer, Hip-per color for younger men, for evenings out. As a result, It was adopted as a staple by all the very fringe groups who ironically contribute so much to the mélange that is American male (versus English male) style.
Thus it came to pass that the professional athlete or singer, the alternative lifestyle community, African Americans (ever an invaluably stylish American resource), the dot-comers, and artists all donned le style noir. For many reasons, it was a sound choice in these circles, whether it was the Hollywood set, or merely talented persons who wanted to escape any class or educational associations from their past. Black has power, mystery, sex appeal, it slims, it is counter culture and it is undeniably formal and appropriate also. It is the color of the night, of the city, of things modern, the new age. Also, at some point, there was a concurrence amongst the egalitarian (but talented) smart set, rather than try to compete (at a disadvantage) with those to the manor born, they would create their own “Oxford and Yale”. It amounted to nothing less than a new clothing dialect that announced their membership to their own clubs and universities. A new lingua Franca, for a new aristocracy of the asphalt night.
Even if you were from a Paul Stuart background, one gladly donned this protective camouflage in order to socialize with the interesting people without letting your background or day job exclude you from the fun or intimidate anyone at the party. In short, it became a polite way to mingle on an even playing field. Further, it was a way to vett out those boring, stuffy guys in brass buttoned blazers and khakis. What label appropriately describes this new dialect, this new language for a brave new style? We could call it talented, we could call it modern.
I prefer to use the term Hip. Hip suggests a a respect for tradition but a strong predilection for the current as well. It covers every social set including the one it is trying to stand apart from (the mainstream, old line one who’s members can don it to fit in, if they possess the requisite reflexes for adaptation), and it is updated and modern without rending the basic social dictates of taste.
What began as an adaptation by designers and a host of fringe groups and subcultures was eventually adopted by young people (after all they are now heavily influenced by sub or counter cultures; and their fathers had rejected black and so it has become the same symbol that shunning black once represented) and those of all classes in the largest cities who want to congregate in the requisite noir moderne which is as much a part of city night life as wearing top hat, and white tie was during the end of the 19th century.
The old and seemingly solid rule to avoid black was being turned on its head, and black was suddenly as in as one could expect. Add to this a desire for older men to want to seem younger and hipper (whether to mingle with the ladies or appeal to those Dotcom guys from, seemingly, a quarter century ago). Also, black is an instant power look. It was always a good choice for men in businesses where there was a need to command respect and attention. Black fills that order.
If black was against a rule at some point for daywear, that rule is now dead. Although, according to one quite knowledgeable fashion historian, even in the past, you would occasionally see a very proper Englishman in a flawlessly cut black flannel suit for town. Rare perhaps, but certainly bringing into question whether there was ever a “rule” against the black solid suit. Solid black suits are now commonly seen in almost every profession and the only ones who think it wrong are equivalent to the same pince-nez and spat wearing fellows whom Fred Astaire tapped around in many of his movies.
However, even if the rule against the black solid suit is dead, if it ever existed, does not mean that the black solid suit is sans controversy. Au contraire, the black solid suit is at the absolute epicenter of conjecture. The controversy does seem to cut across generational lines to an extent. It seems that many, older, well dressed men consider the solid black suit to be both outré and the realm of the parvenu. To wear a solid black suit, even for the evening, is to their eyes, wrong. Rather than a black solid suit, they consider a darkest charcoal suit the richer choice.
The reason? The black suit only looks good on a certain physical type with certain coloration, the high contrast person. Generally, people with dark brown or black hair and medium to light skin complexions (not pale it is important to note) are the ones who look best in black suits, every other physical coloration either gets drained or disappears in too unrelieved a manner with the black solid wool’s ensemble which represents a lack of depth, warmth and humor. Sometimes, this camp admits, a pair of black pants or a black jacket is acceptable for a more modern look at a club, bar or a hip new restaurant, but generally, the black suit is to be avoided.
At the other end of the dressing spectrum, the younger minded dressers are promoting black as something their fathers do not like. To the up and coming generation, a black suit stands for counterculture and night life… for youth. We are a generation trying to live an eternal life of exterior city partying and black is slimming, mysterious, sexy, modern and defensive; all the characteristics that generation X’ers and Y’ers have decided define them. Thus, we’ve learned to don noir as a protective mantle.
But how, you may ask, does this all translate into the black solid suit appearing more and more at the office? Social lifestyle contaminates work lifestyle more than it ever has before. You are what you play. Young men wear black at night, all their idols wear black suits, those older dudes don’t wear them. That’s all the recipe one needs to see the black suit is a way to look professional and still not submit to the Man.
Now let me make one thing absolutely clear. I do not own a single solid black suit for day wear. To be honest, I think there are so many more interesting choices that it has never occurred to me to wear a solid black suit to the office; though I have no prejudices against doing so.
I own black suits with patterns on them (window panes, bird’s eyes and chalk stripes) in white or in “hot” colors like alternating white and orange pinstripes. For after hours stepping out downtown style, I have two solid black suits and an assortment of black jackets.
However I need to confess that I do have a predilection for midnight blue solid suits. I feel midnight blue with something black underneath covering my torso makes a tres sophistique contrast. Why? It is a faux pas for women to mix navy (or midnight blue) and black in their dressing. However, in spite of this female rule, it is such an interesting and rich combination that it creates something a little different and, at the same time, something 100% male. Female influences have made themselves so felt in American and Italian male style as of late that I thought it as well for us to reclaim a toehold for ourselves.
I come clean about not wearing black suits for daywear because I admit that the solid black suit is making inroads for daywear in spite of how I might feel about it as a choice (that is, not a negative but rather an uninteresting neutral) and that it is a symbol of my generation for going out in the evening to that hot new club, or bar or to wear while entertaining that girl you finally asked out to that trendy restaurant with the candlelit tables on those balmy spring evenings in the city. Sometimes trends and acceptability are not about what we like but about what is. For now, the black suit is us, old but new, what our great grandfathers wore and our fathers eschewed. Old but new, just as the term “hipster” has reappeared in the lingo, the solid black suit separates us from our fathers, and may yet from our sons.
I have had Jeeves create a Black Suit thread in the Wardrobe forum where we can debate the ideas raised in this article.