Started on the 11th April 2011 - Blogging from a 20 year old Fashion Student

Wednesday, 5 February 2014


The suit, an ensemble which conveys the notion of the traditional businessman; the icon of the London rush hour. However, if we delve deeper into the development of how the suit came to be such a template for the serious worker, rushing to work on the 7:35 train, there are some hidden meanings...

A suit that is particularly interesting as a starting off point was worn by David Byrne, lead singer of Talking Heads, in 1984. Designed by Gail Blacker for the film “Stop Making Sense”. It was exhibited at the V&A in the Postmodernism exhibition in 2011­‐2012, paying tribute to the cultural movement that created a pastiche of the past, present and future. Exhibited in a room, which contained costumes from the film Blade Runner and Klaus Nomi’s music videos; all garments displayed reflected the overall mantra of postmodernism and the suggestive narrative designers presented to society.
   The suit David Byrne wore, appears to be oversized, however, only in terms of how broad it is (rather than elongated, vertically); the last button is closer to the hem than usual which also suggests this. It seems to be heavily padded, yet, in the video there is no evidence of this, as it drapes quite freely.
   As the suit was worn as a performance piece, Byrne wore an outfit that emphasised his every movement, creating a prominent stage presence. The designer, Gail Blacker was faced with the task of creating a garment that would be suitable for this purpose (with all the exertion that goes into captivating an audience) but that was also structured enough. Blacker described designing the suit as “more of an architectural project than a clothing project”, because of all the engineering involved.

The suit was an iconic garment associated with Postmodernism (which suggests irony and humour). Holm Hudson said, of music performance wear, that “many bands appropriated an image in a cool, ironic way, reminiscent of 1960s pop artists”, which demonstrates the playfulness of stage costumes. With regards to this, one must ponder that a suit is not necessarily something a performer would usually wear because of how restrictive they are, however, “the late 80s and 90s saw the suit worn in a new way by some acts and in an old way by others... Eric Clapton donned glasses and suits as though sponsored by Armani – looking wide shouldered and very corporate eighties in a way parodied by the Talking Heads’ stylised nerd David Byrne and his outsize stage
suit”. One theory is that Byrne wanted to create a satirical image of the businessman (usually connoted with a suit), by changing and creating an extremity of clothing usually worn by this type of person, Byrne is undermining it slightly to the amusement of his audience (whether they are businessmen or not) in order to gain their admiration, almost.

During the 1980s, power dressing had come into full fruition as a primarily feminist movement; a stance on equal rights, equal pay and female professionalism. In reference to the psychology of garments for performance, Janice Miller expressed that “it is the part that dress can play in representing both the inside and the outside – of the body and mind – that resonates with music and performance” and that “art rock bands... emphasised the visual aspect of music”. So perhaps one could think that, in wearing the suit, Byrne was supporting and partaking in such a movement as the role of a performer to gain the audiences attention but the detail that holds this attention is their ability to empathise with what he’s wearing and relate to it. Suits are almost like a uniform for professionals, and uniforms act as an equalizer, everyone can visualise someone (of any sex) wearing a suit of some form, meaning everyone has some sort of memory or connection to a suit.

The feminist aspects of the suit also lie in the fact that for a long time, women were encaged in corsets, and so when designers such as Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent introduced the possibility of wearing more loose clothing, trousers and suits (previously only worn by males), they saw it as liberating and also an equaliser of men and women's rights. Vogue said of the “power suit” that “the idea that fashion could empower women... undoubtedly reached its apogee in the 1980s, with the rise and the eventual world domination of the power suit”;  this outlines not only the part the coined term “power suit” played in empowering women, but also the impact that it had on the fashion industry.

Power dressing is said to be a way of conditioning the self (the familiar term “dress for success” is a derivative), and in terms of female dress, a way of managing “one’s sexuality so as to acquire ‘authority’, respect and power at work. The result is a ‘uniform’ for work". In terms of
balancing out both opinions on gender attitudes, worn by a male, “the suit is a symbol of masculine sexuality in terms of broadening the shoulders and chest and connecting larynx to crotch through collar and tie”. The conclusion to be made from the two quotes are that, from the latter, men portray themselves as powerful and successful by wearing sexually suggestive attire (whether conscious of this symbolism radiating from a simple suit, or not); whereas, the former quote makes it clear that in order to be powerful within their workplace, they must oppress their sexualities by wearing a similar outfit to men, thus looking more manly and “blending in” so as not to “distract” colleagues.

Historically, in terms of fashion, scale and proportion have been altered continuously. The female version of this, was carried out by accentuating hips and cinching in the waist, in a way that was emphasised and symbolic of a woman's fertility. Similarly, menswear has always been symbolic or suggestive of other things, such as authority and masculinity; clothes have the ability to create a persona for the wearer, whether their true character lives up to it or not.

Throughout the late 15th Century (the Tudor period) men would wear bulky garments on their torso as a way of conveying power and strength, in order to court a lady or simply to demonstrate his ability to work or fight in battle. According to Johansen, “the great display of virility that this age witnessed is typified by the tight fitting sleeves and hose, designed to show off strong limbs and muscles, and the padded shoulders that
suggested a sturdy frame... the more voluminous the dress, the more important was the person”. This clothing would be padded with horsehair to create a broad silhouette, while Byrne’s suit was constructed with the use of a canvas interlining. Both methods being used for a similar purpose, to bulk up the clothing. This proposal of volume and power being interlinked connotes that the scale of the costume suggests the body of the wearer is of equal proportions (eluding to sexual references, such as his “manhood” being large and therefore quite possibly, his ego/virile power). In terms of more modern fashion (Byrne’s suit), style has become a lot more understated; although, such a topic could quite easily be transferred to the earlier debate on stage wear as the performer must exude confidence, take command of his surroundings, control the atmosphere around them and suggest that sexuality can be used as a tool to convey all of those key themes.

The structure of the suit is easily comparable with Joseph Beuys’ felt suit (1970), displayed in the Tate Modern in 2009. Preceding Byrne’s costume only by a decade, the felt creation holds a very similarly oversized and rigid shape, from a distance, it looks like a smart tweed suit because of the colouring, however, the change in materials allows the artwork to look sturdier and more hard wearing than a similar garment created in cotton or polyester (for example).

Objects that exist from the past can fuel inspiration for future designs, shown clearly from the very early costume of the late Fifteenth Century, to performance wear and artwork of the late Twentieth Century, right up until present day. Creating parodies or satirical versions of earlier works, altering, undermining, adding to and creating your own interpretation or putting them into social context are all ways of evolving garments (or objects in general). We visit museums to view objects that “play in the creation of knowledge”, they are not merely artefacts behind glass, they act as symbols our cultural history, and consequently, signifiers of our future design. 

"Stop Making Sense", Talking Heads (1984)

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