Op-Ed | Sex, Power and Suiting

In menswear, sex and power have been converging, evidenced by the mainstream adoption of the kind of slim suiting pioneered by Hedi Slimane and Thom Browne, says Cameron Wolf.

President Barack Obama | Source: Max Herman/Shutterstock

LOS ANGELES, United States — Fashion has a long and entangled history with the enforcement of power and social position. The middle and upper classes have always dressed to differentiate themselves from the working classes, often flaunting the fact that manual labour is not part of their agenda. This is true of today’s “white collar” workers.

Indeed, communicating belonging to a certain social tribe — as well as individual differentiation within that tribe — are key functions of fashion. The other obvious function is looking good, which often means looking sexually attractive. But, for men, rarely have fashion’s primary functions — sex and power — overlapped so much as in recent years, since Hedi Slimane and Thom Browne shifted the way men (and I am thinking, here, of mainstream men, not just fashionistas) perceive the most powerfully coded weapon in their closet: the suit. (Remember, as Glenn O’Brien wrote, in a terrific column for Vice, “Fashion is always ahead of the curve, and the alpha male is often way around the other side of that tricky bend.”)

The slim suit is that rare menswear trend that has captured the attention of the cool kids, the GQ cover stars and the mainstream corporate guys alike. Browne claims that when he launched his label, everyone was so dressed down that his form of dandyism was actually “the anti-Establishment stance.” Either way, the result has been a more slender and sexier men’s silhouette than the roomier cuts of the past. Thom Browne’s look was inspired by the suits of the 1960s, but Browne explains: “I always thought the jacket was shorter. In actuality, it wasn’t so short. The trousers weren’t as slim as they seemed. In my head, it was different.”

“Going full-on Thom Browne short isn’t for everyone, but there’s no denying the impact of this wave. The average suit at J.Crew or Club Monaco is cut considerably shorter than it was five years ago,” reads GQ’s current Guide to Suits. What’s more, these days, prescriptions for tailors are practically handed out with the receipt of a new suit: cut out excess fabric — and that means everywhere; in the legs, the arms, the chest, everywhere.

The suit has always been about power. And, historically, power has been associated with suits that do not emphasise a man’s body. In the 1940s, for example, zoot suiters brandished the extra material of their suits during a period of wartime fabric rationing. Yet, the slim-cut suits of today are clearly about spotlighting a man’s figure and making him appear more slender and sexually attractive — as well as powerful.

Various labels, often applied with scorn — including “metrosexuals” and the more recent “yummies” (young urban males) and “spornosexuals” — have been used to describe men who explore dressing and personal care as a means of emphasising their sexuality, something that was previously seen as being essentially feminine. And, indeed, the influences of clothing for women (the traditional objects of sexual desire) are appearing more frequently on the runway, notably at JW Anderson, Duckie Brown and Bottega Veneta. Indeed, it was Bottega Veneta’s Tomas Maier who recently told Style.com that men were “taking over the female role.”

But the slim suit is where sex and power converge — a natural blend of a man’s need to be powerful and his new desire to be seen as sexy. And why not? Today, even the American president is something of a sex symbol. And the difference between the long, loose cut of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush’s suits and the slimmer suits worn by Obama captures the magnitude of the menswear earthquake.

Being powerful has never looked so good.

Cameron Wolf is a freelance writer and editor living in Los Angeles.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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  1. Please bare in mind that in the late 1990′s ROMEO GIGLI and MIUCCIA PRADA were effectively rewriting menswear tailoring codes in suitings in particular ROMEO GIGLI who particularly went for more tailored, more skinny and slimmer which also mirrored his womenswear. In all due respect for Mr. BROWNE and Mr. SLIMANE they were surely influenced by these two forward thinking designers in Milan.

    Kevin McDonald from Italy