Suited Up: Stuffy or Stylish?

A while ago, I wrote a piece on the history of the suit. If you don’t remember it, you can find it here. Recently I started thinking about suits again. I started thinking about what they are and how they’re perceived in society. What they mean. What they evoke and how the suit has changed over the course of history. It’s a fascinating, sad, scary and hopeful and unfortunate saga that plays out almost like some sort of Shakespeare thing that you had to study at school.  So, where do we begin?

Along with men like Fred Astaire, George Raft and the Duke of Windsor, Cary Grant was always impeccably dressed

The Suit Today

In the 21st Century, the suit is viciously ripped apart and herded into one of two different camps. Those who see it as being super straitlaced, uptight, rigid, formal and uncomfortable and…okay who are we kidding? There’s really only one camp. But the point of this article is to show that there needn’t be this one camp and that indeed, this camp shouldn’t exist in the first place. The original purpose and history of the suit which was, as I said in my other article, a cornerstone of style, has been distorted, changed, warped and muddled up over the past fifty-odd years and today, how the public views the average two or three-piece suit, is very different to how the suit was originally viewed, a hundred, eighty, seventy-five and sixty years ago, when suits were worn on an almost daily basis. In this article we’ll look at what the suit traditionally was, how it changed from this to what it is now, and what, in the mind of this blogger at any rate, the suit should always and should continue to be. Let’s begin with the public perception in the 21st Century, of the typical man’s suit…

Perceptions of the Suit

There are two main perceptions of the suit in the 21st Century. Perception #1: A suit is old-fashioned. It’s formal. It’s for ‘special occasions’. It’s stuffy and constricting and uncomfortable and makes you look like a banker or a lawyer, a businessman or a mobster. You wear it for work and for work only. Then, there’s also Perception #2:  A suit is suave and sophistocated, it’s classy. It looks stylish and makes a man feel good, feel interesting, feel important, intelligent, in-control, comfortable, confident…sexy? Maybe that too. So my question is. Why? Why one and why not the other?

If a suit makes you look good. Why don’t more people wear them? And why does the suit have this unfortunate reputation that it does, as outlined in ‘Perception #1’. Is it deserved? Where does it come from? Why do we still have it?

The suit has a reputation of being stuffy and old-fashioned. Overly formal and uncomfortable. You put it on for special occasions and then store it back in your closet until you need it again, like some sort of military dress-uniform that you take out for promotions, parades or special presentations and ceremonies. Like…Weddings. But why should this be so? Where does it come from?

The suit’s current reputation comes from the period after World War Two during the 1960s and 1970s. Suits became synonymous during this period with employment and working and business and jobs. People wore suits all the time and as they say ‘Familiarity breeds contempt’. The suit became associated more and more strongly with work instead of play, with stiffnes and formality instead of relaxation and enjoyment. Because people had to wear them all day at work, it’s likely that they associated them too much with a lack of freedom and therefore, cast them off the moment they weren’t working. But that was never the suit’s job in the first place. It was never designed specifically as a work-uniform, but that’s where it’s been stuck for the last thirty or forty years. Even now in a new century when, with all the mixing and matching we’re doing with clothes, the suit seems to be jammed in some sort of timewarp. Today, when most people think of suits, they imagine TV shows like The Apprentice…

…a sad, but truthful look at the suit in today’s society.

Let’s move away from Perception #1 and move onto Perception #2…

Breaking out of the mould of business and employment, let’s take a look at the social history of the suit and a look at the suit from the other perspective that we have of it: As something classy and sophistocated. You have to understand that the suit wasn’t always seen as some sort of corporate uniform, the way that it might be today. For decades, the suit was seen as a form of, for want of a better and more contemporary term, ‘smart casual’ attire. The suit was the standard set of clothes that a man wore when he was out on the town. When he went out for dinner. When he went to work. When he followed the wife to visit friends or when merely going about his business. A suit used to be a sign of style, good taste, self-respect and confidence and power, sadly replaced it seems, by other qualities that are less indicative of what the suit should respresent: Masculinity and manhood.

So if the suit isn’t formal. Is it casual? If it was worn every day, it must be. But where does it lie on the dresscode scale? Let’s have a look…

At the top we have White Tie. Worn for the most formal of events such as weddings, important state functions and opening night at the theatre. White Tie is rarely worn today by most people except when it’s specifically asked for on an invitation-card.

Below White Tie we have Black Tie. Still fairly common today, Black Tie is worn for semi-formal occasions such as dinners with friends, parties, school or university events and presentations and awards ceremonies (Academy Awards, for example). White Tie is the most formal level of dress in the Western hemisphere. Black Tie, directly below it, is traditionally seen as semiformal dress, worn for more relaxed occasions.

To borrow a term from contemporary English, below Black Tie, we have ‘Smart Casual’. This was the area which up until fairly recently, was the domain of a certain set of clothes: The Suit. The suit was seen as a badge of pride and honour back in the old days. You wore it to show you had style, class and panache. It was the gold standard of men’s attire for well over a century. A man wearing a suit was seen as a snappy dresser who took care and pride in his appearance and who was someone worth taking notice of. Over the decades, suits changed in style, but they never moved from their rung on the wardrobe ladder. Up to the 1940s, a suit almost always had a waistcoat with it, making it a three-piece suit. The reasoning behind this was because it was considered unacceptable to display the white of your shirt. Your shirt was worn under your suit. It was an undergarment like your boxer-shorts or your briefs. Most likely, you only changed your shirt once a week anyway, so there was certainly no expectation that you’d want to show it off. Also, in days before central heating, the waistcoat provided an essential layer of warmth in cold, blustery buildings. Wearing two-piece suits regularly didn’t start becoming popular until after World War Two, when strict cloth-rationing made the manufacture of three-piece suits so much more difficult than it was before the war. Three-piece suits are much harder to find these days than two-pieces, but still, the suit remains.

Pussy Galore and James Bond (Sean Connery) in ‘Goldfinger’, with Bond wearing a three-piece suit

Finally, below the suit, we have street-casual, which is what most people wear today. Slacks. Jeans. Shirts. Pullovers. T-shirts and so forth. Traditionally, clothes such as these were seen as work-clothes. T-shirts, singlets and shirts were seen as underwear that you put on to absorb sweat and perspiration. Jeans were worn when you had heavy labour to do such as gardening, woodchopping, cleaning or any other activity that would’ve been unwise to carry out in a suit.

So as you can see, the suit is far from being some sort of formal, stuffy uniform. And it was never designed to be stuffy, anyway. Suits, when properly tailored and measured, are meant to be perfectly fitting and comfortable. If a suit is uncomfortable for whatever reason, then it’s not the right one for you. But just because a suit looks nice doesn’t mean that it’s automatically formalwear.

Suits: Casual or Formal?

This is the big style and fashion combat ground in the 21st century. Imagine an enormous table with thimbles armed with needles on one side and thread-spools armed with pins on the other with a battle-line of a tailor’s measuring tape running between the two. Where does the suit lie? In formalwear or casualwear? Let’s consider the photograph below for a minute…

Here’s actor Simon Baker wearing a three-piece suit. In no way does this look even remotely formal. Sleeves are up. Jacket’s off, shirt-collar is undone, he’s tieless and his shirtfront is open. This diversity of the suit, to look either elegant or relaxed speaks to me of its lack of formality as opposed to its abundance of it.

So the answer is that the suit does lie in the casualwear camp, and it’s just as well that it should, because that is what it was designed for. That is what it was invented for. That is what it’s meant to be seen as and used as. That’s why the perception of the suit as being a stuffy and formal and rigid uniform is unfounded. Because it simply does not exist. Invitation cards will say “White Tie” or “Black Tie”. Sometimes even “Smart Casual”. They will never say “Wear a suit”. Why? Because a suit isn’t formal. That’s why. And another reason why the suit wavers from formality is because formality is just that. It’s formal. White Tie is White Tie. Black Tie is Black. But a suit isn’t. It changes and alters constantly. Only casual clothes can do that. If you don’t believe me, then look up a fellow named Edward, Duke of Windsor.

Edward, Prince of Wales. Edward VIII of England. Edward the Duke of Windsor.

Edward, Duke of Windsor, with his wife, Wallis, the Duchess of Windsor

Apart from famously abdicating in 1936 to marry an American divorcee (Oh the scandal!), King Edward VIII was famous for one other thing – Rocking the suit. Before big fashion models showed up, the Duke was one of the most photographed men in the world, for his sense of fashion and style. And yet he always wore a suit. But that wasn’t the point. It wasn’t that he wore a suit, but rather what he did with it, changing, mixing, matching, mashing and churning things up. He was a style barometer that told the British people what to wear, how to wear it and if nobody else was wearing it, then he would. I can’t find the source on this, but I remember reading once that the Duke of Windsor was the guy who popularised zip-flies on trousers! Before then, trousers all had button-flies!

If you want more proof that a suit belongs in casualwear, think for a moment about a tuxedo and a suit. A tuxedo MUST be worn as a tuxedo. You can’t chop and change it. A suit is versatile. You can wear it with or without the jacket. You can put the waistcoat on if you’re cold, or you can leave it at home and wear it as a two-piece. You can use the jacket on its own as a sportsjacket or you can use the trousers seperately from the rest of the suit. You can wear the jacket and trousers with a contrasting waistcoat for a more broken up, less solid look and none of this will ever look wrong. It might look different, but never wrong. That’s not something you can say about true formal attire. Again, take a look at the photo of Simon Baker if you need any proof.

When Do You Wear a Suit?

I remember a while back, my father told me: “We should get you a suit. Something that you can wear for graduation”, by which of course, he meant my graduation from my bachelor’s degree at university. Oh boy. Oh boy oh boy oh boy! A suit! A suit a suit a suit! I’d never owned a suit before. I was excited and interested and fascinated. I was getting my first suit! I was gonna be a big boy! And then…bam! There it was. My first glimpse into how the suit is seen today. As something special to be dragged out on special occasions, paraded around as something special and unique and then shoved back into a box, like hauling grandpa out of the retirement home for a family reunion to remind people he’s still around before driving him back home at the end of the day.

But why?

Right here, you see the problem. Because suits have been elevated to the level of formalwear (a pedestal it was never supposed to occupy), the suit has been shunted aside to ‘occasional wear’. When’s the right time? When’s the wrong time? There is no right or wrong time to wear a suit. There are times where it might be more or less appropriate to wear one, but as I explained, a suit is casual clothing and therefore, fluid, with no real rules that govern its use. So when do you wear a suit? The answer really is: Whenever you like, so long as it doesn’t get damaged or dirty. After all, that’s what they were invented for. Do you really want to put on a suit only when you have a special occasion? Lying down in a pine box is a special occasion. Is that the only time you want to wear something sharp and snappy? I certainly don’t. So don’t let that be your only time that you’ll be wearing one either. Wear it on nice days. Crappy days. Days when there’s something interesting going on, or on days when there’s nothing on at all. A suit isn’t like a tuxedo that you can only put on after 6:00pm, it’s something you can wear all the time, so embrace it and do it and feel good about it.

Concluding Remarks

Okay. So where am I going with all this? The point of this posting is not to try and get every Tom, Dick, Harry, George and Michael into a suit…that would take far too much fabric anyway…but rather to try and destroy some misconceptions that have sprung up over the last thirty or forty years about the suit. The point of this posting is to clearly demonstrate the position of the suit and to illustrate that its current and unfortunate reputation that it holds, is unfounded, unwarranted and above all, unnecessary. The suit is a fine and elegant set of clothes, but that doesn’t make it formal or stuffy or straitlaced. It doesn’t make it rigid or tight or anything else along those lines. A suit is meant to suggest style, comfort, sophistocation and relaxation. After all, the suit’s full name is a lounge suit. So go ahead and lounge around in it. Be relaxed and casual, as the suit was meant to be. If you have a suit, don’t lock it away in the cedar cupboard up in the attic. Yank it it out, put it on and go out for a wander. We all want to look sharp and elegant. And it’s easy to be so. It just requires the shaking off of dust and a bit of a courage to do it. In today’s world of torn jeans, logo T-shirts and baseball caps, anyone wearing a suit will stand out as a sharp and shining example of manhood, confidence, style and sensibility. Be like the man who was king and rule the suit. Leave the Levis and the Piping Hot at home; suit up and step out.


Heads Will Roll: The Hangman & Headsman’s Trades

You read about it in crime-novels. You see it in movies or in historical dramas. You maybe even play-acted it in school or on the stage somewhere in a theatrical production of some kind. For centuries, hanging and decapitation have been the two main methods of capital punishment.

But have you ever wondered how it was done? Despite the old saying that “everybody dies easy”, it’s not something that might be said by the men who have the unique and rather unenviable task of actually doing it for a living. The headsman and the hangman, the two men who traditionally carried out these two most common methods of civil execution, actually had to approach each execution from a highly scientific point of view.

Execution by Beheading

Beheading someone as a form of execution is not easy to do. In ancient times, it was done with swords or axes. These weapons, though sharp, did not always do the job very well. The human neck is surprisingly strong and considerable force is required to break it. In medieval times, specially-crafted execution-axes were used, that look similar to the one pictured here:

Axes such as this did not so much ‘cut’ the head off as they simply bashed their way through the neck-bone. They were crude at the best of times and useless at the worst of times. Most medieval executioners also carried a dagger with them called a ‘slitting knife’, with which they would have to literally slice the head off, using the slitting-knife to cut away the remaining muscles and flesh so that the head would fall off the corpse and land in the basket below…all the while, the severed neck would be pumping out blood onto the scaffolding.

During the 1700s, reformers were looking for a more effective way to decapitate people. Axes and swords were inefficient. They did not always work and death was neither swift nor painless. In the early 1790s, the French came up with the answer. The Guillotine.

Named for Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, a French physician, the guillotine was first put to use in 1792. It remained the only legal method of execution in France for the next 189 years (capital punishment in France was abolished in 1981). It was designed to take the human error out of the equation of death by beheading. The angled blade of the guillotine was developed so that the head would be severed cleanly from the body in one swift, sweeping stroke, instead of being hacked off like with an axe.

So much for the guillotine. That was the easy part.

Execution by Hanging

Ah. Execution by Hanging. The favoured method in Asia and in most of the Western countries where capital punishment was (or still is) legal. Anyone can chop a man’s head off. Raise the guillotine, slot him in the hole and let go of the rope…done! But how many people can hang a man? Believe me, it’s not that easy.

The job of hangman is very unique. Not because he’s an executioner. Not because he might be depised by society (I’m sure lawyers are also despised by society), but because there’s a lot more to this job than meets the eye. Not just anybody can hang anybody, not just because of the emotional toll, but simply because not just anybody can hang any body. You see, the thing that makes the job of hangman difficult is that there is a high level of mathematical skill required in this job. You may not see it, or even believe it, but it is true and it is there.

In older times, you hanged a man thus:

You threw the rope over a tree or a hanging-post, got the condemmed man to stand on a chair, then you slipped the noose around his neck, hopped down, kicked the chair away and let him dangle around for five…ten…fifteen…twenty…thirty minutes…however long it took, until he eventually strangled to death. Yes. It could take that long.

This was unacceptable. It was unsightly and it took far too long; another way of hanging the condemned was required. The old method of hanging was called the ‘short-drop’ method. String him up, kick the bucket away and then let him choke to death after a short drop. This by the way, is where we get the phrase ‘kick the bucket’ (meaning to commit suicide). It comes from when the suicider, after looping the noose around his neck, kicks away the upturned bucket that he was standing on.

Almost synonymous with the ‘Short Drop’ hanging method is the Tyburn Tree in Tyburn, London, a famous, triangle-shaped gallows on which up to two dozen people could be executed at one time. The Tree was erected in 1571 and wasn’t taken down until 1783! A plaque stands where the Tree was once located

The new method of hanging was very different from the old, even though on the surface they look the same. And it was this new method, called the ‘long-drop’ method, that was so scientific. And this is why not anybody can hang anybody, or any body, if you get my drift.

Hanging a body using the ‘Long Drop’ method is a tricky process. In the short-drop method, the aim is to strangle the condemned until they die from suffocation. The long-drop method aims to break the victim’s neck, providing swift and painless death, specifically, to break the neck at the C2 vertebra; the second vertebrae down from the head. Achieving this is difficult because no two persons are exactly alike. Some weigh more than others. Some weigh less. Some are taller than others, some are shorter. Some might have thin, scrawny necks. Some have thick, bulldog ones. How on earth are you going to figure out how much rope to use and how long a drop you need to break a given person’s neck? Because if you don’t have the right amount of rope, things can go horribly wrong.

See? It’s not so easy now, is it?

The long-drop method was developed by an English hangman named William Marwood in 1872. In time, a table was drawn up that took all the complexity out of how to carry out a good hanging. It was called Marwood’s Table of Drops. Published in 1888, the Official Table of Drops may be found about three-quarters the way down the page provided in this link. So, how did a long-drop hanging take place?

As I’ve explained, hanging changed over time. By the late 19th century, it was a pretty scientific undertaking that required care and deliberation. A typical long-drop hanging is done in the following manner:

1. The day before the hanging, the condemned prisoner is taken out of his (or her) cell. He or she is then weighed (while clothed) and the weight is recorded.

2. The hangman consults the Table of Drops, which specifies length of drop (and therefore, length of hangman’s rope) required for that weight, such that the drop will produce a clean, quick break of the neck.

3. The rope is measured and marked at the correct length, either with a painted lne or a length of metal wire wrapped around the rope at the correct point. A noose is tied at the end and then the rope is affixed to the gallows.

4. Sandbags equal in weight to the prisoner to be hung, are tied to the noose and the trapdoor is opened. The sandbags drop, stretching out the rope. This is done a full 24 hours before hanging, to take the elasticity out of the rope to prevent recoil later on.

5. On the day, the prisoner is marched out to the gallows. The noose is put around his neck and slightly off-center so that when the rope pulls tight, it breaks the neck. A prayer is said and the prisoner is allowed last words. He may or may not choose to have a black hood placed over his head.

6. The lever is pulled. The trapdoor falls open and the prisoner falls through. If the hanging is successful, the momentum of the body draws the noose tight and the sudden deceleration causes a quick and painless break of the neck.

7. The body is then cut down and prepared for postmortem examinations. In older times, a body was left hanging on the rope for up to an hour after death. This was eventually deemed unnecessary when a physician could just check the body and announce whether death had or had not occurred.

8. The rope is removed from the gallows and stored. This is in case it might be required later by law-enforcement or prison officials.

The hanging is done.

The Hangman’s Calculation

If you do a bit of research, you’ll find out that Tables of Drops changed markedly over the years. Starting in about 1888, they changed at least twice in the next 30 years, once in the 1890s and once again in 1913, with differing weights and drops for each new table. How do you figure out how much rope is needed for any given drop?

Remember that the tables are a guide. They only give the suggested drop-length, the length calculated to be most effective. But as I explained, not everyone is the same, so there are variables that might make the Table of Drops ineffective for any number of reasons, from a person being over the maximum weight in the Table of Drops, to their neck being particularly thick or the rope being thinner or thicker than usual. So how do you figure out the drop?

You use a piece of mathematics called the Hangman’s Calculation. It’s set up in the following manner:

(1260 / W ) + 1.5 = D.

1260 foot-pounds of force (the amount considered sufficient to cause neck-breakage), divided by the prisoner’s WEIGHT (W), with an added 1.5ft (18 inches or 1’6″) of rope for the noose itself, equals the optimum drop-length for a given person.

Despite all the maths and calculations, hanging remains a bit of a trial-and-error way of execution. Even when the Tables of Drops were well-established in society, it wasn’t unknown for bungled hangings to occur, and the condemned could still strangle to death or have their heads ripped off during botched hangings. Although no longer widely practiced in the Western world, hanging is still a very common method of execution in Asia in countries such as Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Bali, where there are significant drug-trafficking problems.