Philosophical Interventions: Book Reviews, 1986-2011

By Martha C. Nussbaum | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ELEVEN
Looking Good, Being Good

ANNE HOLLANDER (1994), Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress; PHILIPPE PERROT (1994), Fashioning the Bourgeoisie: A History of Clothing in the Nineteenth Century; GILLES LIPOVETSKY (1994), The Empire of Fashion: Dressing Modern Democracy

For many fashion-conscious Frenchmen, the triumph of the dark suit, imported from England, was a source of national shame and aesthetic distress. “The sun’s rays have disappeared,” wrote a Parisian journalist in 1869, “giving way to the lugubrious shadows in which our tailors envelop us.” Another more vitriolic writer was quick to envisage the demise of the hated costume:

O … black suit … borrowed from perfidious Albion who inflicts it on
every rank from a Peer of the Three Kingdoms to a Street Sweeper.…
I won’t miss you, dull, banal black suit that everyone wears on every
occasion. May you disappear forever. May you emigrate with an export
subsidy, go away threadbare, and, giving up the ghost through your broken
buttons, may you metamorphose into a tabard on the back of a London
cabby or on the rump of a Congolese or Zanzibarian as black as you.…
The black suit is dying: … the black suit is dead!

In one way, this prediction has been a staggering failure. The suit is alive and well. It is the costume of respectable dress for heads of state, businessmen, lawyers, criminal defendants, and in a form remarkably little changed from that of its Anglo-Parisian ancestor. In another way, it has come true: for suits, without ever having left Paris, have taken up their “export subsidy” and have moved to every nation of the world, replacing traditional national dress for many functions connected with the serious business of life.

-138-

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