Clothes Make the Man (Feature Article)

Published in Il Tridente magazine, Summer 2011.

Mark Twain, well known satirist, and student of human nature, is given credit for the now famous quote, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” The American writer made this observation sometime between the end of the 19th century and his death in the first decade of the 20th. The gender specificity and timing of his comment is no coincidence, for this often repeated maxim no doubt refers to the importance of a man’s suit.

The suit as we know it emerged during the mid-late 19th century and was firmly entrenched as male attire by 1910. This was a period of intense social change. Urbanisation, industrialisation, Darwinism and the changing aspirations of women all played a role in shaping the form of the suit. Norah Waugh, an historian of English men’s fashion, states that from the 1840s all trousers were cut with a centre front fly. By the 1850s, waistcoats began to match trousers and by the late 1860’s, matching three piece suits appeared. But it is the shape of the lounge suit or sack suit jacket that really marked a cultural turning point.

In his book, Selling Styl:e Clothing and Social Change at the Turn of the Century (2003), cultural theorist Rob Schoman argues that, “the ongoing construction of gender roles, particularly evident in the 1890s as part of an overall reformation of middle-class values, became visible, accessible, fiercely contested, and, to a certain extent, manipulable through clothing.” As women agitated for the vote, the ideal shape of the male physique became more muscular and broader; overtly masculine. The waisted and skirted form of previously fashionable frock coats and morning coats came to be seen as effeminate, while the padded jacket of the lounge or sack suit corresponded to the new bulkier male body ideal.

As activist and writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman explained in 1898, “It is masculine to have a broad chest and square shoulders – typically masculine. If the customer chanced to lack these distinctions… the tailor sees to it that his garments should symbolise his sex beyond dispute.” Waugh concurs saying, “The putting together of a garment – the subtleties of inter-linings, pressings, sewing, etc – is not fully appreciated by the layman, whose apparent muscles and sinews are often provided by the tailor’s canvas and wadding.” In this way, a good suit really does make the man.

Italian company, Ermenegildo Zegna, have been making, if not men, at least fine fabric for suits that make men look and feel good, for nearly as long as the suit itself has been around. Founded in 1910, by Ermenegildo Zegna himself, the business remains a family affair and is today a luxury brand with a global reach.

Mention Zegna and many Australians immediately think of Paul Keating. The former Prime Minister’s penchant for the Italian brand may have brought their fine tailoring to the attention of the Aussie public, but Zegna has a long history in this country that pre dates the Keating era by several decades. Zegna is one of the largest buyers of super-fine Merino wool in the world and the company has actively encouraged its production in Australia since 1963. In 2002, they initiated the Ermenegildo Zegna Vellus Aureum Trophy which is awarded annually to the very best fleeces from Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and South Africa.

Paolo Zegna, President of the Ermenegildo Zegna Group, was in Sydney to award the top trophy to the Windradeen farm in NSW, who also won last year, setting a new world record for the fineness of their fleeces. For him, the relationship between the Italian brand and Australian wool is key. “If you want to make the best fabrics you have to use the best fibres,” he says. And in all three levels of suiting that they offer: bespoke, made-to-measure and ready to wear, it is the quality, and above all light weight luxury, of Zegna’s fabrics that define their suits. As he explains, “The technology that has been applied to suits, in the fabric and the making of the garment, means suits are much lighter. So from the bullet-proof suits of the past we have come to a second skin that you wear.” This lessening of weight is physical as well as psychological. “You feel better, you feel more free,” he says, “A suit is no longer a uniform, no longer a constraint, it’s a pleasure.”

For Paolo Zegna, freedom and versatility, a light weight suit which can be casual or formal depending of the attitude and accessories of the wearer, is the future of the suit. He sees a trend towards a combination of comfort and elegance, so effortlessly embodied by Zegna. And discerning men all over the world seem to agree. Zegna has 560 stores in 80 countries, the very latest being a new flagship premises in Sydney’s luxury shopping precinct. But the brand remains resolutely Italian. When asked what differentiates an Italian suit from an English cut, he replies without hesitation, “We are a little bit sexier.”

When it comes to luxury men’s suits, there are really only two directions to look, either towards the slightly more casual, less structured and, some say, sexier, styles of Italy, or to the more structured lines of London’s Saville Row. Which is not to say that  Australia doesn’t boast some of the world’s best bespoke tailors and that Australian men don’t appreciate their work. But even the top tailors in this country tend to work in either an Italian or English tradition.

Sarti, which means tailor in Italian, is the brainchild of Celica Coate. Not a tailor herself, she nevertheless has more than 20 years experience in the business and she knows what men want. Coate offers a personalised wardrobe consultancy service as well as bespoke tailoring, made on site by tailors in her Melbourne workroom, and Su Misura (made to measure) and ready to wear suits made by Sarti tailors in Italy.

When asked what makes a good suit, Coates replies, “It’s a bit like a Maserati, you have to have good internals, like the engine. You can have a beautiful cloth, but a lousy suit if the construction is not right.” It’s the careful selection of the right weights for hidden canvas and horsehair linings, painstakingly stitched in by hand by a master tailor, that makes a suit a cut above the rest.

John Cutler is a fourth generation bespoke tailor. Like his Father and Grandfather, he was apprenticed at 16 to the family business, JH Cutler in Sydney, started by his Great Grandfather in 1884. Cutler also travelled to London to learn more of his art and returned to become head cutter at only 23 years old. Nealry 40 years later, he is still absolutely passionate about making the best possible suit for each and every client. Every one of his suits is unique. “I realise dreams,” he says, “I believe in the individual. To create a good suit is to fit two things; to fit the body and the mind.”

To achieve this, Cutler has become a keen observer of what drives men. The process of getting a Culter suit made involves in-depth conversation, a little jazz and maybe a whiskey. Before the measuring tape comes out, Cutler makes sure he finds out exactly what the client really wants. And whatever it is, from wanting complete control, to wanting the very best without having to labour over a single decision, he makes sure they get it.

Lapels creep outwards or retreat inwards, shoulders become broader or start to slope, cuffs and trouser lengths rise and fall, but despite these fashionable changes, the men’s suit as we know it has been around for more than a century. Coates believes its longevity may be due to its simplicity and functionality. Cutler says some men “consider that a good suit is like a suit of armour, it gives them confidence.” Men wear suits in different ways for different reasons, but both Coates and Cutler agree that suit is here to stay.

Tracey Clement