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.
A visit to Susan Buret’s house reveals that she is a keen collector of willow pattern china. This may seem a tad old fashioned for a contemporary artist, but I’m not really surprised. The blue and white design is a classic. It’s been around for more than two centuries and has never quite gone out of style. Tea in a willow pattern cup seems especially comforting, like a cuddle from a benevolent, shabby-chic, semi-fictional grandmother, all crinkly laugh lines, wispy white hair and a never ending supply of warm scones: very respectable, a touch conservative, terribly English.
Yet, rather than representing stability, timelessness and Anglo Saxon tradition (despite its longevity), willow pattern china is actually a physical manifestation of hybridity, fluidity and ongoing exchange. The now ubiquitous blue and white design is usually attributed, circa 1790, to Thomas Minton, a canny Staffordshire potter and business man who gave Spode a run for their money. The pattern marks an intermingling of East and West. It was an English take on Chinese decorative arts, mass produced and marketed to a burgeoning consumer class who couldn’t afford the real thing. And now, somewhat ironically, it is produced en mass back in China, a neat twist in a complex cycle of boundary hopping. The willow pattern is not quite what it initially seems to be. And this, I suspect, is its attraction for Buret, for neither are her paintings.
The paintings in Buret’s solo exhibition, More Stolen Geometry from the Gardens of Love, are heavily patterned and highly decorative. Intricate linear designs, punctuated by solid geometric elements cut from coloured paper, are precisely laid over delicate washes of watery pale jade green, lolly pink or dove blue and grey. At a quick glance, or from a distance, they evoke the same cosy associations as willow pattern china or florid floral wallpaper and soft furnishings. They seem overtly feminine, domestic, safe and pretty.
Yet, closer inspection reveals that Buret’s collaged paper shapes are cut from maps, and her linear designs, reminiscent of Islamic patterns, are frayed at the edges and prone to mimicking barbed wire and chain-link fencing. Nothing innocuous here. Of course, Buret’s paintings are still very pretty, but they are actually asking, “Can pretty patterns also be political?” It’s a rhetorical question since the answer is right there. If you take the time to look, yes, they can. Buret is drawing attention to our current cultural conditions. She highlights the near hysterical obsession politicians have developed over patrolling national borders and their determination to draw a firm line between ‘us’ and ‘them’.
George W. Bush may be long gone, but three successive Australian Prime Ministers still have us fighting a seemingly endless ‘war on terror’ as part of the ‘coalition of the willing’. Post 9-11, it’s fairly safe to say that the Western notion of ‘them’ points straight towards Islam. The words Muslim and terrorist have become virtually interchangeable in a mass media which no longer even feigns neutrality and which regularly portrays the citizens of Iraq and Afghanistan as tribal barbarians, armed to the teeth, yet rooted in the dark ages. In this prejudiced climate, Buret’s use of highly ordered and extremely beautiful Islamic patterns is a timely reminder that this is a culture that bequeathed the West an extensive knowledge of geometry, mathematics, anatomy and astronomy; a culture with a rich and living tradition of art, science and literature.
But as Buret points out, the patterns she uses also, “curve cross-culturally”. Her geometric shapes can be seen in the stone quatrefoils and stained glass windows of gothic cathedrals or in European textiles. Like the willow pattern, they represent a blurring of boundaries between the East and the West, documenting a centuries long process of cultural exchange.
Buret’s use of maps further emphasises the fluid nature of borders. She deliberately uses old maps, riddled with countries that no longer exist; evidence that the boundaries of nations are in fact arbitrary. Like cartography itself, which claims territory as much as records it, they are a political construct: imaginary and flexible. And in this way, Buret offers some hope. The borders armies squabble over, the perimeter our politicians so rigorously defend against a handful of refuges, the line between us and them: all are subject to change.
AT FIRST GLANCE, a well-respected architecture journal seems an odd place to publish a photo essay on McMansions. It pretty much goes without saying that, as architects, none of you (and I admit I’m not an architect) think that these are great examples of your trade. In fact, I suspect few, if any, of these buildings have benefited from your specialist knowledge.
The pop culture label McMansions perfectly sums up these mass-produced monoliths. They have all the substance of the fluffy white Big Mac bun. Like their namesake, they may not be nutritious, but people gobble them up. The burger giant relies on a winning combination of lots of sugar and lots of salt. McMansions offer maximum bulk on minimum land: two stories, five bedrooms and nothing less than the great Australian dream.
Big, bland and bloated, these are not beautiful structures. Architects, sociologists, cultural critics and enlightened town planners around the world have already written thousands of pages, millions of words, in books, newspapers, journals and on the web condemning these houses as ecologically unsustainable, socially detrimental, physically excessive and aesthetically just awful.
So why are we looking at them again? Because photographer Richard Glover has seen something that others, perhaps blinded by the fumes of their vitriolic invective, have failed to notice. He has realized that despite, or perhaps because of, being homogenized and ugly, these vast spreading suburbs are deeply intriguing. McMansions are not Glover’s usual subject matter. As a photographer of architecture, he spent six years documenting the transformation of the Tate Modern in London and has worked closely with architects John Pawson, Norman Foster and Dale Jones-Evans, to name but a few. Yet he felt compelled to photograph Kellyville, Glenwood and Bella Vista, developments bristling with McMansions. These suburbs are ubiquitous – they are located in Sydney’s north-west, but they could be anywhere.
Glover’s images masquerade as documentary photography – an attempt to record things just as they are. On the surface, his black-and-white Kellyvillephotos could be compared to the very formal architectural portraits of Bernd and Hilla Becher, and his colour New Suburbs streetscapes seem free from artifice. But as a good citizen of postmodernity, Glover knows as well as anyone that nothing, least of all photography, is ever neutral. He clicks the shutter at carefully chosen moments.
Glover has photographed the Kellyville McMansions at a particular point in time. He presents them poised on the brink of change, at the exact moment when the building is done but none of the personal touches have been added. They are rough, raw, barren, soulless. Absolutely blank and utterly devoid of nostalgia. Nothing has happened here yet, no childhood memories have been formed, no everyday dramas enacted. This is the fleeting moment before a house becomes a home. Glover photographs these structures as temporary occupants of a liminal space. For Scottish anthropologist Victor Turner, who popularized the phrase, this location is ambiguous, neither here nor there; it is a place of transformation marked by a rite of passage.1 Glover’sKellyville series neatly encapsulates this mystery and potential. His photographs mark a point of transition. Anything could happen.
Photographed in the high-noon glare of the midday sun, Glover’s New Suburbs series captures a soundstage atmosphere. These suburban streets look fake, or so hyper-real that they seem unreal. He presents a perfect, pristine, ultra-clean version of suburbia. There is not one single person. Everything is still, quiet, empty. This absence is slightly eerie, but it also gives the images a subtle sense of drama and anticipation, like a stage minus the actors. The images elicit a tantalizing feeling of suspense – something is going to happen. Glover is not alone in having seen the theatrical potential of suburban streets. From Frank Perry and John Cheever’sThe Swimmer to Tim Burton’s Edward Scissor Handsand David Caesar’s Idiot Box, film-makers have known for decades that suburbs are a hotbed of drama. And of course, the ’burbs are the location where most Australians live out the dramas of their daily lives.
Glover is exhibiting his collection of McMansion photos under the title Suburban Frontier. The word frontier exerts an irresistible pull towards the edge, a promise of pushing ever outwards, quintessentially westwards. The wild western suburbs, the Wild West. This evocative chain of associations inevitably leads to Hollywood. And while Glover’s photographs capture Hollywood’s artifice and drama, Hollywood is also a potent symbol of the insidious spread of American culture.
On 1 July 1947, William Levitt began the transformation of a potato field in Long Island into Levittown, a suburb of 17,000 homes. He applied fellow American Henry Ford’s assembly line tactics to the construction of houses and became the mythological grandfather of the ’burbs. By 1968 his company had built over 140,000 suburban homes worldwide. Levitt clearly linked suburban living with a certain brand of American culture. He famously advocated suburbia as a guerrilla strategy in the Cold War, saying, “No man who owns his own house and lot can be a communist. He has too much to do.”2 ›› Levittown and its descendants are what American cultural critic James Howard Kunstler calls the “geography of nowhere”.3 On the surface Glover does seem to have photographed this nowhere, or perhaps more accurately anywhere or everywhere. The clean suburban streets in his colour images seem generic, they sprawl beyond the border of the photograph with no apparent end in sight. The images can easily be read as just another example of the inexorable grinding down of local idiosyncrasies by the American cultural juggernaut. But this simple reading is deceptive.
Levitt may get credit for pioneering the modern suburb, but in 1942, five years before Levittown, Robert Menzies began actively supporting government policy that encouraged the growth of suburbs. Like Levitt, Menzies advocated home ownership as an ideological weapon. He argued that the average Aussie would be more patriotic with a “stake in the country”.4 By 1961, his policies had been spectacularly successful. At 70 per cent, Australians had the highest proportion of owner occupation in the world.5 This rate has remained remarkably steady, and most Australian homes are still in the suburbs.6 Suburbia is as Australian as it is American, perhaps even more so.
Members of the inner-city, black-clad cultural intelligentsia dismiss the suburbs as conservative, right-wing and dull, and not without some cause. But ironically, despite their dreadful sameness, many of the McMansions themselves seem distinctly “Australian”. In one of Glover’s photographs a pseudo-Federation villa sits next to a double-story box in unapologetic exposed red brick. Could this really be anywhere else? These McMansions seem to represent a subtle regional resistance to American homogenization. They are crass, inefficient and unsustainable, but maybe they are also physical manifestations of local culture, a kind of much-maligned folk art.
1. Victor Turner, Drama, Fields and Metaphors: Symbolic Action in Human Societies. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1974.
2. Richard Lacayo, “Suburban Legend: William Levitt” in Time, 7 Dec, 1998, v152 i23, 148.
3. James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of American’s Man-Made Landscape. Simon and Schuster, NY, 1993.
4. Patrick Troy, “Suburbs of Acquiescence, Suburbs of Protest” in Housing Studies, Sep 2000, v15 i5, 717.
5. Patrick Troy, “Suburbs of Acquiescence, Suburbs of Protest”, 719.
6. Year Book Australia: Housing, Homeownership and Renting, (2000–1 Census Data). Australian Bureau of Statistics, 7 July, 2005.