Progress & Preservation
The Silentist wrote a piece asserting his opposition to sneakers with suits. He’s extending a position I noted in the second of two posts I made on the subject. A Fistful of Style has offered his own rejoinder.
I would like to take this very practical topic to a more conceptual place. Specifically, I want to consider the role of two opposing tendencies in style/fashion. On the one hand, there’s what I would call progression, on the other’s there preservation. Progression involves introducing change and moving away from tradition. Preservation involves stability and a reinforcement of tradition. I’m trying to present the concepts without any overt normative assessment as I consider both important forces within menswear. In fact, I think it is the tension between them that ensures change itself is coherent. If I’m being upfront, I would consider myself more of a progressionist, favouring experimentation that pushes and crosses the boundaries of traditional style. Kiyoshi - The Silentist - is more of a preservationist, an assessment I’m quite certain he would agree with.
I consider it indisputable that style changes. If you watch Downton Abbey, then you saw how the tuxedo was considered by some to be an unwelcome casual step away from traditional white tie. Yet, the rules of aristocratic dress were, at that time, less than 100 years old, having come about with Beau Brummell’s influence on the future King George IV and the aristocracy that surrounded him. Prior to that, the aristocracy wore quite audacious and ornate costumes to demonstrate their wealth and leisure. By the 1950s, as depicted in the excellent BBC series The Hour, the tuxedo was the required dress for a man attending dinner in an aristocratic household. The clothing worn to lunch by those at the home would have given the Dowager Countess a heart attack. Although white tie and morning dress remain the height of formal mens attire, they are almost entirely restricted to the vestiges of the aristocracy, with barely two generations of British aristocrats having actually donned such outfits on a regular basis.
As the world changes it only makes sense that style changes with it. Yet, I do not wish for menswear to be radically and unhesitatingly transformed. Everyone likes to say that there are ‘no rules’ in menswear and it is true, if by rules we mean something akin to a sport’s rulebook. Instead, menswear has covert ‘rules.’ It would be a lot easier if we could all just buy the handbook. Instead, there is a learning process, figuring out what works and what is acceptable. The basis for acceptance is judgement by the community. This judgement is not arbitrary. In fact, it is built up from years of experience that includes buying and wearing the clothes, putting together outfits, learning about materials, colour combinations, use of texture, proportion, cut. However, it also includes engaging with others, both in and outside the community. Or, rather, communities, as there are multiple arenas were we have our clothes judged and where we judge others. Perhaps you were lucky enough to learn from your father, whom you still try to impress. Or, you might have very strict requirements on your dress from your place of work. Or, you might be a member of styleforum, trying to earn a kudos from Manton or Spoo. Or, maybe you post wiwt shots on Tumblr in pursuit of the official #menswear tag, or a reblog from This Fits. Let’s also not under-estimate the effect of an envious glance or compliment from someone outside the community. Menswear is, as with many things in life, about fitting in. And, contrary to those who insist that you should dress solely for yourself, I think it’s okay to dress for a community. The assessment of peers is important and it should be important.
The menswear community exists in multiple parts and they do not all accord with one another. Yet, there are many commonly held ideas about what constitutes ‘classic’ menswear. I saw it espoused most clearly and effectively in a now disappeared series by F. Corbera (voxsartoria on Tumblr) on putting together coherent outfits. These commonly held ideas form the basis for the menswear tradition and it is to this tradition that The Silentist is appealing in his rejection of sneakers and suits. Of course, it is entirely possible for traditionalists to have their own disagreements about what is and is not traditional. To see such interesting and informative nitpicking in action, read the CBD WAYWRN: An Experiment thread on styleforum. Yet, they will largely close ranks in defence of tradition when confronted with those transgressing the ‘rules.’ In fact, the existence of the CBD thread is in response to what many in the forums considered excessive transgression in the standard ‘What Are You Wearing Right Now?’ thread. These preservationists will have all sorts of arguments for why such transgressions are undesirable, unappealing, or incoherent. Yet, such transgressions will continue to occur as the progressionists play at the boundaries and occasionally stray well outside them.
So, we have these two groups: the preservationists appealing to the coherence captured by the ‘rules’ of tradition, and the progressionists who introduce new elements to the traditional combinations, including additions by subtraction. While I consider myself a progressionist, and I like to play at the boundaries, I’m grateful for the preservationists who pull in the other direction. They help ensure that the evolution of menswear does not gather excessive speed and careen out of control. They maintain a needed degree of order and discipline while the progressionists introduce the changes that can keep menswear new and exciting. Without preservation there ceases to be a tradition beyond which progression can occur. The preservationists actually impose order on the change itself.
On the specific matter of suits and sneakers, I disagree with Kiyoshi about how formal a suit must be. I think it is actually a fairly recent thing that suits are considered inherently formal. A lord traipsing about the country in full tweed with breeks and a pair of wellington boots would not have been considered to be wearing anything formal. These days, those of us living in urban areas have little reason to wander through bogs. We do, however, have reason to hang out on the streets, in coffee shops, on patios. I think there is no reason a full linen or cotton suit with unstructured shoulders would be inappropriate in such a setting. In fact, one of the secrets of suit wearing is that it is actually a fairly lazy way to dress. The bulk of the outfit has already been decided for you. When you’re not wearing a suit, properly pairing a jacket and trousers is perhaps the hardest part of putting together an outfit. So, it is easy to toss on a casual suit. Further, as Alex at AFoS pointed out, sneakers have long shed their athletic origins. I think the gap between a truly casual suit and the proper style of sneaker is far smaller than Kiyoshi thinks it is. Yet, I’m thankful for his pushback against the pairing. Not least because I know, when it comes time to fight against the pairing of blazers with sweatpants, he’ll be right there beside me.
Note: CBD stands for ‘conservative business dress’