Sartorial Colonialism: How the Suit Conquered the World

Reynard Loki

Imagine Gandhi. What is he wearing? Chances are your mind’s eye sees him in a simple piece of white fabric wrapped around his waist and legs. He’s wearing a dhoti, a seven-yard-long rectangular piece of unstitched cloth that is the traditional garb for men in Bangladesh, India and Sri Lanka.


But before Gandhi became the leader of the Indian independence movement and the inspiration for freedom fighters everywhere, he was a barrister who studied law at University College London. And at the time, he wore a suit.


However, at the end of the 19th century, you didn’t have to be a dapper young Hindi lawyer to wear a suit. By then, the men’s suit (or more specifically, the “lounge suit”) -- a jacket and trousers cut from the same cloth, sometimes accompanied by a waistcoat and/or tie -- had already assumed the dominant position in international men’s fashion.


Today, from New York to Nanjing, London to Lagos, Cairo to Canberra, Toronto to Tokyo, the suit is the most ubiquitous and acceptable look for “professional” men (and women).


The King is Dead…Long Live Trousers!


January 21, 1793:  King Louis XVI was beheaded in Paris. And the Capetian Dynasty that had ruled France since the year 972 died with him. As the monarchy was discarded, so too was the court dress that dominated European culture for centuries. (The word “suit” comes from the Old French word “suitte,” meaning “attendance” or “the act of following.” It referred to the uniform or set of matching clothes worn by court attendants and to the suits in a deck of playing cards.)


After the royalty lost power, men abandoned the frou-frou of aristocratic style and opted for more basic, masculine, and “democratic” clothing. The sans-culottes, radical working-class revolutionaries, were named for the long trousers they wore, which they favored over the more bourgeois culottes (silk knee breeches) worn by the moderate upper class. Make no mistake: The French Revolution also revolutionized fashion.


 From Missionaries to Modernism


But to trace the evolution of the suit is to follow not only the development of European sociopolitical upheaval since the French Revolution, but the dissemination of the suit into other cultures through colonizers and missionaries. If you dress like us, you will be like us.


However, “it would be mistaken to believe that the adoption of European attire was inevitably or even primarily a consequence of colonialism,” notes Robert Ross in “Clothing: A Global History.”


“In many of those regions which avoided formal colonization, autocratic rulers required of their subjects that they adopt what was seen as modern clothing, on the assumption that by changing their outward appearance they would also change the habits of mind.”


Ross notes 18th-century Russia, 20th-century Turkey and Iran and post-Meiji Japan as examples.


From Marcello Mastroianni to “Mad Men”


The arrival of the golden age of Hollywood  also played a large part in propagating this particular cut of jib. Clark Gable. Cary Grant. Jimmy Stewart. Humphrey Bogart. They all looked good in a suit. Never mind being stylish: The suit was absolutely essential to a leading man’s success, at least off the battlefield. By the 1960s and 1970s, the jacket came off, the tie was abandoned and “casual chic” was born.

The look had spilled over into women’s fashion, too. Actresses like Marlene Dietrich and Katherine Hepburn helped popularize a more masculine style with pants and fitted jackets that set the stage for what would become the women’s suit, a fashion that dominated the workforce in the 1980s and 1990s.


In the 1993 film Sleepless in Seattle, there is a scene of a buttoned-up, suit-wearing Meg Ryan at her office at the Baltimore Sun. Directly behind her is a life-size cutout of the famous 1943 pin-up photo of Betty Grable that was used as a 20th Century Fox studio promo. Grable is dressed in a one-piece swimsuit and heels, coquettishly looking over her shoulder. The silver screen siren seems to be saying to her modern, post-feminist counterpart, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”


 From Gandhi to the Dalai Lama


Now rewind 100 years, back to 1893 -- exactly one hundred years after the execution of Louis XVI. A 24-year-old Gandhi is ejected from a train cabin in South Africa at the request of a racist white passenger. And thus, the young, stylish and “properly dressed” London barrister was awakened to social injustice.


By 1921, Gandhi had shed his suit and draped his body in a dhoti. It was an act that symbolized his decision to discard the sartorial signifier of Western industrialism and European colonialism -- and to embrace humble village life. He invented a portable spinning wheel and advocated the spinning of khadi (homespun cloth) and the abandonment of British-made textiles.


Gandhi realized that clothing wasn’t merely something to cover the body. It was a signifier of one’s socioeconomic group, a coded message that silently transmitted to others the culture to which one subscribes, a symbol of both dominance and submission. Switching from the suit to the dhoti was an integral part of satyagraha, Gandhi’s form of nonviolent resistance against tyranny.


“For Gandhi, clothing played a key role in consolidating certain political impulses and symbolizing a culturally and racially specific political worldview that also doubled as an activist stance in anti-colonial struggles,”  explains Falguni A. Sheth in “The Hijab and the Sari: The Strange and Sexy between Colonialism and Global Capitalism.”

“His sartorial interventions, as expressed through his clothes and the khadi movement, reflected a resistance to the encroaching hegemony of a British imperial ethos, which was linked to Britain’s pretentions to economic, modernist and liberal superiority.”


Another freedom fighter, the 14th Dalai Lama, called Gandhi his mentor.


Resist Tyranny, Trash That Tie


Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian fashion designer whose clients included Mae West and fashion icon Daisy Fellowes, once said, “Fashion is born by small facts, trends, or even politics.” Indeed, changing one’s clothes might do more to affect the dominant sociopolitical ideology than changing one’s party, especially when the parties become progressively more indiscernable from each other. Want to fight Western hegemony? Stop wearing suits. Trash the tie. Gandhi won freedom for India from British rule without firing a shot. And part of his success was donning the dhoti.


The suit, like hemlines, has gone back and forth in the popular mindset. It has its roots in servitude for royalty. Then it was the symbol of the lower class anti-monarchists. Then it came to represent the global dominance by the West, a meaning that still holds firm today. To be sure, many non-Western nationalists shun the suit in favor of traditional dress, thumbing their noses at the West’s overarching influence, sartorial or otherwise. Scanning the delegates at the United Nations General Assembly, one can quickly get a sense of where people stand, at least in general terms of nationalism and globalism, by what they are wearing.


So to all you modern revolutionaries and anti-establismentarianists out there: Before you take to the streets, look at your wardrobe. What statement are you making? And if you do decide to go suitless, make sure you wear something -- anything else -- if you want to make a difference. After all, as Mark Twain said, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society."

Image of suits on main page: Paul Goyette, Flickr


Author Bio:

A former media executive with 15 years of experience in the private and nonprofit sectors, Reynard is a writer, editor, artist and the author of the blog 13.7 Billion Years, which covers cosmology, neuroscience, biodiversity, animal welfare, conservation and ethical consumption. He is also a staff writer for sustainable finance and corporate social responsibility (CSR) for Justmeans/3BL Media, an online news portal for the sustainable business industry. Reynard is the co-founder of MomenTech, an experimental production studio that coined the term Augenblicksmus to describe a creative philosophy based on the notion of the momentary to explore transnational progressivism, post-humanism, neo-nomadism and futurism.

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