During my working life, I was not a suit. I wore them five days a week, but “the suits” are the executive class, the people who have the power to make the rules that make other people miserable. They also have the power to make ill-considered decisions that screw up the entire enterprise. I was, at my most exalted, only a kind of foreman, a cog in the machine, not someone pulling the levers.
The suits that “the suits” wear are semiotic signs, which is the new fancy way of saying clothes don’t just make the man but describe him. Suits represent the wearer’s clout, their place in the hierarchy but also the nature of their endeavors. As everyone has noticed, the tech billionaires don’t even bother to put on a sport coat, preferring faux egalitarianism. So, Steve Jobs opted for the beatnik chic of black turtlenecks, Zuckerberg wears dorm room T-shirts, and Gates, until he became a bridge-playing philanthropist and got a tailor, dressed in the engineer mode of tieless white shirts that looked lost without their pocket pen protectors.
Heavyweights in fashionable fields like fashion, media, movies and advertising wear expensive, stylish, designer suits. Bankers tend toward the other end of the spectrum with conservative, out-of-date models, and industrial CEOs may even stoop to proletariat off the rack numbers, at least when visiting the plant.
What got me thinking about this subject was seeing Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Mark Warner (D-VA) of the Intelligence Committee in a joint interview. At first, I thought someone had been messing with my TV’s settings and had chosen an odd aspect ratio for the picture or set it to ‘stretch,’ but the other people on screen looked normal.
Then I realized that both senators had simply adopted the political suit. As it happens, I have actually been in rooms with each of these men for interviews. In person, they are normal-shape, normal-size Americans. But you wouldn’t know it from their political suits. A day later I saw Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) on the tube wearing an even more extreme version of the suit.
He looked as if he were wearing the packing carton his refrigerator came in. That is to say, the political suit is really boxy. Also, in an era when a natural drape has become the norm, the political suit has hugely padded shoulders that make the wearer look as if he is about to kick a field goal rather than pass a bill. All this shoulder padding also has the unfortunate effect of making the wearer look pea-headed.
Such suits are an anachronistic throwback to an earlier era. They are reminiscent of the thug suits familiar from the gangster movies of 1930s and 1940s. Luca Brasi wore one to the wedding that opened “The Godfather.” I suppose they had to be roomy to accommodate the gat, the bulletproof vest and all that pasta. Edward Arnold, who played the corrupt rich guy in movies like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, also wore this ancestor of the political suit, as did J. Edgar Hoover, speaking of thugs.
The thug suit went out of style in the 1960s when youthful John F. Kennedy opted for chic, modern duds that made the thug suit look antique. But they came back with a vengeance when Ronald Reagan made everything new anathema and everything old ideal. Who can forget his foursquare suits, frequently in an unfortunate brown. They may have inspired David Byrne’s big suit, roughly the size of an untethered zeppelin, in “Stop Making Sense.” Check it out on YouTube.
You’d have thought this look would have been made unacceptable forever among gaudy patriots like Reagan and today’s pols since, for decades during the Cold War as Americans got more hip, it was the signature look of the Kremlin, encasing the square frames of communist brutes like Leonid Brezhnev. This bulky communist suit was strictly an assembly line number, so blocky and generic that the reviewing stand at the May Day parade often looked like the loading dock at an appliance factory.
Yet members of Congress now regularly sport this totalitarian look, despite the subliminal message it sends. Not, “I’m a humble servant of the people,” but “I’m a Humvee that will crush you like a bug if you get in my way.”
Interestingly, the president doesn’t quite wear the classic political suit, but a sort of variant. Perhaps because he is the fattest chief executive since Taft, his suits are big, too, with the kind of shoulders last seen on Joan Crawford. But rather than falling boxily to his thighs, Trump’s suits tend to billow with yards of extra fabric. If he keeps gaining weight, he may be forced to end his term in robes like a Saudi prince.
Luckily, neither Trump nor members of Congress are likely to start a fashion trend that will be emulated. John Lennon sang, “if you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao, you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.” And the same rule applies if you go dressing like Chairman Burr or President Trump.