“Putting on your first suit is a rite of passage.”
AA Gill gets all misty-eyed as he remembers leaving boyhood behind.
Anthropologists, holistic-remedy practitioners, gay orienteering instructors and the Prince of Wales are all constantly complaining that Western men have misplaced their rites of passage. There is no social gathering or arcane sports day to mark the transition from boy to man.
Girls innately know when they have grown up. But for boys, there is only the battery running out on their latest PlayStation and a bald patch as an indication that it is time to lay aside the lightsaber of sniggering youth and take up the Oyster card of sober responsibility.
Speaking as a mannish man, this is considerable relief to me. From what I have seen on Discovery channel, coming-of-age do tend to involve nudity, humiliation, drums, dancing, having intimate and fond body parts removed with a rusty Gillette razor and an attractive herringbone pattern of raised scars carved across the forehead.
In general, we are better off without initiation ceremonies, and for most men, youth slides effortlessly into manhood and hides there until death. There are, though, a few small, residual passing- out parades for a chap.
There is your first shave, the first time you sleep in an empty house, the first time you cook something that uses two pans. But these are occasions that just happen. They’re not a big deal. They’re not mass circumcision. For the urban lad in the 21st century, the only really memorable mark left in the calendar between man and boy is his first suit.
All men remember their first suit. A suit is the uniform of adulthood, the promise of achievement, ambition, respectability and trust. It is measured and thoughtful. A suit doesn’t muck about at bus stops or push its mates into hedges. A suit says something about a boy. It says” “I’m not a boy for much longer.”
Mine was bought for my cousin’s wedding. It must have been 1967 or 1968. I went with my mum and dad to Carnaby Street, and we bought it from either I Was Lord Kitchener’s Valet or Gear. It was Italian-cut, single-breasted, in soft navy wool, with two buttons, narrow lapels, hipster flat-fronted trousers with a graceful flare. I wore a white shirt with a deep collar, a thin floral tie and Chelsea boots.
In the wedding photographs, I can tell I’m standing in a completely new pose. It’s not like all the other kid’s photographs of me doing little tearaway things. I’m different. I’ve stepped through a door. In the same photograph is my father, and he has a similar suit in grey. We look related not just by blood, but by attitude, inclination and culture.
All clothes come with their labels of association. There wouldn’t be any fancy dress if we didn’t understand that what we wear has innate meaning and language, irrespective of the people inside them.
But of all the civilian outfits you can put on, the suit says the most. It arrives with volumes of assumptions, often contradictory. It’s a lexicon of belonging. Bank manager or lothario, defendant or detective, likely lad or corpse: they all wear suits. It’s not about a specific calling or position. A suit reflects a commitment to a certain sort of society.
Of all the clothes available to men, the suit (along with the overcoat) has remained recognisably the same for the longest. Look at photographs of Victorian men, and they are wearing outfits related to the ones you have.
Suits may change in fashion and style around the edges, but at heart, when you put one on, you are wearing not just your father’s armour, but your grandfather’s and great-grandfather’s; the defining plumage of hosts of men who were long dead before you were born. You put on a suit and you join history and heritage.
Nobody I have heard of has come up with a convincing argument why the suit should have clothed the world’s men for so long, so plainly and conservatively. It must speak to some deep, pan-cultural, omni social conformity, some understanding of probity and power.
When I got back from the wedding reception, I took off the suit and flung it in a corner. I don’t remember wearing it again. It hung in my closet for years, until it finally disappeared into the Oxfam Narnia that seems to be at the back of all wardrobes.
As society, we oddly choose to dress children and adults differently. In most cultures, the young are undersized versions of grown-ups. But we accentuate childishness- and what we see happening with men’s clothes now is that they are regressing.
Even silverback men will pointedly go back to adolescent clothes. So, for instance, former British PM David Cameron is photographed conspicuously wearing faded Levi’s 501s, Converse AllStars (fake) and the untucked shirt that is for a grown-up generation the defining solecism of untidy youth.
Politicians and businessmen have special display moments when they will self-consciously revert and dress like their own teenage children. It isn’t simply an attempt to cash in on youth and appear vital, it is an unconscious throwing- off of the responsibilities and hard decisions that suits imply. They are trying to tell the rest of us that, really, inside this suit person is a carefree, intuitive, imaginative, flirty, naughty lad.
So the dress of children is becoming the everyday clothes of old men. We don’t have kids that look like grown-ups; we have grown-ups that look like kids, permanently caught in the coded clobber of immaturity. And the suit has become a magic worsted irony for special rooms and times.
But the rite of passage should be what it says on the ticket: a one-off, one-way trip. You are not made a man simply by stopping being a child. The suit isn’t a mindless conformity of drudgery and bureaucracy; it is the acceptance of the responsibility and heritage of your gender.
And it is because men wear and understand the metaphor of their suits that children can have their allotted time wearing jeans and hoodies.
I am not prepared to recommend a cheap suit. I don’t care if it is washable and crease-proof. It will be nasty in the make, fabric, finish and design. If you only have a smaller amount to spend, you are better off dredging through second-hand and vintage shops.
Find a suit that works in cut and fabric, then get an alteration tailor to make adjustments, so that it fits you perfectly.
Cutting your coat according to your cloth
The suit was clothed in controversy in South Africa when, during the corruption trail of Durban businessman Schabir Shaik, the court was told by Shaik that although former deputy president Jacob Zuma was “not a man for Armani perfume, Cartier watches and Hugo Boss suits”, he had taken shopping at exclusive menswear boutique Casanova, where he bought Zuma a designer suit, shirt and tie.
Dressing the part, no matter what your financial circumstances, is increasingly important in South Africa and often you can tell the difference between Black Diamonds (as the established black elite are being called) and the aspiring BEEers by their apparel: the more ostentatious the suit, the more ambitious the wearer.
Peter Resso, who can boast powerful and stylish politicos like Tito Mboweni on his client list, fingers post- 9/11 retrenchments as the tipping point for renewed interest in the suit as job applicants needed to dress up to attract employment.
Resso, who has the market cornered for the bespoke tailoring sought after by true suit aficionados, has been crafting suits since 1979 and hints that the double-breasted variety favoured by bankers is making a resurgence, while younger converts are interested in more fashionable versions featuring details like the bright contrasting suit linings made famous by British designer Oswald Boateng.
Tailoring, though, is a dying craft but if you are seeking the South African answer to Saville Row, head Tailor Me In Parkhurst where bespoke tailors will cater to your every need and continue the time-consuming tradition of cutting cloth to the specification of the customer.
Bridging the gap between bespoke and off-the-peg is luxury menswear boutique Fabiani, which features stores in Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Adept at marketing itself, Fabiani offers suits under its own name as well as premium Italian brands Armani Collezione and Etro Milano, and has the international A-list as its clientele.
Take Robbie Williams, who experienced the full treatment when one of Fabiani’s tailors, Abdul Karriem, was dispatched to the British superstar’s Mount Nelson hotel room to attend to his appeal needs while in Cape Town for the start of his record- breaking world tour. Add other Hollywood celebrities like Samuel L Jackson and Nicholas Cage who have enjoyed the Fabiani treatment and you get the picture: this is a menswear store with a client list that would make most Hollywood PRs envious.
South Africa boasts many international suit and shirt makers who suit up and can stand alongside the top elites in the world.
Jacob Van Zijl taking inspiration from AA. Gill.
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