Suit and tie

The One Big Happy for September 8th, which came by in my comics feed recently:


Miss Avis gives Ruthie career advice, and once again, Ruthie is up against the sense of a word — here, suit, roughly ‘costume in a masquerade’ — that she’s most familiar with, as against another sense — in the conventional collocation suit and tie, roughly ‘business apparel for men’ — that’s the most frequent one in the larger culture. A bunny suit for play, especially at Halloween, is a familiar part of her everyday world; she’s certainly seen men in suits and ties, but they’re from a different world, one that she merely sometimes observes from the outside, in much the same way that she views suits of armor.

Of course, becoming acculturated in the conventional adult world around her means learning that the default sense of suit has to do with business wear, especally for men, and that the costume-play sense is restricted to certain special social contexts.

The relevant part of the NOAD entry:

noun suit: 1 [a] a set of outer clothes made of the same fabric and designed to be worn together, typically consisting of a jacket and trousers or a jacket and skirt. [b] a set of clothes to be worn on a particular occasion or for a particular activity: a jogging suit. [c] a complete set of pieces of armor for covering the whole body …

1a is the sense in suit and tie (which NOAD doesn’t list as a conventional phrase, though it probably should), also in business / lounge suit (which NOAD doesn’t list as conventional phrases, though it probably should). 1a is also framed so as to cover suits for both men and women (though there are significant differences in the garments — see below — that probably should be recognized in the entries). 1b is the broader sense that includes costume-play suits (which should probably have their own subentry).

Costume-play suits. An actual bunny suit:

(#2) A women’s Easter Bunny costume from Oriental Trading Co.

Note that such suits do not normally come with ties. Ruthie has understood suit and tie as involving a suit (the bunny costume) plus a tie (well, a big bow, much like a tie).

(business) suits. From Wikipedia:

A suit (also called a lounge suit or business suit) is a set of men’s wear comprising a suit jacket and trousers. When of identical textile, and worn with a collared dress shirt, necktie, and dress shoes, it is traditionally considered informal wear in Western dress codes [in a technical sense of informal vs. formal — see below]. The lounge suit originated in the 19th-century as casual sports and country wear in Britain. After replacing the black frock coat in the early 20th century as regular office daywear, a darker, sober suit became known as a business suit for professional occasions. [Note the crucial adjective sober. Nothing showy. Though an adventurous businessman might occasionally sport a playful tie.]

On formality in men’s dress, from Wikipedia:

Formal wear, formal attire or full dress is the traditional Western dress code category applicable for the most formal occasions, such as weddings, christenings, confirmations, funerals, Easter and Christmas traditions, in addition to certain audiences, balls, and horse racing events. Formal attire is traditionally divided into formal day and evening attire; implying morning dress before 6 p.m., and white tie (dress coat) afterwards.

In technical usage in this domain, semi-formal is black tie, informal is the (lounge / business) suit, casual is below that. Most men wear formal or semi-formal  attire on only a few special occasions in their lives, so in everyday usage suit and tie is as serious as things get, and informal or casual dress deviates from this in various ways — no tie, jeans, blazer or sportcoat, no jacket at all, sleeves rolled up, casual footwear, etc.

Some history, from Wikipedia:

The suit is a traditional form of men’s formal clothes in the Western world. For some four hundred years, suits of matching coat, trousers, and waistcoat [or vest] have been in and out of fashion. The modern lounge suit’s derivation is visible in the outline of the brightly coloured, elaborately crafted royal court dress of the 17th century (suit, wig, knee breeches), which was shed because of the French Revolution. This evolution is seen more recently in British tailoring’s use of steam and padding in moulding woolen cloth, the rise and fall in popularity of the necktie, and the gradual disuse of waistcoats and hats in the last fifty years.

The modern lounge suit appeared in the late 19th century, but traces its origins to the simplified, sartorial standard of dress established by the English king Charles II in the 17th century.

What’s crucial here is the development of the modern office, in two versions: the older administrative offices of government and religious authorities, and the business offices of the modern capitalist world, in which businessmen are the successors to the tradesmen of earlier times, serving as the agents of commerce. With the history of the office comes the history of office dress — for a long time entirely the province of men, but eventually opened to women serving as secretaries (positions long filled entirely by men) and then, even more recently, to businesswomen.

With businesswomen came business dress for women, which was primarily an adaptation of men’s business dress, in similar dark colors and similar fabrics, with a plain white blouse (for the men’s shirt), a jacket (cut for a woman’s body), and a plain skirt (for the men’s trousers). Ties are virtually never worn (they’d count as elements of drag), though a very plain scarf is allowable. And then, when pantsuits for women became generally acceptable, they became acceptable as alternatives to the dress skirt. Giving a range of possibilities illustrated in this display from the Corporette site:


(Now trying to imagine Ruthie in one of these outfits. Though I recall Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky as a teenager going in full business dress to appointments for a barcode firm she was working part-time for, and here’s Opal Armstrong Zwicky — may she not strike me dead for this — at the age of 9, in modified business dress for a school project, practice for life in Silicon Valley:


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