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Opinion - the Global Takeover by Men in Black

The suit and tie are completely unsuitable in hot countries, but most men are copying this lamentable style

Suites you sir?  The malign influence of uniformity

Suites you sir? The malign influence of uniformity

Local dress codes are out

Our actions and modes of presentation are governed by at least two major considerations. Climate and copying what the rich and powerful are doing.

E.g., the use of table utensils like forks and knives or chopsticks are prevalent in colder climates where it would be rather uncomfortable to wash your hands in freezing cold water after a good meal. Of course, the use of utensils is also governed by how chunky the food is, anything too large and chunky may need a knife to render it into a bite sized piece – hence a carving knife and you can hardly sup soup without a spoon. But most people in the tropical belt (this probably includes the bulk of humanity) eat with their fingers or hands and have no problems cleaning themselves after as tepid water is not a problem at all compared to freezing or worse frozen water. Extend this to how you clean your backside (e.g., in a dessert or if the water is frozen) and you can understand the roots of some of our most intimate habits. Eating with the fingers was very common even in colder climates before stainless steel, given metallic utensils rusted or were only for a privileged few and people often wiped their fingers clean in straw or a rag instead of washing them.

Other habits, especially connected with what we wear or how we choose to sit or think -e.g., on chairs rather than the floor were originally governed by copying what the rich and powerful did. After all, if it is good enough for the rich and powerful, it may rub off on us and help us to appropriate resources – become richer and more powerful than our station would allow. Hence, our species has shared with monkeys and apes the propensity to copy useful habits and customs, such as when the Roman numeral system was usurped by the far simpler, practical and better system of Indian numerals (also called the Arabic system) and this became global. Generally, the modus operandi adopted by the most powerful group of people has tended to become universal – witness powerful languages that spread around more than weaker ones. Some of these customs are quite arbitrary. For example, whether people drive on the left or the right. The latter has proved popular, based on geography and the prevailing influences governing those countries. Originally, most people, like children sat low on the ground if not on the ground as still happens in parts of Asia but when the Kings sat on a throne, that got everyone, sooner or later, preferring to use chairs.

Nowhere is this aping more apparent than in the spread of the men’s suit as clothing of choice throughout the elites of the world. Divergent cultures had their own national dress, largely governed by climate. Grass skirts were fine on balmy tropical islands both for men and women. The Western style suit with a jacket over shirt and trousers was rather peculiar compared to the more floaty gowns, skirts and robes more popular in warmer parts of the world including Africa, Asia and China. Trousers or pants evolved out of stockings that were largely a feature of cooler climates especially from Europe. As Europe became powerful and started carving out various empires, the suit or its locally derived version became symbolic of a more powerful elite.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen how traditional clothing like sarongs and kimonos have been replaced by the suit and tie, e.g, most Asian newscasters who wore a local costume on TV if male, now wear a suit and tie. Witness Mark Zuckerberg, when he was being interviewed by US politicians, ditching his usually casual attire in favour of a formal, rather self-effacing suit. Steve Jobs chose to be different by wearing jeans and a polo neck but the Bill Gateses of the world largely hid behind the suit.


Grayson Perry does not advocate gray suites

The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry, Published by UK Penguin

The Descent of Man by Grayson Perry, Published by UK Penguin

A viral "invisible man" syndrome

In this respect, divergent nations originally had their own version of the suit – one style in China, another in Russia, but today, most politicians the world over except in some Middle Eastern countries and parts of Asia seem to wear the same style of suit and tie. Maybe it beats the military dictator attire that was popular a few decades earlier, the suit has now replaced military clothing. It has crossed over to the business dress of women (allowing for style differences) though female clothing has remained somewhat more traditional to each culture than male clothing for reasons to be explored elsewhere.

The suit is completely unsuitable for hot climates with a temperature around 30 degrees Celsius, but most African and S. American leaders now wear it even though it represents the height of stuffy attire. All these suit wearers seem to stand for the same thing – the imposition of power and not always in the most practical or virtuous way available.

War and environmental destruction as well as economic inequality is presided over by men in black. To deviate from this mould could be seen as tantamount to the adoption of a primitive grass skirt.

Although Western culture prides itself in “human rights” and emphasis on the individual, the suit has become the default, unoriginal power clothing of choice. Just look at a photo shoot from the G7 where there is little difference between the presidents of China, Russia, Japan or the USA. Maybe this needs to be pointed out so we can wake up and start veering towards something a little less patriarchal like in the good old days when there was an international rainbow of fashions and modes of expression. But no need to hold our breath.