Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) in the Senate subway (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Not so smart casual

Why elites want to look like slobs

Artillery Row

Last week, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that his prestigious institution would no longer enforce its informal dress code. Previously, formal business wear was expected for senators when on the floor: a tie and a suit for men; blouses, dress slacks and collared shirts with accompanying jackets for women. Almost immediately, the abandonment of the rule gave way to “lumpen-populist” Democrat Senator John Fetterman demonstratively entering the chamber in casual shirt and shorts to the dismay of others. Although this change in dress code was perhaps only intended for the occasion of the visit of the notoriously “t-shirt-war-casual” Ukrainian President Zelensky, it also highlights the long decline of an old European high-bourgeois institution: the suit.

The suit coincided with modern European bourgeois sensibility

The modern business suit emerged in the 19th century. Its popularisation is often attributed to the legendary British dandy Beau Brummel, who may have himself been inspired by Jacobin French revolutionary designs. In each case, the suit became illustrative of this revolutionary legacy of a high bourgeois European epoch. Its shape and colours evoked the austere exacting rigour of the calculating professional and meritocratic subject, against the pomp and extravagance of the aristocracy deemed unjustly privileged. The suit thus coincided with modern European bourgeois sensibility: of self-made subjects seeking secular salvation through education, hard labour and discipline. Similarly, the suit’s democratisation equalled the endowment of the modern citizen with political responsibility in early liberal democracy: a uniquely successful form of statecraft, slowly spreading across the globe with the expansion of European military and commercial power. As a result, the European bourgeois persona — along with the suit as garment of choice — became an aesthetic and pedagogic ideal for modern reformist elites seeking to emulate European successes. To this day even, its ideal continues to haunt the world. Contemporary aspiring Chinese elites train their children to play classical European instruments with harsh discipline, for example. Arguably, this type of education is much closer to early 20th century European ideals of child-rearing than to contemporary Western pedagogy.

Yet, the European bourgeois and the suit have long gradually declined in popularity. With the spread of post-WW2 consumer society, their legacy became substantially challenged. Associated with excessive rigour by a developing pop and youth culture in the 1950s and 60s, the European bourgeois was deemed a “square”, and the suit fell out of fashion. The invention of the youthful, cool and rebellious subject, culminating in 1960s counter-culture, gradually suggested a different, more relaxed personality and attire: spontaneous creative genius trumped “square” bourgeois rigour. From visually dominating street scenes in the early and mid 20th century, the suit withdrew to becoming a garment reserved to those confined to bureaucracies and office buildings, exacerbating its aura of conformism.

Things turned even worse for the bourgeois and his suit: Bill Gates, an early representative of the “disruptive” subject, demonstrated that wearing a sweater against established office codes was a privilege earned by those who could. Dressing up in a suit, it was implied, ultimately was the stuff of suckers. They had to resort to formality because they could not shine with raw skill, genius or capital.

Signalling bourgeois status with clothes may be deemed vulgar

To this day, the same dress code holds for Silicon Valley elites, who sport flip-flops and t-shirts. Similarly, today’s young urban bourgeoisie emulates the “athleisure” style of the deprived. Where bourgeois habitus has become flesh, signalling bourgeois status with clothes may be deemed vulgar. Only people from the bad neighbourhoods, after all, feel the need to “dress to impress” when they go out. For the young bourgeoisie, there reign highly politicised, nuanced and constantly shifting codes between cultural slumming and snobbiness that can only be acquired by having been a part all along. As a result, the suit has increasingly become synonymous with the dreaded and repulsive social striver. As an empty signifier of a forlorn age, attacked from above and below, the suit has come to occupy a lost position.

The abandonment of the Senate dress code inscribes itself in this legacy. It signifies a liquidation of remnant Western bourgeois subjectivity. The latter, with its “problematic” and “colonial” heritage, is viewed as suspicious and obstructive to modern statecraft’s claim to total social engineering. The austere, professional and literate bourgeois subject has no place in the transformation from responsible equality to distributive lowest-common-denominator equity. Worse, it may even be dangerous to it.

The shift in dress code also marks a transformation in the conceptual meaning of representative democracy: from Madisonian republican representation of concrete interests, to a merely visual representation of forms and lifestyles. Today, citizens want to see themselves in their representatives, rather than in political outcomes. Perceived surface proximity trumps the seriousness of interest. In this world, the suit has shed its significance as an ideal of educated middle class egalitarianism. It only evokes resentment against rigour and bourgeois formality, which seems unattainable for the destructured masses. In contemporary democracies, the elected representative seeks to avoid giving the impression of a vertical tension, which might inspire the citizen to elevate himself.

It is only logical that the suit — along with the spectre of European bourgeois subjectivity — is progressively exorcised from Western democratic political institutions, in line with their increasing irrelevance. Carl Schmitt’s diagnosis from 1922, that “ … parliament itself seems more like a giant antechamber before the bureaus of committees of invisible rulers”, rings true a hundred years later. Today, the same committees do not seek to inspire values like rigour, rationality and discipline, but to expel them.

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