The Perfect Suit: a luxury production
Chanel and Louis Vuitton are just too good for the masses – as are BBC4’s documentaries, apparently.
For Coco Chanel, it represented the absence of vulgarity; for Walter Bagehot, access to a little bit of it on a daily basis without much effort was a hallmark of civilisation; for Tennessee Williams, it was the wolf at the door of creativity. ‘Luxury’ is one of those tricksy terms which somehow manages to be evocative yet utterly devoid of meaning. No wonder that it is the advertiser’s favourite word. For Cyril Connolly, one generation’s luxury is the next’s manure.
Fortunately, BBC4 have a new season of programmes trying to pin down luxury today. It was certainly an interesting idea for a channel whose function it is to screen all of those serious, intelligent highbrow programmes deemed unnecessarily luxurious by the BBC, which is otherwise busily whistling with its hands in its pockets while stood next to the News of the World, quietly hoping that everyone forgets about the Primark Panorama scandal of a couple of weeks ago. It’s even gone to a bit of effort, getting itself nicely tarted up in The Perfect Suit and smothering itself in Perfume, looking like butter wouldn’t melt. I certainly wouldn’t trust that BBC after a couple of glasses of wine if I were you, ladies.
In fact, luxury’s close association with sinful decadence, and attendant suspicion, was one of the recurring themes of the season, rather neatly outlined in historian Michael Scott’s two-part documentary on the Ancient World and Middle Ages entitled Guilty Pleasures. His argument, that luxury is largely a matter of scarcity, was hardly a shocking one, but it was interesting to follow the thread through the development of civilisation as political elites sought increasingly elaborate methods to keep scarce but desirable goods – whether it was meat, spices or simply leisure time – out of the hands of the masses. Learning how to manage the developing and ever-expanding wants, rather than simply meeting the necessities, of its population is one of the primary goals of any ruling class, he observed, tying together the formation of Athenian democracy and medieval sin as core instruments in the regulation and production of luxury.
Rather wisely, given the romp-like nature of the programme, he called it to a halt at roughly the time of the development of the most sophisticated instrument of them all, in the form of capitalism. Yet the observation that the simple desire for nicer things has acted as the engine room for much of the progress of civilisation was at least a useful frame for understanding the overview of consumerism which followed.
Although slightly scattergun in its choice of subject matter – suits, hotels, perfume and teenage fads – there was at least an attempt to focus on the most interesting question surrounding luxury: do these goods have an intrinsic value or are they valued simply because of their scarcity? It was telling that the most interesting contribution came from a young art critic, Alastair Sooke, in his attempt to get a handle on surely the most relative of concepts: men’s style.
As ever with these programmes, we were asked to follow our presenter on a journey: ‘scruffy’ bloke who bought a suit for his wedding interviews fashion designers and tailors about the ongoing popularity of the garment. But, for once, this served as a sleight-of-hand, because even if Sooke wasn’t an expert on the particular subject, he was at least able to exercise a critical eye on proceedings. Informed presenter offering a beginner’s guide to a topic? They should get a BAFTA.
What was interesting about the choice of suit was that this apparent symbol of handcrafted, tailored style develops alongside mass industry and politics. Originally an article of extreme aristocratic luxury, the lounge suit quickly became a symbol of egalitarian smartness through the need to find a uniform for the expanding army of clerks in Britain’s exploding middle class and the attendant desire of the working class to achieve smart respectability at the birth of mass politics. It was Keir Hardie, Sooke observed, who introduced the lounge suit into Parliament at the birth of Labour. It was Tony Blair, at the birth of New Labour, who introduced the trendy open-collar, tieless combination to the same establishment over a century later. Two different eras, but a neat symbolic demonstration of the management and regulation of the masses’ desires.
A superficial analysis of the twentieth-century labour movement, perhaps, but then we are in the field of appearances. The story of the suit, we were informed, was a rough guide to the form of British capitalism: from the drab functionality of the postwar years to the stylish explosion of the post-Sixties era, as production fled abroad and the consumer economy filled its place. Even today it acts as a barometer of the UK economy, existing not just as a cultural export but a material one too: that Sooke had to travel to Budapest to find the location of one of Britain’s most successful factories told you just about as much about the nature of modern capitalism in five minutes as Evan Davis’ engaging Made in Britain did in several hours. That they don’t even apparently make you wear the uniform of the financial class in the City of London’s banks anymore felt more of a damning indictment of ‘cowardly capitalism’ than you’d get in any mainstream free-marketeers’ comment piece.
While it was difficult to escape the sense that the BBC was providing a rather pleasantly disguised infomercial on behalf of M&S and Burton, it was equally hard to avoid Sooke’s unusual enthusiasm for the benefits of mass production and eschewing a sermon on the dying craft of Savile Row’s tailoring. Seeing an art critic looking smart and dapper on TV while persuading the viewer that there can be such a thing as intrinsic aesthetic perfection seemed like a throwback to a more civilised era. It may not have been ‘The Full Monty’, but The Perfect Suit certainly felt like a luxury documentary in comparison to much of what else passes for cultural criticism on the box today.
David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.
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