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Clothes, Men, Instagram – suits you sir

by Joshua M. Bluteau, author of Dressing Up: Menswear in the Age of Social Media

Dressing Up is about suits, tailoring, menswear, and social media. It moves from the bespoke tailor’s shops of London’s Savile Row through to the social media platform Instagram, and casts an anthropological lens on men, their clothes, social media use, and notions of individuality. But first, let me tell you what inspired this book. To do this I want to tell you a story, starting with a memory from my childhood, and a visit to an ethnographic collection at the University of Oxford.

I recall my first visit to the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. I was a child, standing with my father on the train, swaying to and fro as I held onto the hem of his heavily waxed Barbour jacket, and he tried to describe where we were going. My head pressed into the thick unforgiving fabric with the comforting scent of waxed cotton enveloping me – the aroma of paternal safety – but nothing he said could prepare me for my first glimpse at that wondrous collection. My steps into the darkened hall echoed softly. The galleried space, dominated by a carved totem pole, spread out in front of me and although I did not know it at the time, this visit was to be highly formative. The maze of glass cases had a magical quality – like a set of glimmering jewels which enigmatically sat in the gloom as though some sort of illicit knowledge was contained within.

Past shrunken heads and opium taking paraphernalia I scuttled, taking it all in, but the thing that captivated me most of all was inside a cupboard, in a back corner, shrouded with a heavy curtain. Pulling it aside a dim light came on and illuminated a cloak crafted entirely of small birds’ feathers. The beauty, complexity, and intricate colours entranced me, and even now as I write this I can recall the emotional agency that this garment was able to express.

I have always had a penchant for clothing, but this has developed over the years into something that bridges the gap between vice and obsession. I appreciate dress intellectually and aesthetically. The tactile action of collecting also appeals and the shape-shifting nature of garments as agents of body modification allures.

As an undergraduate, I picked up the book Blue Jeans by Daniel Miller and Sophie Woodward. In a period where I had fastidiously eschewed wearing blue denim and laboriously over-dyed my skinny jeans to lurid shades of purple, the topics explored spoke to me, but the study of those who dressed to fit in sat at odds with my own bodily practices and those I was coming to associate with. The introduction to that book opens with the question ‘why denim?’, a simple but profound declaration for if we, as anthropologists, can ‘ask why denim’, surely we can ask why leather, corduroy, velvet, wool, cotton. silk, satin, polyester, lycra, or any other fabric you care to mention.

Dressing Up, the title of my new book, has multiple meanings. The notion of dressing smartly, a childlike pursuit of putting on a costume, and the inference of dressing to fit into a higher socio-economic class of presentation are all wrapped up in this one book. This title builds on those ideas first pondered by that purple jean wearing budding anthropologist and calls into question a world of clothing beyond Denim.

So, if blue jeans sit at one end of the spectrum, what sits at the other? If denim causes us to blend in, what fabrics cause us to stand out and be noticed. Tailoring was the answer. This may not seem the obvious answer to some, but tailoring sits at the other end of the clothing spectrum to jeans, encompassing different techniques, spaces, and a symbolic language that was almost untouched by anthropologists. This landscape is imbued with class, wealth, production, craft, art, and aesthetics, so the question for me was simple – why suits?

For any readers who are sartorially inclined they may be familiar with the notion of bespoke suits. The word bespoke, deriving from the word bespeak meaning to speak for, originally indicated that a particular bolt of cloth had been reserved for a specific client. More recently it has become a word that is used to describe any luxury object with some form of personalisation. In the world of tailor’s shops however it means something rather specific. A bespoke suit is one where the client is measured, a paper pattern drafted, and the fabric cut by hand. Then a first version of the suit is stitched together with a loose basting stitch and a first fitting with the client takes place. The suit is then altered and at least one more fitting takes place before linings are added and the suit is finished entirely by hand. This process can take 80 hours of work, and need up to 12 weeks, but the true beauty of these garments – beyond the perfect fit – is that the possibilities for individualisation are practically infinite. Cloth, lining, trimming, thread colour, and endless permutations of cut, finish and style make each suit unique with the possibility to stand out from the crowd or blend into the background. All this individuality, however, does not come cheap. A bespoke suit starts from about £3000, and depending on cloth choice and style can easily cost double that or more. That is a lot of money when a suit can be bought off the peg in a highstreet shop for a fraction of this price – so who buys these clothes and why?

This book takes the reader on a journey from the back rooms and workshops of some of London’s most established tailors through to the catwalk shows of some of the most daring and avant-garde. This is only the first part of the story however, as these tailors no longer exist solely in dusty back rooms and gloomy basements. Like much of the high-end retail sector social media now plays a huge role in the dissemination of the tailors’ craft and so this book also plunges into the world of Instagram following these tailors and their digital selves as they create streams of content to please their avid followers.

The final avenue for this book is the consumer, the customer, and the client. During the research for this book, I became fascinated by who buys these suits and how are they worn? This can be observed in ateliers across London, but with my discovery of the Instagram presence of many tailors, a raft of digital clients also began to emerge. These digital dandies form a major focus of this work, as I introduce new methodologies for conducting digital anthropology, and craft myself into one of these digital clothes-wearing men.

So, back to that feather cloak. Garments are powerful, tactile objects, imbued with emotional agency and laden with symbols. Much like the joy, wonder and reverence experienced by that small boy in the gloomy back corner of a museum on a cool and rainy autumn day, the garments explored and experienced in this book are influential, with the ability to empower, manipulate, and cast a spell on those who see them and those that wear them. When they are photographed and posted to social media this power continues to be felt but can be disseminated much wider. Building on 12 months fieldwork in London and in excess of 24 months concurrent digital fieldwork with Instagram, this book establishes western high-end menswear and Instagram as viable fields of anthropological study and asks why we wear what we wear and how we display what we wear on social media.

Joshua M. Bluteau is Assistant Professor at Coventry University. He formerly held the post of Lecturer at the University of Manchester. His research interests include the anthropology of digital worlds, gender and masculinity, clothing and fashion, and the nature of the individual.