No matter how beautiful the fabric, how painstaking the construction, how steep the price, the suit is designed to create an image of the body. Traditionally, this image is one of masculinity and strength—a powerful shoulder, a trim waist, an elongated torso. But over the past 50 years, designers have found new and surprising ways to reveal and discover something deeper about the male physique.
The revolution advanced by the maestro of men’s tailoring, Giorgio Armani, was that the body could simply be revealed by the suit, rather than constricted and exaggerated and reshaped. So it should be no surprise that before Armani became a fashion titan he was a medical student. With surgical precision, the designer ripped out the suit’s fusty innards and rearranged the jacket’s gorge, stance, and lapels, for instance, to yield something new, a silhouette that draped elegantly from the shoulders and fluidly from the hips. Before, men in suits were serious, dull, inconspicuous; in an Armani suit they transformed into something different: an object of desire.
Armani founded his company in 1975, and a mere five years later he was enshrined in the pop culture canon as the costume designer for American Gigolo. You know the scene: Richard Gere gyrating as he’s getting dressed. It was as much about Gere’s sex appeal as it was about Armani’s. “By making the suit unconstructed and from lighter, tactile materials, he made the suit more erotic and emphasized the body moving in the clothes,” says Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. “The suit became almost like a skin; it almost gives off an aura of nakedness.”
The softer the suit, the harder the body—that was the Armani revelation. By removing the broad, rigid architecture of the shoulders and chest, he encouraged the figure underneath to be more structured, more muscular. It was counterintuitive in a sense, but it’s no coincidence that the 1980s also saw the rise of gym-crazed fitness culture.
From the decadent ’80s came the hedonistic ’90s, and no designer captured the libidinous, sweat-drenched, out-all-night energy of the decade better than Tom Ford, who became creative director of Gucci in 1994. The veteran casting director James Scully notes that ostentation and sexiness had faded in the early ’90s. “Tom wanted to see a man in a suit again,” he says. “He wanted him to be sexy. When you put on a Tom Ford suit, you stood differently, people looked at you differently.”
Ford’s Gucci suit required a feline physique: the jacket had sharp shoulders and a tapered waist and was paired with lean, ass-hugging flared trousers. If Armani unstuffed the suit to let the body underneath be seen, Ford restored its structure, slimmed it down, and demanded that you get a build worthy of its carnal cling.
“Every man was getting in shape to wear Tom Ford,” Scully says. “Everyone believed they could be that guy.”
All of this was a slap in the face to the prevailing ’90s aesthetic: frumpy khakis, thrift-store grunge, and lazy business casual dressing. Ford’s jewel-toned-velvet tailoring blazed the trail for a new male archetype: the metrosexual, a presentational man for whom a chiseled body was merely an extension of good hygiene. The body wasn’t just something for the suit to hang on; it was meant to be flaunted, as Ford himself did with his signature shirts worn unbuttoned to the navel.
Not all designers wanted to beef up men with bulk and libido, though. Hedi Slimane, who took over as creative director of Dior Homme in 2000, aimed to reduce it radically. Thought to be inspired by surfers’ wetsuits, Slimane’s signature design was the skinny black suit, cut to fit the waifish saplings from the street the designer cast to model for him. This slimmed-down silhouette resonated powerfully—so much so that Karl Lagerfeld famously dropped 91 pounds so he could wear it.
“Hedi’s suits were a reaction to the opulence of the ’80s and ’90s,” says Clarissa Esguerra, an associate curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art who in 2016 helped oversee the exhibition “Reigning Men: Fashion in Menswear, 1715–2015.” Slimane’s designs were a shift away from muscle and strength as the sources of male power. “There was a big move toward introspection and angst.”
Those minimalist black suits were a swerve from Ford’s corporeal delights toward something more self-reflective, somber, and cerebral. “It was like we were done showing our bodies to be manly,” says Esguerra. “It’s about how one thinks. Your emotions.” Slimane proposed sullen adolescence in place of adult masculinity. His scrawny lads embodied the existential dread of a more cynical generation dealing with the profound cultural upheaval after 9/11. By whittling the body to its bones, Slimane transferred the focus of the suit from the physical to the emotional.
At the same time, another insurrection was afoot, this one from Thom Browne. Launched as an appointment-only tailoring shop in 2001, his eponymous brand transformed the quotidian suit into something jarringly idiosyncratic. Browne’s too-small jacket, with its high armholes and narrow shoulders, constricted the torso; his high-waisted floodwater pants fully exposed the ankles. His suit was the physical manifestation of a boy becoming a man, as though he were transforming into adulthood, cartoonishly, right before your eyes.
“I wanted men to feel like they’ve never felt in clothing before,” the designer explains. “I wanted it to feel very unique, very individual. I wanted them to feel like, This is exactly how I am as a person.”
Browne’s reimagined sack suit undermined all kinds of conventions about the man as the dutiful breadwinner, the distant father, the office drone. By reappropriating the gray suit, he liberated it—he allowed the wearer to feel as though his body might burst out of it. Browne has pushed that freedom to the limits—see jacked and tatted Odell Beckham Jr. in his sleeveless suit jacket and pleated skirt at the 2019 Met gala.
Prior to that Browne had spent years subverting gender norms in his runway collections. He put men in heeled brogues, attached wedding gowns to the backs of tuxedos, and made the skirt a wardrobe staple for some men. So in a sense it was Browne who passed the baton to Alessandro Michele, who took over Gucci in 2015 and injected an immediate jolt of androgynous romance. Michele’s sylph-like tailoring blended masculine and feminine archetypes—strong padded shoulders that curve to a slender waistline, oversized lapels, the wild flare of a pair of bell-bottoms—to help express a new generation’s searching, open-minded approach to gender identity and body image. It’s no accident his nerdy-whimsical designs have a ’70s feel—it instantly infuses them with that era’s free-love approach to sexuality. The body is a playground, his lanky suits say, more mysterious and glamorous than we could ever imagine.
That’s forward-thinking for Gucci, but in London the emerging designer Harris Reed pushes the suit as a platform for genderfluidity even further, if on a smaller scale. Last year, one of Reed’s designs—a broad-shoulder suit worn under a crinoline cage draped with tulle and satin—was worn by Harry Styles in the pages of Vogue to much acclaim and, of course, outrage. “Bring back manly men,” the right-wing provocateur Candace Owens tweeted in reaction to the images.
Reed, who is British American, presented a six-piece collection this year that featured, among other garments, a dapper black tailored two-piece that spouts a waterfall of pleated organza from its side. This strange hybrid perfectly encapsulates how a lot of young people see the body today: mutable, not a place for rigid certainties but for all the beautiful ambiguities and contradictions of the human experience.
“I love to use suiting and gowns and open people’s eyes to this idea that we are not fixed to one box,” Reed says. “You don’t have to wear one specific thing.” You don’t have to be one specific thing, either.
Ironically, the most compelling post-COVID-19 suit was introduced right as the world went into lockdown. In early March of last year, the Italian brand Ermenegildo Zegna collaborated with the L.A.-based label Fear of God, designed by Jerry Lorenzo. Zegna’s Alessandro Sartori and Lorenzo married elegance with comfort just days before we would all retreat for a year into soft clothes. Raffish jackets had structured shoulders that gave way to a luxurious, lazy drape. Carrot-cut pants had zip-leg closures. These were suits drained of formality but not of sophistication. They were meant to encourage a feeling, an attitude, not a physique. In the light of a lockdown, they looked designed for bodies in repose.
Max Berlinger is a writer based in Los Angeles.
A version of this story originally appeared in the June/July 2021 issue with the title “The Suit Index.”