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A Suit sends multiple signals

19.10.2010
At the turn of the 19th century virtually all men wore suits. On the surface a uniform garment – but what has often been viewed as the uniform of the bourgeois civil servant was in fact a mode of dress that had many meanings and can tell us a great deal about those who wore it and the society they lived in.

Anna Hedtjärn Wester has done research into men in suits among three different groups in society a century ago: princes, artists, and hod-carriers. At the turn of the nineteenth century the suit was the latest thing in men’s fashions. Men in suits were regarded as modern.

They may have made a homogeneous impression, but there were nevertheless distinct differences. In her doctoral dissertation Anna Hedtjärn Wester analyses portraits of three groups of men – princes, artists, and hod-carriers, all of whom wore suits but none of whom were bourgeois.

What was signified when these men put on their suits at the turn of the century? Was the suit so univocally bourgeois, as has been purported in previous research, or could it be infused with multiple meanings? These are some of the questions addressed in the dissertation.

The primary source of material she used consists of images of various types: paintings and photographs. These images are seen as staged presentations, and the study of the images focuses not only on the suit – the bodies holding up the clothes are equally important. In other words, it is an investigation of how the style and quality of clothes, together with body posture, gestures, facial expressions, and gaze, could signal masculinity, group membership, and individuality more than a hundred years ago. The significance of superficial variations in the quality, fabric, colour, and form of the costumes is tied together with the men who wore them.

“I was fascinated that there was so much to glean from the material. I found major variations among the men in suits,” says Anna Hedtjärn Wester, who points out that a hod-carrier, for example, with a very meager income could be a dandy – a proletarian dandy.

Research on how these three groups dressed also reveals that they moved in different tension fields. These tension fields were created by historical and social problems with which the men had been forced to cope. For example, tradition versus modernity in the princes’ clothing or body versus intellect for hod-carriers. Artists, who were the group that transcended the boundaries of fashion in their clothing, moved in the tension between boundary-crossing and conformity.

Men’s modes of dressing embody struggles to be included in modern society – on their own terms, according to historian Anna Hedtjärn Wester.

Anna Hedtjärn Wester has been a doctoral candidate at the National Graduate School of History at Södertörn University and Lund University. Dissertation: Men in Suits: Princes, Artists, and Hod-Carriers at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century.

Contact: Anna Hedtjärn Wester, anna.hedtjarn.wester@sh.se
Pressofficer Eleonor Björkman; eleonor.bjorkman@sh.se; +46-70286 1332

Eleonor Björkman | idw
Further information:
http://www.vr.se

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