Why so many men’s suits for the communists?

David Stearns asks:

I was looking at Kim Jonh-Il looking at things, and it struck me how many of his hangers on were wearing suits.  It seems odd given that this is probably the most anti-western country around.  Do you have any ideas on why this style of formalwear basically became the world standard?

Of course the Chinese communists experimented with other styles. Yet pushback came; in 2008, one part of the Chinese Communist Party began an anti-pajamas campaign, on the grounds they looked “uncivilized.”

Here is a rather frank web site on etiquette campaigns in China.  Recently, Chinese leaders seem to prefer red ties.

I would stress that non-free states tend to encourage conformity along many dimensions, and what better code of dress to match conformity into than men’s suits?


India is interesting: The Legislators try to look like Gandhi / Nehru (all politicians in general). The executive is all Suits. And the judiciary try to look 18th Century Britain.

I haven't had the pleasure of visiting your homeland, but I get the distinct impression from Indians who come to these shores that they have a struggle brewing within themselves. This conflict is between accepting the functioning aspects of British bureaucracy in particular and Western professionalism generally, and developing a distinct modern representation of their own rich cultural heritage.

At once it seems to make them bitter, distrustful, and contemptuous of Western society. At the next instant, they recognize and are quite good at replicating the successful conformist paradigms.

Am I mistaken in this observation? Does it cause an identity crisis? I ask because I easily find myself on the wrong side of their tender sensibilities, and I'd rather understand it than dismiss it.

I cannot fault your observation but I don't have a good theory to explain it either.

Have you read "In Spite of the Gods" by Edward Luce? He does a good job explaining some of it. You might like it.

Rahul +1. Willits, you just described my dad down to the T. Make whatever inferences you will about how I turned out...

At least in Pakistan, you see more civilian politicans in suits.

And both cases are better than China...

Jinnah always wore suits. Gandhi never did.

A common formal style in North Korea and South Korea is for the man to wear a dark Western suit, and for the woman to wear a traditional Korean dress. The girl standing to the left in this picture is in that style of dress:


Sometimes the man will also wear a traditional Korean costume. But the Western suit paired with traditional Korean dress is much more common.

India well described again...

"non-free states"

As compared to a "free state"? Is there such a thing? It sounds like an oxymoron.

The is definitely such a thing. "Free State" is a province in South Africa: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_State_(South_African_province)

By definition all states are non-free, with the level of freedom ranging from very low to moderate. Even in so-called free states, you still are required to pay taxes and stop at red lights

Freedom is forever misunderstood in this way: being known in only a formal, subjective sense, abstracted from its essential objects and aims. This is why the limiting of the impulses, desires , passions that are proper to the particular individual, as such -- the limiting of arbitrary caprice -- is taken to be a limiting of freedom.

On the contrary, such limitation is simply the condition from which emancipation proceeds; and society and the State are the conditions wherein freedom is actualized.

That is very much the way our Founders viewed freedom.

Freedom did not mean liberation from community standards or moral and appropriate behavior. In fact, the slightest violation of community standards were often met with harsh retribution.

States, and to a larger extent local communities, had widespread authority to control individual acts of caprice. What's more remarkable is that not only were these rules obeyed, they were overwhelmingly supported by the populace. Freedom cannot be enjoyed with so many drunken louses lying about and mischievous ne'er-do-wells roaming free to molest good citizens.

The modern libertarian would be appalled at what our Founders understood as freedom, and they would throw their lot with anarchists.

I believe Tocqueville discusses this in detail in Democracy in America.

+1 to Sam and Willitts

Shorter version: state haters, grow up.

Intentionally obtuse. There is a vast difference in freedom between totalitarian states and liberal democracies, which is plain for everyone to see.

America managed to be a free country for a couple centuries while men and women wore what seems from our perspective to be standardized attire. Don Draper was not groaning under a totalitarian dictatorship.

The problem is that intellectuals like Tyler have imbibed the corrosive norms of what used to be called the counterculture. This election confirmed that America needs rather more conformity than less.

The dictators rarely do much of the groaning. Peggy, Sal, and Paul's girlfriend might disagree with your assessment. Have you even *watched* the show?

Thank you. It takes a pretty special sort of mind to uphold the world of Mad Men as one of freedom and purity from corrosion. The women, blacks and gays depicted in that show are most emphatically not presented as being free. You can of course say that depiction is biased or one-sided or something. But what kind of mind sees *that portrayal* and doesn't see unfreedom?

What kind of mind links those unfreedoms even tangentially to the deep suffering under communist regimes such as those under Stalin or Mao? And is this one of those cases where we say, if no one is free (even from historically standard norms as opposed to today's "enlightened" views) then no one is free??
It is to laugh.

Come to think of it, this obsession with a modernist overindividualized conception of individual freedom as the be-all and end all of human rights is probably the greatest modern enemy of the liberal movement (whether of the progressive or libertarian sorts).

Umm, I said it's idiotic to look at Mad Men and say everyone there is free by pointing to Don Draper when the whole point in that show is that only rich white men (well, kind of; Draper is an imposter) have that freedom. That *is* in substantial measure what the show is about. Why you'd think this relates to Mao or Stalin I cannot see. One can be opposed to Mao as well as to racial segregation, last I checked.

Re Cournot: "modernist overindividualized conception of individual freedom"
Yes, go ahead and put scare quotes around "enlightened" when talking about
- blacks not being segregated and denied basic rights
- women having the right to pursue goals outside home the same as men
- gay people not needing to live out lies

We all know it's working out wonderfully for your tribe at the polls :)

The Iranian compromise is a suit with no tie, the tie being seen as the most imperialist part. Ironically, while the business suit is decidedly Anglo-French, the necktie's origins reach back to Croatia, a nation that has been under the heel of numerous empires.

In much of Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the middle east, men would wear their one and only Western style suit every day. No matter how filthy the suit was, they always seemed to take some pride in looking their best on a daily basis. I want to say it was dignity in the face of poverty, but I didn't understand the cultures, and I didn't want to embarrass them by asking.

Applies even more to India. What made it worse is that a Suit was absolutely unsuitable for the hot, dusty, humid Indian clime in most cases.

Here we have a poster of Lenin, in his humble dark suit, sweeping the world clean of a capitalist in a morning coat.

Many Iranian politicians therefore look a bit like unsexy versions of Bernard Henri-Levy for exactly that reason.

That seems to imply there is a sexy version of that French buffoon Bernard Henri-Levy. Which can't be true.

"I would stress that non-free states tend to encourage conformity along many dimensions, and what better code of dress to match conformity into than men’s suits?"

Yep, because in the free world men of politics don't wear suits. Nope. Lots of variety in menswear. Sure.

Sometimes I think Tyler posts while smoking weed.

I believe his point is that men in a free society have other outlets for the expression of their individuality than the uniforms they wear.

I suspect that he means conformist attire is one of many conformist aspects of a non-free society, and one of the most visible.

You raise a fair point that if such uniforms are standard in free societies, then we must look beyond clothing for evidence of the shackles of an oppressive state.

The post asked why leaders with radically anti-Western ideologies conformed to Western standards of dress. So what you somehow see as a contradiction was actually a premise of the post.

No it didn't. It asked why communists wore suits (communism is a western ideology) as opposed to free states, which according to Tyler do not conform to a suit dress code. So you are apparently only semi-literate, and this post will fall on blind eyes, sadly.

What could possibly be more Western than Communism?

Communism may have been born in the West, but where has it chosen to retire?

Like many retirees, it currently seems to favour sunny, warm climes.

" what better code of dress to match conformity into than men’s suits"

Jeans and T shirt.

Orange jumpsuits. :)

I think the signalling power of clothing among men is limited. The lack of conformity stands out more than the nature of that conformity.

World leaders have largely settled upon a common wardrobe of traditional suits.

The recent bout of female leaders over the past few decades have similarly carried on this tradition in the form of pant suits (signalling conformity among a male dominated power base).

The corporate world is little different.

Clothes are passe. Real substantial signalling is now being done via ink on/under the skin.

"The recent bout of female leaders over the past few decades have similarly carried on this tradition in the form of pant suits"

I'm not really seeing this. Plenty of current female leaders are not wearing pant suits.
Indeed, right from today's headlines:
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra :

And the current Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard, seems to favor wearing skirts, or at least the pictures of her the American press carries show her in skirts.

what better code of dress to match conformity into than men’s suits?
Those free thinkers in the military might disagree.

Deprived of all its accoutrements, the Army Dress Green uniform was merely a green, three-button suit. The shirts have epaulets for rank insignia, but are otherwise standard men's shirts. The plain black tie is unremarkable. The web belt and brass buckle are distinctive, but not unique.

The Dress Blue uniform (now standard) has a nearly identical cut for the jacket. The pants are more stylized to represent the historical significance of the uniform, ie. the pants are a lighter shade of blue, reminiscent of a time when soldiers removed their jackets in hot climates and the pants were Sun-bleached.

The accoutrements make the uniform look far less like standard attire. The Air Force dress uniform, which is much more austere, looks more like a business suit.

The most retro feature of US military uniforms is the mandatory headgear, which harkens back to the days when all men wore hats outdoors. I would have thought they'd eliminate it by now. Bus drivers don't even wear the bus driver service hats anymore. I can't recall if airline pilots still wear them.

Interestingly, when Kim Jong Il appeared in photos with military staff, they were clothed in elaborate Soviet style uniforms while he wore an unadorned green utility uniform. In any other army, he'd be mistaken for a private.

Chinese leaders need to make Western business leaders feel at ease to preserve the Communist order. North Korean leaders are another story, and therefore a puzzle. Maybe they need to make Western dispensers of food/medical aid feel at ease, so they can continue to confiscate the aid and sell it?

I think the North Korean leaders probably admire the West (and crave respect from Western leaders), even while they find anti-western ideology useful for ruling the country. Remember Kim Jong Il's basketball fandom and vast movie collection?

I don't think the desire for aid plays into it. We have helped NK despite their nuclear program and anti-American rhetoric, but if they didn't wear ties, that would be the last straw?


As far as I can tell most men don't want to fret over their clothes. So it gets reduced to a simple formula, for example economists where I work: formal: dark suits (some tie variation), everyday: blue dress shirt (various shades) and khakis, casual: jeans and tshirt. There's some signaling about position but it's pretty utilitarian. (Way more variation in female attire while still hitting the same professional notes.) The original question is intriguing...why not traditional garb or military uniforms instead of suits? I guess I would have said they dress like their perceived peer group...other world leaders.

So - As far as I can tell most women want to fret over their clothes. Is that right?

I could wear the standard 'uniform' too and no one would care or notice. I choose not to and it seems more of my female colleagues make that choice than male colleagues. Just observing, not judging. Still I think my peer group point is valid.

Even the "uniform" is more difficult for women than for men. Such seemingly mundane distinctions as pants/skirts and heels/no heels are positively *fraught* with multiple layers of subtle meaning.

For men the most telling detail is whether they bothered to iron.

Niall Ferguson wrote about this in his book 'Civilization' and I buy that argument. People like to fit in - it started with the Japanese emulating the Britishers. In fact, he had a very good section on clothing and how the entire world is homogenous in its attire, something that could have never been imagined.

While I consider the neck tie to be the quintessential element of style and individuality in men's attire, I can't imagine the future of men's wardrobe retaining it. It has lost most of its practical use and maintains only its aesthetic use.

Science fiction has attempted to craft plausible designs for future men's attire, with the mandarin collar and removal of superfluous lapels and buttons. I wonder though why designers haven't taken a bolder step into the future and why men have been so conformist in not adopting or demanding newer styles.

Maybe Claudia strikes the nail on the head. Men either have no desire to dabble in experiments or the cost of nonconformity is too high. Even the white suit has been relegated mainly to tropical climates, dark skinned men, Navy dress uniforms, and weddings. I suppose the fact that they stain so easily without mitigating tone is a practical reason for avoiding them.

I find it odd that Obama has made the cover of GQ so frequently. His wardrobe is dreadful. He appears to wear one particular suit regularly, and his choice of ties is insipid. His casual attire looks like a Macy's clearance sale. He wears a watch befitting a boy for his confirmation or Bar Mitzvah. I suppose some can find admirable qualities in his thrift and blandness.

I admit an emotion somewhere between envy and disdain that women have the choice between pants or skirts, and men dare not ever consider shorts or a kilt. I recently saw a woman at a conference table slip off her shoes with complete impunity. Few men would dare go sockless much less remove their shoes during a business meeting. It would be considered beyond unprofessional. It's not the act I consider appalling, but the naked double standard.

Hmmmm. I think men definitely have it easier. I'm glad I don't have to get up in the morning and wonder "which shirt matches this kilt?" As for removing shoes, I don't think that is really acceptable for either sex. If women get away with it more, it's probably because they are expected to wear shoes that are not remotely foot-shaped.

"Expected by who" is the question. And the only possible answers are "themselves, or other women." Which makes it all the more baffling.

The anti-pajamas campaign needs to come to Chicago. And New York. And San Francisco.

What's worse is that this practice is escaping Chinatown and afflicting school children.

I remember when Pajama Day was just a fun one-day event in high school. Now I see it every day.

On the other hand, it beats the sagging jeans. I seem to recall a device called a "belt" that worked well when I was a teenager. However, being a former prosecutor I understand there is more to baggy clothing than fad and fashion.

Rahul says: "India is interesting: The Legislators try to look like Gandhi / Nehru (all politicians in general). The executive is all Suits. And the judiciary try to look 18th Century Britain." But women in India, irrespective of religion or state , prefer to wear the saree or at times the salwar, both indigenous attire, rather than western attire. I wonder why. I think it mainly because this is imposed on them in the workplaces ( except in the army and police departments and some airlines where the western dress is the norm)

Next question: why so many suits for capitalists?

Why is the suit the common denominator of both caps and commies?

Schelling point for People Who Want To Be Taken Seriously.

this * 3. the ruling class in a dictatorship must never go "casual".

"Do you have any ideas on why this style of formalwear basically became the world standard?"

The Economist covered this once: http://www.economist.com/node/17722802

I forgot who said this, but I've always enjoyed it:
For many years I believed that how a man dressed was unimportant; it was the man within that counted, not the man without. My belief excused me for being myself rather scruffily dressed, which was very easy and convenient for me in terms of effort required. But I now think that I was mistaken, for it does not follow from the fact that outward appearance is not all-important that it is of no importance at all.

The small matter of cleaning one's shoes, for example, is not one of vanity alone, though of course it can be carried on to the point of vanity and even obsession and fetish. It is, rather, a discipline and a small sign that one is prepared to go to some trouble for the good opinion and satisfaction of others. It is a recognition that one lives in a social world. That is why total informality of dress is a sign of advancing egotism.

Well put.

I find David Mitchell has a great take on the suit:


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