White Suits, Linen Suits,
By: Inigo Thomas
A month ago, I bought a
white suit. Cheap it was: just over 100 bucks at the downtown
Brooklyn branch of Daffy's, the discount-clothing store, one of the
best shops in New York City.
Now, a white suit, however
inexpensive, is always an absurd impracticality, even an act of
defiance against all practicality. It is also, in life as in movies
and books, never neutral. Like a white Rolls Royce, for example, a
white suit connotes grandness, tackiness, egotism, sex, and cash.
Such a confluence is found in Fitzgerald's first presentation of
Gatsby, dressed to impress Daisy in a "white-flannel suit, silver
shirt, and a gold-colored tie." There was no way, that afternoon,
that Jay Gatsby could have worn dark blue.
A man in white is never innocent;
no woman in white is necessarily innocent either, though the
conventional idea is that she may be. A man in white is often
searching for something: dirt, or life, or love, money or blood,
fame or notoriety. A white suit attracts what you don't have or what
you want more of. At least that's the idea, though the experience of
wearing a white suit doesn't always follow the script. After
Lawrence of Arabia, in which he starred, won best picture, Peter
O'Toole bought a white suit in Los Angeles, rented a white Rolls
Royce, and cruised Sunset Boulevard. He waved to people in cars and
on the sidewalks, as if he was mother of the Queen of England at a
parade. "No one took any f------ notice," he told a friend, "but I
thoroughly enjoyed it."
If a white suit is a way to draw attention to
oneself—maybe, maybe not—it can also be a way to associate oneself
with someone else. Wear a white suit and you might hear someone
remark, as they pass you by, "Very Hemingway," or "Very Evelyn
Waugh," or "Very Graham Greene," or, as I did, "Very Mick Jagger."
Not once did I hear anyone say, when I was wearing mine, "Very Tom
Wolfe." That was interesting-ish, because the most famous wearer
of white suits in recent times is Wolfe.
The problem with Wolfe's suits is
the problem with the white suit: They never seem to entirely belong
to you. It's as if they're always on loan—a rental, more hotel than
home. In other words, white suits are a distraction, a way of losing
yourself, or of going abroad. Wolfe's suits always evoke the image
of another author, Mark Twain. Twain wore his brilliant white suit
in winter and summer, at the opera and at home, and though he was
not the first man to wear a white suit—Samuel Pepys possessed one
back in the 17th century—he is, as far as I know, the first man who
wasn't a pope to be famous to make a point of dressing almost always
in white. Prior to his appearance before Congress in December 1906,
he explained to Capitol Hill journalists why he wore white: "I have
found that when a man reaches the advanced age of 71 years, as I
have, the continual sight of drab clothing is likely to have a
depressing effect upon him. Light-colored clothing is more pleasing
to the eye and enlivens the spirit."
Like every suit, the white suit is
a uniform, not of the office but of the street or the cafe. In the
movies, Mafia bosses are often in white—like Fanucci, the Lower East
Side extortion merchant in The Godfather, who is murdered in a Lower
East Side tenement building by the young Vito Corleone—but in life,
they tend to wear drearier colors, unless they're death-wish or
arrest-wish inclined, as some are, and this is why they wear white.
Such fatalism, of course, is another attribute of the white suit.
There's the inevitability of its getting dirty, which in the movies
is translated into the certainty of blood. And red on the screen is
a more convincing and dangerous color when set against white.
The white suit can also be about
power. FDR and Truman were white-suit men in summer months, though
lately white suits haven't been presidential. Then there's the white
suit of the Southern plantation owner (which I suspect was more myth
than true), but white has always gone hand in hand symbolically with
lording it, and with empire. Photographs of a great uncle in the
'30s, then governor of Singapore, depict the epitome of the
white-suited Englishman overseas. And though the empire has gone,
the white suit hasn't. "As supplied to the Foreign Office," read the
tag on a white suit bought by a friend in London's Piccadilly a few
years ago. In the imagination, "our man" in the tropics is always in
That kind of white-suited
Englishman is often contrasted with its famous variation: the man in
the rumpled white suit. This is the man from the pages of Graham
Greene's fictions, symbol of the man gone wild in the jungle, who,
like a plant taken from Europe to the equator, has become a
monstrosity with no hope of returning home, no hope of redemption,
but mainly with no hope of finding a cleaner to attend to his
white suit. Not that this kind of man is intrinsically English.
He can be an American imitating English airs. In Michael Herr's book
about the war in Vietnam, Dispatches, American CIA types sit in
Saigon cafes dressed in white suits, reading Brit kitsch boy stuff:
Lawrence of Arabia, the adventures of Richard Burton, and the end of
General Gordon at Khartoum. One can't imagine that their suits
stayed white for too long.
Would anyone buy a white suit that
never got dirty and never became rumpled? Isn't this part of their
allure? In the movie The Man in the White Suit, the boffin played by
Alec Guinness creates a white suit resistant to grime. He invents
the sartorial equivalent of the light bulb that never needs be
changed. He and his invention are crushed by evil mill owners who
have no interest in seeing a small man successfully rob them of
their profits from traditional, dirt-absorbing cloth.
Of course it's how a white suit
becomes dirty that is interesting. My own white suit is now filthy:
I sat on a blackened fire escape one warm Sunday morning. Among all
else, a white suit is folly, though I've always preferred people who
expose some of their follies to those who hide them. My suit will
soon go to the cleaners for a few days. It's not the best suit I've
owned, but it is the cheapest, and as a suit for a summer in New
York, where the awfully formal-informal dress code is that you
shouldn't wear white earlier than Memorial Day—a rule I have not
been observing—I shall be curious to see how it records the course
of the next three months, each indelible stain it and I acquire as
part of a diary of a summer in the city.
White Mens Suits