Back in Black: The Return of the Black Suit

Black suit jacket on a mannequin
Image credit: Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels

The colour black enjoys pride of place in the world of fashion. It represents a dizzying array of meanings, ranging from formal to funeral, classic to chic. Scores of books and scholarly papers have traced its history and importance to the way we dress. It’s built into our vestiary vocab in phrases like ‘black tie’ and ‘little black dress’. We’re told that it goes with everything, that it’s slimming, that no wardrobe would be complete without a selection of black items (a black T-shirt, black knitwear, black dress shoes, or the aforementioned LBD). It is a staple of uniform and monochrome dressers and it’s worn as standard attire by everyone from designers to waitstaff.

And yet, black becomes a much tricker proposition when you narrow things down to just the realm of menswear, specifically when you’re talking about suits. Here’s the problem: Black suits are, basically, a bummer. And it isn’t just because of their association with funerals either.

For generations, stretching back to the very moment of the modern suit’s inception, black has been the go-to. Thanks to Beau Brummell shunning all adornment in nineteenth-century men’s dress, the father of modern menswear’s preference for austere, finely cut black suits set a tonal standard we’re all still variously following or fighting against. From Brummell you can trace a direct line to the black suit’s reign throughout the Victorian era and well into the twentieth century, stretching as far as the dawning days of the Swinging Sixties and the Tarantino-toned 1990s. Thanks to the chic styling of Beau and his slew of trendsetting modern successors — including the likes of Yves Saint Laurent, Yohji Yamamoto, Issey Miyake, Tom Ford, and Hedi Slimane — the black suit has become coded in our DNA as the stylish choice when it comes to picking out formal wear.

Unfortunately, this very impulse is what has diluted the power of that selfsame shade. Chasing the allure of handsome leading men, talented musicians, and voguish designers, we flocked en masse to outlet malls in search of the same glamour. It’s what I did when I got my first suit as a teenager bound for an eighth-grade dance. It seemed like a no-brainer: If you’re buying a suit, it’s got to be black, right? It was only long after the tags had been snipped off and the corsage paid for that I realised my mistake. A poorly cut black suit is a sartorial nightmare, leaving you looking rumpled, dour, and clueless. Not only did I never wear that suit again, I haven’t come near another black one since.

Pitch black: Musicians Frank Sinatra, Sid Vicious, and The Beatles wearing black suits to different effect
Image credits: Capitol Records / Public domain; Wikimedia / Public domain; Tullio Saba / Public domain

I’m also not alone in this. Look to nearly any purveyor of menswear wisdom and you’re likely to find the same advice: steer clear of the black suit. Even when you’re going for black tie, you’re probably better off wearing midnight blue. As Josh Sims points out:

‘Bespoke tailoring […] has long had a right downer on black tailoring, recommending to its bespoke clients the darkest navy, or the darkest grey, as a more upscale alternative, not least because both better set off a more boldly colored shirt or fine gauge knit, with brown rather than (yet more) black shoes. Ask a tailor and the black suit is beginner’s territory: My First Suit, the shiny choice made by new graduates for their first job interview. It’s the choice of the ingenue. Or the pallbearer.’

Former Creative Director at Esquire, Nick Sullivan, who not only shuns black suits but all black clothing in his own life, agrees:

‘Black—the gabardine suit in particular—is the lowest common denominator in white-collar clothing: the color of nightclub bouncers, office drudges, Hollywood leading men who don’t know what else to wear on the red carpet, commuter curmudgeons, politicians on either side of the aisle, men before the judge, men who’ve given up before they’ve started. It’s a flat, dead thing, hanging off the body like a pall. It’s the color of puritans […] and minimalists. And we all know what fun they are.’

In other words, overexposure and arrant misuse have, over time, demoted black suits from the top of the sartorial totem pole to the very bottom rung of the tailoring ladder.

And yet…look around at stylish men the internet over and you’ll find that the black suit appears to be mounting a comeback. Take a scroll through the social media accounts of menswear pacesetters like Ethan Newton and Kenji Cheung, the proprietors of Brycelands, Angel Ramos, the Creative Director of 18th Amendment, or Shuhei Nishiguchi, the fashion director for BEAMS, and you’ll spot sable suits executed to perfection right now. And they’re not alone, either. Begin to keep a lookout for this formerly verboten tone among the stylish men you know and I’m willing to bet that you’ll see it pop up all over the show.

Could these be the canaries in the clothing coalmine heralding a Stygian-suited resurgence?

Cary Grant wearing a black suit in the 1940s
Cary Grant in black (and white)
Image credit: Tullio Saba / Public domain

If so, I for one wouldn’t be surprised. Beau Brummel was onto something back in the day. Two centuries worth of men don’t keep a trend alive for nothing. It is undeniable that a well-cut back suit commands a unique presence. If done right, it is a simple, clean, and elegant choice. It speaks of power, intellect and sophistication. It manages to be at once familiar and mysterious, edgy and restrained; a means of subtly marking yourself as an outsider all while appearing to conform (that being a pretty neat summation of the imperative of much of menswear). After all, you’ll remember that there’s a reason why Mr. Pink and company in Reservoir Dogs can’t choose their own colour names. It’s because inevitably ‘you get four guys all fighting over who’s gonna be Mr. Black.’ Deep down, we all want to be Mr. Black.

What’s more, if overkill is what did in the black suit the last time around, its near extinction among classy dressers may well be what shepherds its return. After a while, a craving for novelty is bound to bring old favourites back around, and black tailoring is no exception. That and watching Kendall Roy rocking all that black Brunello Cucinelli in Succession for the past few years. Plus, there might be a growing weariness of the cosy casualness that has animated so much of Covid-era dressing, and nothing cuts through napped cotton quite like a jet black dinner jacket. So, if you’re already sick of sweats, now might be the time to get yourself a good black suit instead.

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