The Legacy of the Light Suit

Words | Christian Barker

A pale, creamy suit really makes a statement. Today, it speaks to the unabashed enjoyment of a stylish summer's day. But in the past, the light coloured suit had a whole series of other things to say, potent social signifiers that remain vital elements of its DNA even now.

Until around 100 years ago, wearing a pale suit communicated one key message: "I am rich." In the down'n' dirty olden days, before all and sundry had ready access to washing machines or laundromats, only the wealthy could afford to wash their clothing regularly. The poor were forced, for practical reasons, to wear dark colours — blue, grey, black and brown — to conceal their grimy existence and the fact that they owned precious few garments. Not for nothing were the masses known as 'the great unwashed'.

Meanwhile, wearing light coloured clothing indicated that you didn't need to stoop to physical labour. Heck, you probably didn't work at all. And even if your apparel became soiled, you had plenty more in the wardrobe — plus household staff to keep your clothes clean. In pristine cream, white, ivory, beige, eggshell, oatmeal or perhaps a natty pastel, the light coloured suit was a status symbol.

The 19th Century British colonial elite furthered the cream suit’s association with a leisurely lack of engagement in the tawdry business of work. Lording over their sundrenched dominions, these stuffy members of the English establishment refused to adopt the airy, practical attire of the locals (sarongs, loose-fitting shirts, and so forth). Instead they sought relief from the heat by having traditional suits cut in breathable, open-weave linen. The natural hue of this ventilated flax cloth also had the added benefit of reflecting away the sun's rays.

In the 1920s and '30s, possibly the most elegant era ever for menswear, the light linen suit — or linen jacket or trousers, worn separately — became a staple sported by affluent members of the leisure classes.

A couple of decades later, actor Cary Grant said that in summer, he habitually wore light beige suits. He appreciated their practicality and versatility. "If kept crisp and clean," Grant said, such garments are "acceptable almost anywhere at any time, even in the evening. Also, the coat can be worn with grey flannels at the seashore or in the country, and the trousers used separately with a sport shirt and moccasins, or a pair of those heavy-soled white canvas shoes that are popular with young college men." (Sneakers, we might call 'em.)

Although, as Grant pointed out, the beige or tan suit works almost anywhere, it is still an uncommon sight in the office. Just think back to the furore Obama caused by addressing a 2014 press conference on the fight against ISIS in Syria while wearing a beige suit — it was among the greatest controversies of his presidency.

We've far more important things to worry about today, of course. Besides which, what's wrong with standing out in the workplace? Worn more formally, with a pale blue shirt and tie, a two- or three-piece sand cotton-linen, pure linen or lightweight wool suit will look utterly professional. You could wear the exact same thing to spring racing or a summer wedding (tie optional in the latter setting). If you're getting married in summer, you and your groomsmen could rock a cream tuxedo with shawl or peak lapels. For a more casual twist, couple a tan suit with a denim shirt or a tee and some of those white canvas shoes Cary Grant was banging on about.

As for things to avoid: black shoes, shirts and belts are a definite no-no (shades of brown are far more complementary). Keep the fit trim and tailored, as lighter colours tend to increase girth visually. Oh and steer clear of Guinness, negronis and cabernet sauvignon if you know what's good for you. Irreversible stains are indifferent to socioeconomic status.