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The NonVerbal Dictionary of Gestures, Signs & Body Language Cues

Business Suit


As soon as he saw that it was daylight, being by no means slothful, the knight quitted his downy couch and proceeded to dress himself, donning his chamois-skin suit and drawing on his traveling boots to hide the rents in his hose. Over all he threw his scarlet cloak and, placing on his head a cap of green velvet trimmed in silver, he strapped on his baldric and his good keen-bladed sword and then picked up a large rosary that he always carried and with a solemn strut set out for the anteroom where the duke and duchess, already dressed, appeared to be expecting him. --Miguel de Cervantes (Don Quixote, 1605:804)

He [Cary Grant] had a wide head so he wore his shoulders wider to balance it. -- Alan Flusser (Sporkin 2000:137)

Taking off your jacket creates an atmosphere of trust. --Veronique Vienne (1997:154)


Display1. A coat and matching pants or skirt designed to downplay personal identity and showcase upper-body strength. 2. A tailored garment worn to suggest high status and power in business, government, and military affairs.
Usage: Strength cues from the broadside display are tailored into every Brooks Brothers suit. A coat's squared shoulders exaggerate the size and "strength" of the upright torso. Dropped to fingertip level, the jacket's hemline visually enlarges the upper body to pongid (i.e., gorilla-like) proportions. Flaring upward and outward, lapels enhance the illusion of primate pectoral strengthPads and epaulets cover inadvertent shrugs and slips of the shoulder blades, to mask feelings of submission or uncertainty, in the boardroom or on the battlefield.

Business1. "The best suit colors [for men] are navy [see below, U.S. PoliticsSymbolism], medium blue, tan, and all shades of gray. Brown is a color that demands caution. A lot of people have a negative reaction to it, and it can easily look cheap" (Bixler 1984:112). 2. "A well-cut, well-fitting [women's] suit can be accessorized into an office look without being frilly, authoritative without being dull" (Bixler 1984:148). 3. "The best basic colors for women are black, brown to camel, burgundy, blue to navy, beige to taupe, and all shades of gray. The darker the color, the more authority the suit will impart to the woman wearing it. In some workplaces, women need all the power support from their clothing that they can get" (Bixler 1984:157).

Evolution. Through a process of consumer product selection, business suits today resemble power uniforms. As a fashion statement, the broadside display may first have appeared in animal-hide clothing of the Neanderthals, ca. 200,000 years ago. The first solid evidence for the display, however, appears in the Roman toga. As early as 200 B.C., men in tunics draped wool or linen toga-cloths over their left shoulders, to make the upper body look "thicker" and more formidable than when dressed in a tunic alone (Rowland-Warne 1992).

Literature. "Beowulf put on his warrior's dress, had no fear for his life. His war-shirt, hand-fashioned, broad and well-worked, was . . . to cover his body-cave so that foe's grip might not harm his heart, or grasp of angry enemy his life." --Beowulf (ca. 1,200 years old)

Natural history. Konrad Lorenz (1966) hypothesized that fish adopt the bright colorations and markings of rival fish species, to reduce attack and "escape from interspecific aggression."
Recent history. From togas to doublets (1300s), to shortcoats (1600s), court coats (1700s), and sport coats (1990s), clothing enabled men to seem "bigger" and to present "larger" versions of themselves in public. Today, the conservative design of the business suit allows men and women to display a more powerful, influential silhouette in business and public affairs.

U.S. Politics I. "Dark blueness is all. The Blue Suit Endureth in Washington, a monument to sobriety and every politician's right to pursue the electoral majority and look okay on television [see MEDIA]. This dates, as does everything else in modern history, it seems, to that great benchmark of American politics: the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960. Richard Nixon--pale and sweating, his shirt collar loose on his neck from a recent illness--wore a light gray suit. Light gray. It made Nixon seem insubstantial and meek. On black and white television, he and the backdrop were the same color, a combination of wet cement and cardboard. He became invisible but for a pair of rubbery hands wiping sweat on his ashen face with a white hankie" (Sherrill 1992:31).

U.S. Politics II. "John Kennedy's handkerchief stayed in his pocket. He had a slight tan. His suit was deep and dark and blue" (Sherrill 1992:31).

SEMANTICS1. The contemporary success suit (Molloy 1988) is replete with frozen gestures (Hall 1959) which suggest muscular strength and bulk. Unlike body movements that come and go, a suit's "pumped" arms (see ARM-SHOW) and squared shoulders beam continuously from a wearer's frame. 2. The crisp, tailored look frames a permanently established "wedge" shape. Lapels lie flat, buttons blend in, and shoulders are firmly defined within the jacket's stable edges and secure collar. 3. As a protective garment, the suit sacrifices personality for strength. Instead of loud plaids or bright colors, e.g., darker shades of grey, green, and navy blue convey a serious, formal look. (Because the latter hue contains black but is not forbiddingly dark itself, navy remains the preferable power color of the corporate world.)
Symbolism. Dark blue seems "heavier" and more "serious" than lighter colors, e.g., pinks and yellows, which feel both physically and emotionally "lighter" than navy. Blue itself creates a calm, pleasant, transcendent mood, and symbolizes dignity and truth (Richmond et al. 1991). Adding black's symbolic power to blue makes navy the ideal choice for business. Black alone is too "intense," dark brown too "sad," and light grey too "insubstantial" for influence peddling in Nonverbal World.



Detail of illustration of vintage suit (and camera carrying case; copyright Esquire Magazine)