WRITER: Govind Dhar
Everyone has their own vision of the pinstripe suit. Personally, it conjures the slicked-back Ralph Lauren and Dior looks of the monochromatic 1990s, Christian Bale in American Psycho and Batman, the Zoot suit, gangsters with Tommy guns, bankers, preppies and most recently, Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. When you think about it, the pinstripe suit in all these instances says plenty about the wearer and what he wants to say to the world, in just a few lines. Bad jokes aside, the pinstripe suit and its wearer are something greater than the sum of individual parts - together, they are a statement of confidence. And the look is best pulled off by how you carry yourself, by a wearer with personality.
Google ‘pin-stripe’ and you’ll find a snorefest of how-to’s on the subject, only made marginally bearable by the bombastic fashion crimes put together by some of the self-appointed ‘stylists’. There’s all types of stripe the internet throws at fashion - you go from Paul Smith’s superbly impish juxtapositions to the more anodyne strictures of tailoring, such as the distance between stripes and the differences between pin heads, rope stripes, pencil stripes, self stripes, chalk stripes, lace-line stripes. Fantastically, you’ll even come across a photo of the great Winston Churchill in a pinstripe version of what was then called a ‘siren suit’.
Churchill has never struck me as much of a siren but it would seem that war created a fashion icon out of the famously scowling, baby-faced Premier. Now if you were told that David Cameron could wear a striped onesie to meet Heads of State and that it would become so popular that they would auction one for over 50,000 USD, make a version in velvet for a museum and make another for women, you might ask the men in white coats to up your dose of hallucinogens. Obviously, the pint-sized leader stood for much more than his potbelly and famous cigars suggested. He actually transformed what had essentially been workman’s overalls designed for air raids, into an icon of British fashion and history.
In terms of history, the pinstripe suit is about as straightforward as a fishing knot. One source says that sartorial stripes symbolised individuals on the margins of society - from prostitutes and prisoners to military personnel and lawyers. The most accepted story suggests that the pinstripe suit was an evolution of the striped jackets worn by British boaters from the 19th century and that stripes then helped distinguish British bankers in the 1920s. After that, they found their way into casual and lounge suits, becoming the choice fashion statement of Hollywood stars like Clark Gable and Cary Grant.
For me, the pinstripe suit takes on a whole new dimension when it makes the jump into women’s fashion. Think of Danielle Luquet de Saint Germain, Yves Saint Laurent’s muse in one of his three-piece suits, smoking a cigarette or Twiggy in a double-breasted pinstripe mohair suit slouched against a roadster in the 1960s and you begin to understand what ‘oomph’ means.
The pinstripe suit is also about attitude in my opinion. Sartorial pundits have a bunch of dos and don’ts about pinstripes, which seem perfectly commonsensical (if you’re thin, wear thick stripes, if fat, then thin ones; match your stripe’s colour to your shirt, etc.) but some of the more memorable ones include the dictum that ‘the pinstripe suit mustn’t be your first or even fourth suit, it must be your fifth’ or the truly awesome injunction that one should not ‘wear pinstripes to a funeral’.
I’m going to go with Christian Dior, who said that haute couture was more about grooming, good taste, simplicity and dressing to one’s personality rather than personal wealth or following a fashion. Bottom line: if a pinstripe suit doesn’t fit your character then don’t wear it. You’re not likely to be after one if you don’t have the pizzazz to pull it off.
There’s a reason the bombastic Zoot suit had those angular cuts, audacious shoulder pads and stripes and that’s that they weren’t for people who had any less confidence than a war-time prime minister who wore green velvet overalls when relaxing.