Historical Prescriptivism: The Awkward Bedfellows of Tradition and Evolution in Menswear


But, erm, what exactly is Historical Prescriptivism? The term relates to the linguistic notion that, whilst language is constantly evolving and changing form, certain styles (often those that were popular in the past) are considered ‘better’ language by a majority of speakers, at any given time. For example: the subjunctive in English often goes unmarked, these days, meaning that many people would say or write ‘If I was rich’ instead of ‘If I were rich’ – just the sort of thing your secondary school English teacher would have pulled you up on. Leaving aside the subjective argument as to which version is more pleasing to the eye or ear, it s not a wild suggestion to say that, in the future, the ‘If I were’ construction may be completely obsolete, having been superseded by ‘If I was’ which will then be considered standard, ‘correct’ English of the sort spoken by BBC presenters.

The point is this: change is natural and unstoppable but the majority will always resist change and look longingly to the way things were in the past as a sort of golden ideal. This linguistic example is allegorical for menswear, too, where innovation and evolution are often criticized for departing too far from the map drawn up by their historical forebears.

This issue came to a head for me, recently, because I was asked by a friend who has her own clothing line to design some menswear for a bridal line she is working on at the moment. In the process of collecting images for the moodboard, I did some research online, reading some of the men’s style blogs and fora in order to get a sense of the mood vis‐à‐vis morning dress and what

one ought to wear to a wedding. I was struck by how rigid and dogmatic the majority of posters were with respect to what precisely constituted acceptable wedding attire! When I came to sketching the pieces, I found myself wanting to make subtle changes to the clothes but feeling almost guilty for doing so.

Some degree of change is to be expected: as we live and work in centrally heated

or air‐conditioned houses and offices and are thus less exposed to the elements it is only natural that we should change our clothes. As body shapes change and new textiles are developed, we should expect this, too, to have an impact. The real difficulty for us lies in assessing how much modification of existing styles is possible without the clothes losing the essence of what they originally were or appearing ersatz. For what it’s worth, I believe that change for the sake of change is pointless; but I am all for tweaking, personalizing, and making more relevant the classic items and designs that have served us so well in the past.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts.



  1. Chad Edward said:

    I think your point is somewhat restricted to the occasion of a wedding where tradition is more evidently dogmatic than say what one wears to dinner on Friday night. Menswear has evolved, but at the pace of men’s buying patterns. A man buys a suit for several years, which means the style of the suit can’t be too trendy. It’s expected to be stylish for a longer time than women’s wear.

    February 20, 2010
  2. Pangur said:

    I don’t think that the majority resists change. Quite the contrary: The majority does things differently, out of habit, comfort or sheer dumbness and thus what is thought of as acceptable is what the majority does. Only a minority will stick to tradition and will thus be frowned upon as old fashioned but nevertheless will keep the pace of change in a controllable way. Thus the lounge suit became acceptable buisseness attire, the word “whom” just a thing of old plays and the wearing of track suits and underwear for shopping possible.
    We live in a democracy (I#m German, so my thoughts on democracy will slightly differ from yours) and that means, at the end of it all: The majority is right!
    Even if it is a uniformed, uninterested and dwnright loony majority in the eye of the Traditionalists.

    February 21, 2010
  3. Nick Bain said:

    In Menswear & especially in tailoring I believe we are about to witness a changing of the guard. Its been a long time coming but, there is now a huge difference between dads and the lads. As a general rule the old traditionalists preferring high quality garments that will last forever and not be too extreme in styling, versus the new suit wearers for whom 100% wool is not essential so long as the styling and look are right and on trend. Mens fashion is I believe speeding up. Weddings, perhaps remain on of the last bastions of the old guard, clinging rightly and wrongly to the traditional rules. If I’m honest, its this battle between old and new that draws me into menswear…how do you subvert the rules of a 100 years, but still make something wearable.

    February 22, 2010
  4. David V said:

    Nick, the same was said in the 60’s.

    February 22, 2010
  5. Nick Bain said:

    David – perhaps its time it happened again?

    February 23, 2010
  6. Jake said:

    I don’t know if I understand what you would change in (for the sake of argument) traditional morning dress, that would not be ‘change for the sake of change’? If you are arguing for not wearing morning dress at weddings then that is fair enough and, indeed, plenty of people do not.
    How would you seek to make traditional clothes ‘more relevant’? Where does ‘relevance’ come in to it? Clothes are essentially about style, and there has been nothing practical about morning dress for hundreds of years, so any further changes seem wholly uneccesary.

    Call me rigid and dogmatic if you will, but my view is that either one wishes to dress traditionally at a wedding, or one does not. Either is fine with me, but a mix between the two, to make use of changed body shapes (really?) and new textiles seems both bizarre and tasteless.

    February 24, 2010

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