Essays New York Tailoring

New York City Suits

By Sam Reiss

Apr 6, 2023

New York City Suits


Wearing a suit to a function in New York can be a fraught proposition: who’s going to be there? Is there a dress code? Where, in relation to 14th Street, is the event? If it’s Uptown, then no problem, but Down?

An antiseptic day turns into a redolent seedy night somewhere: can we dress it the same? Around here, I think so. There’s a rich New York tradition of suits being worn well — and casually — in situations that might not initially call for them. It might be all the walking that strips them of their business armour association and turns them into just another outfit in the crowd, stylish yangs to the ying of the room. Or it might be the history. 

There is, to start, that immediate 1970s aesthetic so associated with New York — the classic junkie styling of reedy, tailored suits, worn at Max’s Kansas City, to hovels, to quadrennial dentist runs. Showing up to some dump tailored, top to bottom looks plainly rebellious in photos. Even in its different approaches. Glenn O’Brien, moddish, trying to do just about everything. The artistic thrift adjacency: The Jam, visiting, in slim numbers that predate ‘90s Helmut Lang, David Byrne in a classic cut — not the big one! — with nice, sloping shoulders. Andy Warhol in a Brooks Brothers approximation, Richard Hell doing whatever he did… a long list. And while those stalky cuts may be best for the archive these days, the ease with which these guys wore them — not to mention the disrespect — is inspiring. 

Even slicker might be what came a few years later, when things got baggy. John Lurie’s character’s outfit in Stranger Than Paradise, specifically. In fact, that whole Jim Jarmusch thing. In the film, “Willie” goes full thrift, with a classic 1930s silhouette — high-waisted pants and a canted, easy jacket — that’s not too far off from our single pleat trouser and drill cotton blazer. As much as he  talks, Willie’s slouchy, formal look speaks for him. It’s less officewear than an inversion, or a mini-rebellion. Something about this person is different. Ultimately, it’s through small details, evident in plain sight. A silhouette, worn well, and effortlessly, is very memorable because of its tailoring. 


The era Willie yearns for has looks that were even more seamless. In monographs and documentaries of old New York, the folks waiting in bread lines would be wearing suits as perfect-looking as the ones comedians would wear on television. Everyone seemed to be suited, and the suits all seemed to look good. In New York, they’d be worn often enough that they’d hang differently, which might be the key.

Any clothing is casual if it’s worn often enough, or to anything. Taking a bigger silhouette and disrespecting it a little, translating it from formal armour to a sort of second skin might not be a New York City thing, but there’s a history here. Back then, and, lately, now. 

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