The Unfortunate Influence of Kant’s Epistemology on Men’s Suits & Ties

Executive Summary: What is real? Is it matter or is it form? To be masculine is to owe one’s allegiance to form, identity, law, essence and structure. The subscription to form as the real is reflected everywhere, including in masculine styles of dress. How exactly does the suit and tie reflect the masculine allegiance to form as real? We shall explore that question momentarily.

Here, though, is the rub for the masculine: Immanuel Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason,” written in 1781, undermined the belief that what is graspable by the mind — form, identity, law, essence — is what is ultimately real. The result was devastating. For reasons that we shall explore, it demolished culture, style, class and manners. It didn’t do so right away, for in the 19th and 20th centuries people continued to dress elegantly, in quite a variety of styles. Rather, it took almost two centuries for the implications of Kant’s critique to register on the zeitgeist. When form was dismissed as mere formality, it spelled the end of men’s formalwear — suits, ties, dress slacks, and wing-tip shoes.

There exists, though, a route beyond Kantian skepticism and the existential despair that follows in its train, to a mystical apprehension of true reality. What, though, is a guy — who has undertaken this perilous journey from existentialism to mysticism — supposed to wear on a Friday night?


A little over two hundred years ago there occurred a terrible disaster — not an earthquake, a flood or a fire, but rather a philosophical and cultural calamity. It reverberated down to the present age causing damage of apocalyptic proportions. And it all began when Immanuel Kant proved that the human mind is incapable of grasping ultimate reality.

One might think, “Ah, that’s too bad for those philosophers, but everyone else must get on with their lives.” The truth of the matter is that the mind’s inability to grasp ultimate reality profoundly impacts everyone, even the least philosophical among us. And it does so in ways that we don’t consciously realize. Let us, then, examine the disaster and its implications, so that we might discern how it all began and whether there might be a remedy…


Whither the Masculine?

Human reality is constituted by a very fundamental distinction, one between masculine and feminine. That distinction finds metaphysical expression as form and matter. Feminine reality finds metaphysical expression as the endless transformations of a material substrate, but at the heart of the masculine is a belief in the reality of form, identity, structure, law, meaning and purpose. I.E., what the masculine takes to be real must have a definite and definable shape. Only that which is definite, definable and determinate is graspable by the mind and therefore intelligible.

Furthermore, the masculine believes that what it takes to be the formal dimension of reality is neither relative, nor transient, but absolute and eternal. Plato, for example, regarded Ideas, or Forms, as eternal. The Jewish people have regarded the Ten Commandments and the Torah as God’s law and therefore eternal. If our life is to make sense, we wish it to be guided not by just any set of rules, but by the eternal verities. There are verities; as to whether they are non-relative, unconditional, absolute and eternal is another question.

It was inevitable that men would come to disagree over which set of laws, forms, ideals and and ideas are the true ones. Consider, for example, the realm of theoretical physics. For centuries Newton’s laws of physics were deemed to be absolute. They were so regarded until Einstein proved that Newton’s laws are true only under certain limited conditions. Similarly, various cultures, people’s and societies take the laws, rules, and customs that that govern them to be absolute. When they encounter an alien culture or society  — one that has a very different set of laws or rules  — they often feel threatened by cultural relativity. The result is often war, a fight for cultural supremacy.

In our day and age, it’s almost impossible not to be exposed to beliefs and ideas that put one’s own beliefs and ideas into question. For example, we might go off to college only to discover that our roommate, who had a different upbringing than we had, does things quite differently than we do. Then it sets our mind to wondering, what is the true way?

Now enters Immanuel Kant, whose ideas undermined the masculine subscription to form, but from a far more fundamental level than cultural relativity. Kant contended that the various forms that the mind apprehends may be intelligible, but just because something is intelligible does not mean that it is reflective of ultimate reality. I.E., that which the mind can grasp — law, form, structure, identity — are merely manifestations of the cognizing subject and not true reality. Alas, to use Plato’s metaphor, it means that we are forever stuck in the cave of shadows, never able to emerge so that the light of truth might shine upon us. That is unless, as has been suggested by subsequent philosophers, there is another doorway out of the cave, one that lies beyond reason.


Kant’s Skepticism Leads to Existential Despair

The curious thing about philosophical, artistic and scientific ideas is that — abstruse though they may be — they manage to enter into the bloodstream of everyday life. So it was that Kant’s skepticism has, after almost two centuries, entered into the zeitgeist and affected millions of men. For many of them, the very foundation of masculine identity — law, form, and structure — no longer appears as the route to freedom, happiness and fulfillment.

Rather, law, form, and structure seem to them to be an obstacle to freedom and happiness. The existentialists realized that if we cannot know ultimate reality, then law, structure and form are relative, rather than absolute, and masculine reality finds itself without a foundation and threatened by nihilism.

This intellectual cataclysm has had myriad manifestations, all of which are reflective of cultural disintegration and collapse. We shall investigate here only one manifestation, namely the loss of the suit and tie and the emerging supremacy of the informal, or casual, in men’s apparel. After all, if form is no longer the route to reality, then neither is formality — and similarly customs, laws, and manners and all else — which is a manifestation of form. And when men started thinking, “Let’s dispense with the formalities,” it spelled the end of culture, class and formal wear.


From the Loss of Meaning to the Loss of the Necktie

“May the outward and inward man be at one.” Socrates. 

If there are no ultimate meanings, then, as songwriter Cole Porter expressed it, “anything goes.” Of course that was the 1930s. But real meltdown of form, law, identity and structure occurred in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The antihero eclipsed the hero, who had long been the embodiment of masculine principle. Thus there began to appear films like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” (1969), in which the protagonists are bank robbers. When life loses it’s meaning, work becomes mere busyness, labor without ultimate significance. Then the only reason to work is to make enough money so that eventually one will no longer have to work. No longer did men see work as a calling, nor their occupation as their station in life, in the religious sense.

If the only meaning of work is to get the money such that one day one won’t have to work, then men began to wonder why they were bothering to get all dressed up for work. Some simply abandoned suits and ties, but others realized that the reason to get dressed up was simply to get ahead in the world. Indeed it was in the 1970s that books began to appear, with titles like, “Dress for Success.” (1975) The reason, then, to get dressed up was not to bear witness to some higher-level truth, but rather for Machiavellian reasons, because if one wished to succeed in the world, one should look more stylish than one’s rivals for positions of power.

Dressing for success, which is about self-aggrandizement, gave rise to men who were “empty suits.” They wear the outer trappings of a life expressive of masculine principles, but like T.S. Eliot’s “Hollow Men,” they lack inner substance, and culture, which is not surprising since they do not know who they are.

In any case, something happened about twenty years latter to undermine the premise that dressing well necessarily accrues to one’s worldly success: Men who regularly dressed in tea shirts and jeans were becoming internet millionaires and billionaires. Furthermore, many people who dressed well and were hard working were unemployed. As a result many men thought, “Why bother?”

And so they asked their managers, “Why do we have to bother to dress up?” And the managers couldn’t come up with a valid answer. Thus informal Friday was born, which soon gave way to everyday of the week being informal. It was a sad day for those who sold men’s suits, ties and other formalwear. This is not to suggest that there isn’t a place for informal dressing. One can be casual, but well-dressed.

Before further considering the untoward results of this cultural and sartorial shift, we might add that in addition to the Machiavellian dresser there exists another fellow who has lost connection to the deeper roots of men’s formal wear, the dandy. He has made himself, by means of his exquisite clothing, into an object of self-adoration. Alienated from its connection to masculine values, the pursuit of elegance reflects narcissistic vanity.

On the other hand, dandyism, within limits, has its virtues. Various sartorial accouterments — such as attractive sports jackets, colorful ties, pocket-handkerchiefs, and all the rest — can, like Cyrano de Bergerac’s plume, express pride in oneself as well as panache. Masculinity, at its best, balances a subscription to the straight and narrow with a sense of boldness, daring and adventure. It balances fidelity to moral principles and modesty with verve and joie de vive.

Related to the dandy is the fashion plate. He is the man who, having lost contact with the Tao of masculinity, seeks to achieve self-worth by appearing to be hip, trendy, or fashionable by adherence to the latest fashions. He is, in that regard, effeminate, for to be manly in regard to clothes is to eschew what is fashionable in favor of that which reflects classic styling. Naturally, styles do change significantly over time and it would look comical for a man to be adorned like Julius Caesar, Napoléon or George Washington.

What most concerns us here, though, is neither the empty suit nor the dandy, nor the fashion plate, but rather the man who is slovenly dressed, no matter how tasteful the locale, no matter how formal the occasion. The slob is a walking eyesore, the most egregious example of which is the man who wears his baseball cap on backwards and his underwear showing, due to lacking a belt or suspenders. During the warmer weather we see him dining in a restaurant, shopping, or at a concert wearing a sleeveless shirt and flip-flops on this feet. The slob, lacking all sense of propriety, is the waste product of our egalitarian age.

The popular expression, “letting it all hang out,” is pregnant with meaning, in that respect, for why bother to tuck one’s shirt in (and one’s gut in), when it’s more comfortable to let it hang out?  The slob is obviously wanting in manly pride and self-respect, for who would wish to be seen by other people in such a demeaning light? But he also displays a severe lack of respect for other people, for everyone is forced to suffer the visual offence of his disagreeable presence. Alas, we cannot escape these yahoos. They continue to pullulate and their numbers are now legion.


Casual Wear and Cultural Decay

It’s rightly been said that the word “casual” is related to the word “casualty.” The casualty involved here is, as we have been suggesting, the decline of the masculine. Take, for example, the necktie. It’s placement and its shape are symbolic. Placed around the neck, the tie serves the same function as does the white collar of the Catholic priest: the tie separates a man’s head, which is his rational and spiritual dimension, from his body, which represents the animal instincts. On its deepest level, masculinity involves a denial of the body, instinct, and sensuality.

The fact that most ties are shaped like fish is also significant, for the fish — as C.G. Jung tells us — represents Jesus, and more universally, represents sacrifice to God. Sacrifice lies at the heart of the masculine, the sacrifice of earthy fulfillment for the realization of the heavenly. The hero — and every hero is the very embodiment of masculine reality — is ready, willing and able to sacrifice his happiness and comfort for higher ideals. It’s much more comfortable to have one’s collar open, but the masculine disdains comfort when principle is at stake.

The suit, with its even lines and symmetry, similarly symbolizes the order and rational proportion endemic to masculine reality. Of particular importance is the crease in the slacks, which, like all that is linear, represents the straight and narrow, the moral dimension, of masculine reality. The feminine, by contrast, finds expression as an unbroken roundness. Dark colors are masculine, for they represent the denial of life, which is an implication of one’s subscription to the life of the spirit.

That many men today are far less likely to wear a tie, that they often wear colorful garb and slacks without creases, that they have abandoned suits and sports jackets so as to feel comfortable, is indicative of the collapse of the masculine. Related to this is the fact that men have become overweight, thus losing their linear masculine shape. Here, again, the masculine — which represents the denial of comfort — has been lost, for to overeat is to seek pleasure, with self abandon, to the detriment of self-discipline. For a man to abandon form, to embrace comfort, is to shift to feminine reality, and thus to degenerate. The casualty that is casualwear is reflective of the loss of masculine dignitas.


Regaining the Tao of Suits, The Logos of Neckties

Can men ever regain their faith in the formal dimension of reality? Can there be a post-Kantian rebirth of form, identity, and of the masculine? Nothing less than that would be required, if men’s formal wear is to arise, like a well-plumed phoenix, from the ashes of our present cultural decline.

What, though, would be the manifestations of this renaissance? How might it find expression stylistically, not only in men’s clothing, but in all things, from buildings to woman’s fashions, from music to painting, from automobiles to cooking? For the answers to these questions we must turn inward. As James Joyce wrote, “Welcome, O life, I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race. Old father, old artificer, stand me now and ever in good stead.” Perhaps, then, the old artificer might guide us as we tailor a new and expanded vision of the person we might become.

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