Walk down any street in Tsimshatsui and a man will offer you either a copy watch or a suit.

Well we all understand what a copy watch is. Probably we all understand what a suit is as well. This is an unremarked landmark in the success of cultural imperialism.

File photo: Dave_B_, via Flickr.

The other day I was looking at one of the numerous pictures of the latest festivities in Beijing. Every member of the new leadership – there are reportedly some women there but they had eluded the cameraman – was wearing a black or dark grey suit: jacket, three buttons. Trousers, down to top of feet. With a white shirt and a tie, colour of tie the only thing according to individual taste.

Look at a picture of President Trump on the campaign trail, or in a cabinet meeting, and you see the same thing on every man present: suit, tie, white shirt… The only difference is that the Americans have more variety in hair colour, led by Mr Trump’s notorious yellow follicles.

In Beijing hair is worn black, despite the rather high average age. There is a curious symmetry here. On porn sites there are an implausible number of blondes, in bulletins from the Politburo an implausible number of ravens.

Photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

The depressing thing about this is that you actually see more variety in a British Army infantry school passing out parade. They have the same guns, the same uniforms, but at least the graduates wear the hats of the unit they are going to join, which produces an interesting variety of caps, berets, and strange Scottish headgear.

It is difficult to believe that a society, whether Chinese or American, can be a hotbed of originality and innovation if its leading members, as a matter of course, all wear the same uniform.

The lounge suit, as it is officially called, is one of the few inventions which has not been claimed by Chinese historians. People who take an interest in this backwater trace its origins to Charles II, the Merry Monarch or the Harvey Weinstein of the 17th century, according to taste.

In 1666 Charles, following the example of Louis XIV, instituted a dress code for gentlemen at court (that is the Royal court, not the tennis court or the legal one) which comprised knee breeches, a coat, and a waistcoat. Gents were also required to wear a cravat (a now extinct variation on the tie) and a hat.

It seems sober gentlemen got in the habit of having the three pieces in the same colour though this was certainly not compulsory.

The other person who shares the blame for the modern suit is Beau Brummel, the dissolute but very fashion-conscious side-kick of the Prince Regent, later George IV. I must say that pictures of Mr Brummel do not look much like modern suit wearers but apparently he more or less invented trousers which came down to the ankle, as opposed to the previously customary knee breeches.

Beau Brummel, by Paul Rainer.

Something we would recognize as a suit appeared towards the end of the 19th century, initially as sporting wear. By sporting we mean aristocratic sports: shooting and fishing, nothing too athletic.

By the end of World War I, the “lounge suit” had become the standard wear for men of all classes except the very rich, who persisted in such interesting oddities as the tail and frock coats.

In the second half of the 20th century there was a general movement on the part of people previously considered toffs to stress their sympathy with the general public by wearing the same clothes. So a high level of uniformity was achieved and if you look at pictures of crowd scenes, whether at sporting events or factory gates, weddings or funerals, most people are wearing the suit.

For me this came a bit unglued in the 60s. Like most people who went to boarding schools I had been required to wear a uniform which was clearly intended to prepare us for life in a suit – trousers with crease, blazer, white shirt, school tie…

When I went to university I supposed that people would wear a civilian version of this, involving maybe what was called a sports jacket (a tweedy thing you wore with non-matching trousers) and perhaps a cravat, which survived in those days as a comfortable alternative to the knotted tie. To my surprise a lot of people managed quite well in jeans and a sweater so after my first term I joined them.

We now have a paradox: lots of people wear suits to work. Nobody would dream of wearing one at the weekend unless they were going to church, and perhaps not even then.

Photo: Pexels.

One of my lady friends observed on this topic that “anyone who is wearing a suit is in sales.” The rest of us are free.

And what do we do with our freedom? We develop another uniform. I have every sympathy for Mr Howard Lam, the politician who may or may not have been abducted by mysterious assailants who stuck staples in his legs. Clearly Mr Lam either had a very nasty experience or needs some heavyweight head help.

I could not help thinking, though, observing still pictures of the video which allegedly showed him walking through Mong Kok unkidnapped, that there must be a great many similarly dressed men in Hong Kong.

He was wearing long shorts in dark blue or black, a dark tee-shirt, black peaked cap with logo, trainers and a black rucksack. I have every one of these.

In one of C.S.Forester’s Hornblower books (well OK it’s The Commodore; I know the Hornblower saga backwards) the hero muses on the burden presented by civilian life, where he has to choose his clothes, and take the blame if they do not suit him. Wearing the King’s uniform was less stressful, because whether it suited him or not there was no choice involved.

It seems that ladies cannot avoid this problem. You are judged by what you choose to wear. In my trade union official days aspiring lady officials wore men’s shirts and jeans, flat shoes and no make-up (the Rosa Luxemburg look?) but this clearly suited some people much better than others.

Men on the other hand can avoid this problem by tacitly agreeing that they will all wear the same thing. Which is what we do whenever we can. Whether this is mere laziness or reflects some inherited tribal instinct I leave to the scientists.

Tim Hamlett

Tim Hamlett came to Hong Kong in 1980 to work for the Hong Kong Standard and has contributed to, or worked for, most of Hong Kong's English-language media outlets, notably as the editor of the Standard's award-winning investigative team, as a columnist in the SCMP and as a presenter of RTHK's Mediawatch. In 1988 he became a full-time journalism teacher. Since officially retiring nine years ago, he has concentrated on music, dance, blogging and a very time-consuming dog.