Culture

Vampires, ghouls and monsters: Give me a man in a sharp-dressed suit to make me scream in fear

Are you frightened by a man in a sharp-dressed suit? And, I do not mean being frightened by the Wall Street types and their ability to sink our economy into a deep, vast economic sinkhole. I mean, does a man in a nice suit give you the “heebie jeebies”? Ok. Let me ask you this.  Do you like to be frightened by a sharp dressed man? Apparently, you do, in the collective sense. Rigorous psychological studies (tongue in cheek here people) have found that the vampire, in general — and Dracula in particular — is the king of all monsters.  We like to be frightened by draaaa-cula (imagine Gary Oldman speaking here, yum!).  What besides the fangs, the hypnotic drawl and fierce immortality, define our favorite monster? Why, it’s his sharp sense of fashion. The suit does make the man.

Now answer me this. Why is a sartorially sophisticated monster more frightening than one that’s dripping in goo?  Dracula, the Godfather of vampires, really pulled the stops out (the choice of a cape was righteously retro, very few can pull it off).  Voodoo favorite Baron Samadei dons a top hat and tails.  Shadow people go with classic black suits and fedoras.  Even down on his luck Frankenstein spruces it up and wears a suit.  He may have bolts in his neck and is fairly monosyllabic, but he gets that a suit gives him an edge. Coming face to face with Sasquatch is a daunting proposition.  Now imagine the encounter with an 8 foot tall, hairy humanoid dressed in a three piece suit and wingtips.  Disorienting, isn’t it? What about my all-time favorite well-dressed creepers– the monsters in the Hush episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer?  Well, more specifically they are a group of fairy tale ghouls named “the Gentlemen.” They were truly one of the more frightening monsters in the series and it was partly due to their sartorial sophistication.  It ain’t no coincidence they were called “the Gentlemen.” Guys in suits can be all innocuously pretty looking, but they can also be a sign of a more sophisticated evil to come, rather than just knocking you upside the head while draining you of all your blood.  Attention to fashion seems to suggest that a given monster has complicated motivations, and intricate plans.  This is not a good situation when one is the designated prey, rather than the predator.  A dumb, unsophisticated, mindless monster with no sense of fashion is far preferable.  You might just make it out alive.

Now, look at how Death, also known as the Pale Horseman,  is portrayed in the television show Supernatural.  He is all suited up for the coming apocalypse. Ironically perhaps, death is all suited-up in the episode titled “dead men don’t wear plaid.”  Who wears plaid?  Probably the burly men that come to save you from the sharp-suited bloodsucker.  As you can see, fashion sense and style is actually a very important part of the supernatural and evil world as portrayed in pop culture.   Let s consider Spike, a.k.a. William the Bloody (awful poet), in Buffy. His trademark look includes a leather duster, a black t-shirt or v-neck shirt and black denim pants, usually with heavy boots or Doc Martens.  Sid Vicious or Billy Idol, anybody? He even has the sneer.  He’s pretty hip, but there is something particularly creepy about the upper class British accent against the backdrop of his 80’s punk uniform.

These days, vampires tend to appear in designer punk styles heavy on the black leather, but contrast Bela Lugosi in Dracula or Max Schreck’s Count Orlock in Nosferatu with Keifer Sutherland’s 1980’s bad-boy punk look in Lost Boys, and poor Keifer just seems a little comical.  It is probably why he went on to go completely macho haywire in 24. An immortal bloodsucker wearing a faux biker outfit is like a forty year old man wearing baggy pants and a baseball cap. Wait a second, isn’t that the attire of the weekend suburban dad? Anyway, while a suit is scary on monsters, the fact that the villain in Saw is wearing a bow tie is a bit absurd alongside being creepy.  I keep thinking it is a version of political commentator Tucker Carlson in dummy format. But back to the vampire. Look at Johnny Depp’s take of what a vampire should look like in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows.  Depp’s take on the undead strays from that put forth by Robert Pattinson or Ian Somerhalder. Instead of chiseled good looks, beautiful vacuous eyes, and sparkling skin, Depp’s character is creepy with odd dark circles around his eyes and claw-like fingernails filed to an itchy-scratchy point.  Yet, despite making himself relatively ugly (existential question here is Depp ever really ugly?) Johnny Depp did still play the part in a suit.

But why is a suit so well-suited for a monster? What is the history of the suit?  Although the man’s tailored suit is commonly perceived as the ultimate conservative, conformist attire, suit variations  have been adopted by many nations cultures over the centuries as a way to create social identities and mark off territories. For example, within the British royal courts their dress criteria marked the beginnings of the suit which was used to separate classes as determined by the monarchy. Furthermore, by the end of the 18th century, London’s Savile Row was the pinnacle of gentleman’s tailoring; developed in part by making military uniforms for the British militia. Despite Dracula’s appeal, the suit has not always been considered a marker of good taste. Back in 1922, Ms. Etiquette herself, Emily Post, ranted about the “freak American suit”. She noted that the suit “comes up to hit you in the face year after year in all its amazing variations: waist-line under the arm pits, trick little belts, what-nots in the cuffs; trousers so narrow you fear they will burst before your eyes, pockets placed in every position, buttons clustered together in a tight little row or reduced to one. Such progressive styles may not reflect the international tastes or etiquette”.

But it has indeed become quite international as well as a symbol of being a gentleman.   The suit represents power and prestige. The freak American suit has become the monster and ghoul suit through how disarming it is. The suit as worn by Dracula portrays him as a gentleman and thus his bite, is often perceived at first as a love tap, as opposed to the three course meal it will become.

But note that even outside the science fiction and horror genres, fashion plays a critical role in plot development. Look at dramas or action movies, for example. If a character is wearing white, they are more than likely to be killed in a horrific manner so that the blood contrasts sharply with the white attire.  Classic case of this use of white clothing can be seen in Boyz n the Hood. In the last few minutes of the movie you know who will not survive by observing the characters’ attire.  And of course, we all know the Devil Wears Prada.  The evil, demanding boss, is very, very stylish, and all the more menacing because of it.  Should I be offended I have been compared to Meryl Streep’s character of Miranda Priestly? I, for one, think my heels are way more kick-ass. Although, my soft feminine style can be disarming. I’m a girly girl at heart 😉  As such, do note that Armani, who made the female powersuit famous, recently said that women no longer need to wear powerful-looking clothes in order to earn respect from their peers in the workplace. That’s right pink is in! Turning this all on its head, there was a freaky horror fashion show in New York City that was inspired by Guillermo Del Toro’s Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark.

Now, this is not a piece on superheroes, for they already get all the glory.  But as we know superheroes are a bit twisted and dark these days. Oliver Queen, anybody?  Superheroes don’t tend to wear suits– well, let me rephrase. Superheroes do not wear suits when they are playing the good guy, out saving some damsel or city in distress. But many sure do wear a suit, and oftentimes quite sharp, during the daylight hours when they’re trying to hide their superhero identity.  At night, they oftentimes wear a mask and a cape.  Superheroes hide their faces and their persona at night. They hide their suit-selves.  The monster uses the suit to catch and terrorize their prey. The suit in the horror genre masks a predator.  But suits and capes are one and the same. Many suits have cape-like qualities and capes  adorn a fitted attire. Deep. Or not. It is all the same.

Overall, monsters are revered for their intelligence, superhuman powers and their ability to show us the dark side of our human nature. And this alienation is conveyed somewhat through the use of the suit.  The well-dressed monster stands apart from society while still being in the throes of conformity.

For a history of the suit, http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/07/where-did-business-suits-come-from/260182/

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