Though he stands in the shadows, Mr. I. N. Phelps Stokes’ suit sheds light on significant developments occurring in menswear at the end of the nineteenth century.
About the Portrait
John Singer Sargent’s Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes is the American-born artist’s most famous double portrait. Commissioned as a wedding present, the portrait was initially meant to depict only Edith Minturn Phelps Stokes. At the time, it was customary for the upper classes to be painted in formal dress. Sargent’s portrayal of Edith as the New Woman in her sporty day look of white piqué skirt, shirtwaist, and blue serge jacket—her husband relegated to the shadows behind her—was a shocking departure from societal norms at the time. The story of how Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes (Fig. 1), or Newton as he was known, ended up in the portrait is as famous as the artwork itself. As Newton details in his memoirs, Random Recollections of a Happy Life (1941), when Edith was still being painted in her blue satin evening gown, she was posed next to a “small round French table, looking thoughtfully down at a fan, with which she was supposed to be tapping its lacquered top” (116). However, when Sargent was inspired to portray Edith in her street clothes, Newton notes, “A new pose was finally decided upon, in which Edith was to stand with one hand resting on the head of a tiger-striped Great Dane…” (116). But when the dog became unavailable the day Sargent went to fetch it, it was Newton himself who, as he writes, “had a sudden inspiration, and offered to assume the role of the Great Dane in the picture” (117). Newton, who was supposed to have his own portrait painted by another popular artist, James McNeill Whistler, but backed out due to Whistler’s hefty fees, only stood for Sargent three times.
Critics have long focused on Newton’s appearance in the portrait, similarly referring to him, as Hoakley does, as “straight-faced…static, and withdrawn” (1). Other critics, such as Geoffrey Brent, have also noted how he stands, arms folded, “a respectful step or two behind his wife, literally in her shadow” (122). Even Newton himself proclaimed he was “painted…purely as an accessory” (117). But Newton was more than what Barbara Weinberg called “a vision of restraint and self-containment in contrast to his wife’s youthful vigor” (258). Newton was a prominent architect and real estate developer who was greatly interested in housing reform. One of his lasting legacies is a six-volume pictorial history of The Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909 (Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library). But above all, Newton was ahead of his time, confident and secure enough to be relegated to the literal shadow of his wife.
It is easy to understand why Edith pulls so much focus in the portrait. Her very modern street clothes reflect the significant changes occurring for a certain class of women in fashion, society, and politics at the end of the nineteenth century. But Newton, like Edith, whom he loved ferociously, was as much a fashion plate for his time. His suit, similar to Edith’s clothing, also signified major changes happening to menswear toward the end of the nineteenth century. It is no surprise then that Sargent captured this new woman and the man behind her, because like Elizabeth Prettejohn claims, “far from endorsing a status quo, Sargent’s portraits dramatized the precarious glamour of an upper class in rapid transition” (7).
John Singer Sargent (American, Florence, 1856–1925). Mr. and Mrs. I. N. Phelps Stokes, 1897. Oil on canvas; 214 x 101 cm (84 1/4 x 39 3/4 in.). New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 38.104. Bequest of Edith Minturn Phelps Stokes. Source: The Met
About the Fashion
Newton’s attire is seldom written about. When it is, it is often used to draw comparisons with elements of Edith’s clothing that took inspiration from menswear. Yet the light-colored sack suit (lounge suit in Great Britain) he wears features its own significant elements, many of which led to established sartorial aesthetics still in vogue in menswear today.
The sack suit finds its origins in menswear sometime between the 1840s and 1850s. Intended for leisurely country or private life, the sack suit was not considered formal by city standards. In urban areas, the frock coat and the morning coat, which had dominated men’s daywear for a majority of the century, reigned supreme. However, starting in the 1860s, with the rise of men’s ready-to-wear, the sack grew in popularity across socioeconomic classes on both sides of the Atlantic. But while working-class men were wearing the sack suit as formal attire, upper-class men still only sported it for leisure (Hollander 109; Hill 48-49). It would still be some time before the sack suit became the great equalizer in menswear, with men of all classes adopting it for formal and business settings.
By the 1890s, continued rise in popularity of the sack suit certified it as a “serious rival” to both the frock and morning coat (Byrde 107). This rise marked significant changes in both fashion and society. As Anne Hollander noted in Sex and Suits (1994):
“The lounge-suit’s rise into urban elegance offers a fine example of fashion at work in familiar ways. We saw how country clothes were made into formal city wear in the years following 1800.” (110)
Over in America, Daniel Delis Hills states in American Menswear (2011) that, “By the end of the nineteenth century, virtually every American male owned at least one ditto sack coat suit” (50).
As the century turned, the sack suit became so common among men from all walks of life in both countries that Christopher Breward asserts in The Suit (2016), that “its neat smartness enjoyed a much longer historical trajectory, bequeathing subsequent generations the ubiquitous business suit of today” (52). The standout feature of Newton’s sack suit is that all three pieces, jacket, vest, and trousers, were made of the same matching fabric, though this was not necessarily true of all sack suits (Fig. 2). Newton’s suit as painted by Sargent was most likely made of summer flannel (Zimmerman 151). Flannel, in both bright and pale colors, had become a popular choice for summer sack suits by the end of the nineteenth century (Byrde 105, 107; “Mid-Summer Fashions for Men, Young and Old” 6).
However, the exact color of Newton’s suit is not as clearly defined. In her biography on the Phelps Stokes, Love, Fiercely (2012), Jean Zimmerman called it cream (151); in Sex and Suits, Hollander referred to it as white (130). White Duck (lightweight canvas) became a popular fabric for summer suit trousers at the end of the nineteenth century, spurring a particular craze in the summer of 1895 (Centrone), while in 1899 the novelty suit of the summer was a white linen sacque (sack) (Fig. 3) (“Mid-Summer Fashions for Men, Young and Old”). As to the cut and style of the sack suit, though America and Great Britain each had their preference, double-breasted as well as three- or four-button single-breasted jackets with either rounded fronts (popular in Great Britain) or squared fronts (popular in America) were all available (Byrde 107; Hill 49).
Close inspection of Newton’s suit reveals rounded fronts (Fig. 4), which may suggest either a personal preference for rounded fronts, or that Newton may have purchased that particular suit sometime in the two years he and Edith spent honeymooning abroad. Other distinguishing features of the sack suit are the flap pockets on the hips and the welt pocket on the left breast of the jacket (Byrde 107). Unfortunately, Sargent did not capture these details in the portrait, but he did capture other significant characteristics of the sack suit. These included the notched lapels (Fig. 5) and deep V-opening to the waist (though some sacks came with peaked or cloverleaf lapels and openings that were high and slight) (Hill 49), a high-buttoned vest (Fig. 6), and a more relaxed-fitting trouser consisting of trouser creases and cuffs (Fig. 7) (Byrde 105-108). The fact that the trouser crease was an integral part of the sack suit’s aesthetic (due to the suit’s popularity) solidifies both its acceptance into mainstream culture at the end of the nineteenth century as well as its existence as a staple of menswear after a decade-plus of going in and out of style. Similarly, trouser cuffs find their permanent place in menswear at the turn of the century as well.
In addition to the sack suit, Newton also sports a high, wing tip collar and bow tie. When it came to menswear at the end of the nineteenth century on both sides of the Atlantic, the bow tie became a favorite style of the period, while the detached collar increasingly grew until they reached up to three inches (Byrde 109, Hill 53). The fact that the height of Newton’s collar in the portrait corresponds with this trend is no surprise. Newton had always been a fashionable young man, very particular about his collars, and often sporting new trends in menswear, like carrying a silver-headed cane (Zimmerman 75), and running around in the latest suits. This picture of Newton and Edith (Fig. 8) was probably taken around the time of their nuptials and reveals clothes similar to the ones each wears in the Sargent portrait.
The sack suit would go on to become the basis of the standard men’s three-piece suit internationally in the twentieth century and beyond (Fig. 1). Its specific details such as its matching fabrication for all three pieces, its hip and left-breast pockets, and its trouser creases and cuffs have remained consistent elements in men’s business, casual, and formal suiting. Even more stylized versions of the suit, like this Thierry Mugler design from fall 1995, have remained consistent (minus the vest) with the sack suit’s elements (Fig. 2). Similarly, light-colored suits have also remained associated with warmer-weather months such as spring and summer. They have likewise been seen as more casual than their darker counterparts.
Though linen remains a consistent casual summer weight for suiting, it saw a major explosion in popularity in the 1980s due to the success of the prime-time television series Miami Vice. Both the show’s main characters, “Sonny Crockett” and “Ricardo Tubbs” portrayed by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas respectively, brought their own spin to the linen suit (Fig. 3). Light-colored suiting in sack (now business) style can often give the impression that the wearer is being too casual. Who can forget the one of the biggest scandals of Barack Obama’s presidency: the day he wore a tan suit in August of 2014 (Fig. 4). The event was dubbed the “Audacity of Taupe,” and prompted the Twitter hashtag, #YesWeTan (play-ons of the “The Audacity of Hope” and “Yes we can” phrases from Obama’s presidential campaign). President Obama’s suit, however, featured traditional elements derived from the sack suit and was similar to the one worn by Newton in the Sargent portrait. A major part of the controversy was that the tan suit was considered too informal or too flashy for a president, and thusly received more scrutiny than the serious subject of Russia and the Ukraine the President was addressing that day (Contorno; Lu). As late as this year, a Kim Jones for Dior Homme pink cashmere suit from spring 2019 shows how nineteenth-century developments to both the design of the sack suit and its colorways for warmer months are ingrained in the DNA of men’s suiting (Fig. 5).
- Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library. “I.N. Phelps Stokes: His Print Collection and the Iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909.” Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University Libraries. Accessed February 17, 2018. http://library.columbia.edu/locations/avery/spotlights/stokes.html.
- Bent, Geoffrey. “John Singer Sargent: The Great Good Painter.” Boulevard 31, no. 1 (Fall 2015): 120-129. Humanities Source, EBSCOhost (accessed February 17, 2018).
- Breward, Christopher. The Suit: Form, Function and Style. London, UK: Reakiton Books, 2016. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/974012393.
- Byrde, Penelope. “Sense and Sobriety: Men’s Dress 1800-1900.” Nineteenth-Century Fashion, 88-109. London, B. T. Batsford Limited, 1992. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/963448859.
- Centrone, Brian. “Intern Report: The Trouser Crease.” FIDM Museum Blog. August 29, 2018. https://blog.fidmmuseum.org/museum/2018/08/trousercrease.html.
- Contorno, Steve. “The Audacity of Taupe: Obama’s Suit Switch Surprises.” PoltiFact. August 28, 2014. https://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2014/aug/28/obamas-tan-suit-earns-full-flop/.
- Hill, Daniel Delis. American Menswear: From the Civil War to the Twenty-First Century. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2011. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/990576133.
- Hoakley. “Sargent’s Allusion to an Absent Dog.” Electric Company: Macs, Paintings, and More. November 8, 2016. https://eclecticlight.co/2016/11/08/sargents-allusion-to-an-absent-dog/.
- Hollander, Anne. Sex and Suits. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/29390287.
- “Mid-Summer Fashions for Men, Young and Old.” Dollar Weekly News (July 22, 1899): 6. https://www.newspapers.com/image/390920127.
- Lu, Kathy. “‘The Audacity of Taupe’: Barack Obama Wears a Tan Suit, World Shocked.” The Kansas City Star, August 29, 2014. https://www.kansascity.com/entertainment/ent-columns-blogs/stargazing/article1324132.html.
- Prettejohn, Elizabeth. Interpreting Sargent. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1998. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/195058890.
- Stokes, I. N. Phelps. Random Recollections of a Happy Life. New York, 1941. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/476461116.
- Weinberg, Barbara, Doreen Bolger, David Park Curry. “The Home.” American Impressionism and Realism: The Painting of Modern Life, 1885-1915. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1994. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/680381468.
- Zimmerman, Jean. Love, Fiercely. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/666239980.