Tailored for Tango

2009 November 6
by Simba
Emil Fusaro - Shears by wmacphail, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License by  wmacphail

–Come back here! You are not entering the floor without buttoning your jacket! Her voice left no doubt, and the young aspiring dancer stepped back, buttoned his jacket and went back on the dance floor. He was smiling, but he would not commit the same error again.

In one of my very first tango lessons, I was told that the Argentine dancers would never take off their jacket for dancing. After going to Buenos Aires, one realizes that it must have been quite some time since a man would refuse to take off his jacket for such a mundane reason as it being a little warm, making him uncomfortable. People mostly dress nice, but suits are not all that common. But there is something there. You should keep your jacket on, and there are many reasons why.

Suits do have [..] a way of looking superior (p 114)

This quote, and all the following, are from the book Sex & Suits, written by Anne Hollander, and it helped me fill out some blanks and connect some stuff about the relations between tango and how clothes make the dancer. Or maybe the dance, we’ll get back to that.

I find that tango generally looks better when the man wears a suit, (I will explain why later). It could be just out of habit, of course, as tango was developed when men basically wore suits, but I thought it was something more there. And if we are to believe Hollander, there is indeed.

Hollander sees a clear connection between the development of the suit and the rise of the modern movement as seen in other art forms such as music, painting and architecture. At the same time, in Argentina, starts the evolution of tango. Tango is a very modern dance in the same sense of the word, and was breaking loose from earlier dances which were heavily choreographed and didn’t allow physical proximity in that way. Think film adaptations of Jane Austen novels. Man and woman met only briefly during the dance. This changed with the invention of modern couple dancing, led by the walz and followed by the tango, introduced in Paris in the 1910s. Hollander notices this as well, but only mentions it very briefly:

The changes in women’s fashion coincided with the spread of close couple-dancing as an ordinary pastime (..) p 136

Seeing the evolution of tango in relationship with the modern movement in general can be revealing in other respects, too, but we will concentrate on the topic of clothing here. Early signs of modernism appeared when the West rediscovered (again) the classical ideals and the art of Ancient Greece. One thing that changed as a consequence of this, writes Hollander, is that the youth ideal was revived with other classical ideals, and the ideas about what a body should look like changed from the reigning pear shaped ideal to a more athletic (young) body ideal.

Following from that came the development of something that resembles a modern suit. The lines were made cleaner, one saw a removal of clutter, in exchange for an easy elegance. The tailors set out to transform their clients’ bodies towards this new ideal, and in the process invented modern tailoring.

(…) by the turn of the century, elegance had shifted entirely away from wrought surfaces to fundamental form, and away from courtly refinement to natural simplicity. (p 90)

In their pure form, they express a confident adult masculinity, unflavored with either violence or passivity. The suit reflects purposeful development (…) it has the modern look of carefully simplified dynamic abstraction that has its own strong sexual appeal. (p 113)

The suit enhances how the man wearing it looks, moving in direction of the ideal, athletic body. At the same time, it is simple, and reveals that there is indeed a moving body inside, from which it takes much of its strength, if we are to believe Hollander. It is also interesting to note that the (three piece) suit was originally used for leisure, and seen as  ‘informal’ attire, which is obviously something that has since changed, now being associated with work and formal occasions like weddings and tango nights…

I find that not only does the suit enhance the dancer (how he looks) by enhancing the body shape, it also enhances the dance (in terms of how it looks).

By allowing some movement, while gently hiding other details, for instance by deemphasizing the chest lead and dissossiation both lead to more surprises for the onlookers, while simultaneously making the dancer look calm, athletic, powerful and elegant (as usually associated with suits). This is especially true with figures like enrosques, giros and lapises where the male dancer’s upper and lower body almost seem to be disconnected. The torso calm, clean and in control, the feet shooting around in intricate steps at high speed.

And one thing that is characteristic of tango, is the dissosiation between the upper and lower body. The upper body calm, introvert, embracing your partner, following the melody. The feet moving with the rhythm, making fast movements, intermingling with your partners’ feet. Two different modes at once. I believe many dancers choose how to dress to emphasize this image.

I sometimes wonder if the dancers often associated with Gustavo Naveira and his very structural approach to tango are more interested in exposing the inner workings of the movements, rather than hiding them, celebrating the raw movement rather than the ‘magic’ and surprise? Like the more contemporary Centre Pompidou in Paris is exposing the inner workings of the building, maybe they want to expose the mechanics of the dance? Make all structural elements visible, to tell the true story, one could imagine the nuevo movement going in this direction, in their search to uncover every secret of the tango movements. Show everything. Make it all clear.

I guess you would need to dress in tight fitting t-shirt and trousers to make every movement transparent. And it doesn’t really seem like they move in that direction, exactly. However, the further development of clothing in the 20th century fits in well with the ‘rebels’ of tango, in moving on towards outfits even more derived from leisure clothing, throwing away the jacket and going for the shirt, sweater or t-shirt instead. Some dancers (e.g. Naveira, Chicho) notoriously dance in large tunikas or shirts which to some degree hides disossiation, though much less than a proper suit. Large, baggy pants, emphasizing leg movements, but hiding to some degree the exact placement of the legs. Trousers with light, fluffy fabrics that follow and emphasize the movements.

In a sense, argues Hollander, this further development of clothing is also based on the suit and has a subversive element as has all fashion. It exposes what was once essentially underwear, shirts and t-shirts, once worn under the suit, now daringly exposed. As is the mechanics of the movement itself.

Now how about women? I always adored how the womens’ skirts enhance the round movements like ochos, giros, boleos etc. Caressing the lady, creating nice lines and following, then extending the curved movement. Very nice indeed, when the skirt continues a movement in one direction, while the body already has started on the counter movement like in a boleo for instance. Hollander sees this fashion as the wave of modernity arriving much later for womens clothing  than for men, essentially at the same time that tango really took off.

(…)evening dresses were more gauzy and feminine than ever, now calf-length to show feet and ankles in exciting shoes and stockings, and very loose and revealing above the waist. Withouth tight waists and big petticoats, the bodies wearing them looked very real indeed, the breasts and hips connected in an organic human relation, and the feet and legs in plain sight. Posture, formerly very straight and queenly to go with the expanse and stiffness of the clothes, now allowed for an easy and relaxed slouch—another defining and irreversible sigh of female modernity(…) p 131

In the second decade of [the 20th] century, however, the furs and soft wollens and silks clinging to the yielding figure seemed at last to confess that a woman could feel her own body; and they straightforwardly invited others to grasp and stroke her as a physically responsive living creature. p134

By 1925, modern skirts were knee-length and not cumbersome, and they gave off no mysterious suggestions. After that, the hem moved up and down, but never all the way down for good. Skirts tended to delineate the pelvis and thighs, to move with them instead of independently, and to cover with what seemed like a single layer of fabric, just as men’s trousers did. p146f

I won’t go as far as suggesting that tango was determined by changes in fashion at the  time, but it seems clear to me that like many other things falling into place at the time created an environment where the tango could develop into the form we know it today during the golden age. And the changes in dressing is one of these pieces that shaped preferences or what was considered good form at the time.

Reading the book only reinforced my view that ‘traditional’ is a bit of a misnomer for a dance that really has modern written all over it in capital letters. And it is a paradox that the clothing that many today see as stiff and formal once was the clothing of leisure, like t-shirts, sportswear and jeans are today.

Well — myself I have always been a nostalgic for the modern, so for me it makes perfect sense to dress up for tango. And as I explained above, I think it makes the dance (look) better. Depending on the fabrics, it may also feel better. Not long ago one of the comments to a youtube video complimenting the male dancer ended ‘(…) and the man knows how to dress!!’

Coincidence? I think not.

Credit to Ms Hedgehog for directing my attention to the book.

17 Responses leave one →
  1. 2009 November 6

    I shall have to come back and comment on this from many different angles but for the moment I shall open with:
    “This was all before Armani made a hames of things.”

  2. 2009 November 7

    I think “dressing up” for tango shows respect for the dance, your partner, and the culture. It’s been only recently that men in jeans have been allowed into the milongas of Buenos Aires, but still they are almost never worn. Tango is dignified and to a certain extent, formal, and people’s attire reflects that.

    You will see more men in suits in the wintertime, but some old milongueros continue to wear them when it’s hot as heck in the summer. The heat is a big factor in what people wear to dance. Some men wear suits because they perspire so much they don’t want to annoy their partners with soaking wet shirts. Some men bring several shirts to change into in the bathrooms on hot summer nights. Others feel restricted in suits and ties and can’t dance freely.

    Nowadays the standard attire of men in the milongas here is slacks and a long-sleeved button shirt. Like everyplace else in the world, life, even in the milongas, has become more casual.

  3. 2009 November 8

    One of my treasured memories of BA is being cabeceoed in Confiteria Ideal by a man in a lightweight summer suit…he stood up and made a sort of elegant gesture of buttoning the jacket before we danced. Just so cool.
    A man in a jacket always gets my attention first as I enter to the milonga and make the assesment..and also anyone dressed with care and style…even a guy in a kilt if he knows how to wear it 🙂

  4. 2009 November 9

    @Limerick: I await your angles, when you return, please explain a bit more carefully, I’m not quite sure I understand your opening… Sounds like you have an issue with Armani 🙂

    @Cherie, yes it depends on place and time, some milongas are more formal then others, also. One thing I asked myself while writing this is what ‘dressing up’ really means. To some, it means taking their designer jeans that look dirty and worn out but are really clean and straight from the store out of the closet.

    @Elisabeth: Exactly! You got it 🙂 To know what style means, you just have to watch someone like ‘El flaco’ Dany light a cigarette.

  5. 2009 November 9

    I really appreciate it when men put their suit jackets ON before dancing with me. As Cherie says, that way I don’t have to be inconvenienced by their sweat. I can’t “entregarme” and fully embrace the man if he’s soaking wet with sweat. The jacket protects me from that.
    However, it’s also fine if a man brings a couple of shirts to change into (if he’s not into jackets).

  6. 2009 November 9

    I certainly agree with Cherie that to take care with your attire shows “respect for the dance, your partner and the culture.” This is important. I would certainly never wear jeans and/or T-shirts, even to workshops and classes, although a slightly more casual approach is more acceptable here. (But I must say I feel that perhaps what you wear does have an affect on how you dance?)

    To milongas and balls I would normally wear a suit, although I’m afraid the jacket tends to be discarded fairly early on. Temperature has to be a factor in what you wear, as does the cut of the jacket if it is to hang properly and comfortably in the embrace. I do quite frequently wear a waistcoat without a jacket… acceptable compromise?

    And without wishing to cause offence, I would comment that perspiration is not solely a male problem.

  7. 2009 November 9

    Armani deconstructed the suit. He took out it’s structure and most of Saville row despises him for it.

    Perhaps the best quote for describing what a suit does for a man comes from The Tailor of Panama:
    “And I didn’t finish his suit, it would’ve given him back his dignity, he wouldn’t have shot himself in it. “

  8. 2009 November 9

    @Tina: I would be a bit disappointed if I put on one of my best suits preparing for a milonga, only for the women to see it mainly as a device for separating them from me and, well — yes.

    As Limerick’s quote shows, it is a lot more to us, at least. Makes me wonder. They say that women do not dress up to impress men, rather to impress other women. I have a growing suspicion it could be the same with men…

    @Russell: Thanks for commenting! Not sure it is relevant, but Simba would never wear jeans. Period. 😛

    Nobody cares if you keep the jacket on while at your table, but you are supposed to wear it when dancing… Tough world, the world of the milongas… Some hard core dancers would say that if it gets too warm with the jacket on, you are waisting energy 😉

    Joking aside, I think you are right with your remark that what you wear (and how you feel about it) can affect the way you dance.

    @Limerick: Brilliant, brilliant quote. A good suit can keep a man standing whatever condition he’s in, and this applies to late nights in the milongas as well.

  9. 2009 November 12

    Many thanks for that one, Simba. Very interesting. & Anne Hollander is very perceptive.

    I’d noticed the way that the suit clothes the body in flat planes. Suit trousers with sharp creases suggest flatness (which might even emphasise the roundness of the legs) but I’d never thought of this in time. Of course, the suit goes back to the beginnings of the modernist era, early 20th century Paris, the time of cubist modernism, as well as modernism in dance and music, and also the era of tango. & I’d also noticed that clothing has become rounder since the mid-20th century: jeans, originally the trousers of poor labourers in Europe and the US and now the leisure clothes of even the well-off, look slightly bizarre if ironed flat. & most modern fabrics don’t iron so easily, and tend to follow the roundness of the body. Gustavo is modern (in the ‘contemporary’ sense) in his choice of clothes, round and less formal.

    We grew up in an informal era; tango grew up in an era when formality was expected at social events, which meant suits and ties, even before air conditioning. I’m not sure if watching tango danced in a jacket is very different from watching tango danced in a shirt, but a good jacket is definitely a great piece of clothing. I’m glad I’ve never seen ‘El Flaco’ Dany lighting a cigarette, but I was very impressed seeing him stand up and put on his jacket to dance. (I had it on video, but I cut it out when I uploaded the dance: I won’t be so careless again.) Way to go, and better any day than tunicas and baggy pants!

  10. 2009 November 15

    @tangocommuter: Thanks for a thoughtful comment. I thought the cubist project was working a lot with volumes, not only planes, but still an interesting comparison. Thinking of the suit as an abstraction of the body is also useful, I think in this context.

    When it comes to the cigarettes, you surely missed something. I very much appreciate the effects of the smoking ban in the milongas, but out with the bathwater went some parts of the tango culture, or maybe just culture. In a way it was a loss, but I am not one to shed tears over it. Watching these movements refined over a lifetime is like watching a dance performance in miniature.

  11. 2009 December 9

    I love what you’ve done with Hollander’s ideas. Your conception of tango as modern in Hollander’s sense is beautiful.

    I think both men and women dress mainly to send messages to the people they benefit most from sending messages to, and in both cases that’s mainly, a lot of the time, the same sex more than the opposite sex. It’s not necessarily to ‘impress,’ though, as such.

  12. 2009 December 12

    @Ms H: Thank you, I am glad you liked it! I think if you ask dance historians, it is common to think of tango as a very modern dance in that sense. It is easy for us to forget how extraordinary the physical proximity of tango dancing was at that time (and to some degree still is).

  13. 2015 October 8
    Thomas Keenes permalink

    “Tango … was breaking loose from earlier dances which … didn’t allow physical proximity in that way”

    It’s an often repeated myth that tango introduced the close embrace to Europe. In fact, Europeans (at least the French) had been dancing in a close embrace since at least the 1880s. You only have to look at paintings and drawings by Pierre-Auguste Renoir to see this clearly – ‘Dance at Bougival’, 1883, for example.

  14. 2015 October 26

    @Thomas Keenes Perhaps that is an often repeated myth, I hope you didn’t get that impression from reading here, though. At the end of the very same paragraph: “This changed with the invention of modern couple dancing, led by the walz and followed by the tango, introduced in Paris in the 1910s.” There is clear influence from European music and dance in tango, this includes the embrace and the counter-clockwise movement across the dance floor which I think derived mainly from the walz, possibly also from other dances. That is not to say that the tango did not have an influence back on European culture from the 1910s and onwards.

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