The most absolutely fabulous thing happened to me after I read Anne Hollander’s new book, Sex and Suits. Before, when I had to look presentable, I’d stand in front of the mirror and agonize for half an hour. “Is this skirt too short for someone of a certain age and breadth?” I’d think, tugging at a hem. “If I wear a jean jacket with this slinky black dress will it look witty and ironic or just dumb? Are these backless shoes slutty, or are they actually kind of cool?” I was ashamed of myself for caring, but helpless to stop.

I’m still doing it, but I’m not ashamed anymore. Hollander, after all, is an art historian, author of several heavily footnoted books, and a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities. She also takes clothes very, very seriously. They have “profound emotional importance,” she writes, and give a “dynamically poetic visual cast to people’s lives.” Her elegant investigation of the way men’s clothes have evolved over the centuries, and how trends in women’s clothes have changed in relation to that evolution, has convinced me that what I wear is as culturally significant as what Richard Diebenkorn paints or what the Smashing Pumpkins sing. Her book made me feel retroactively smart, like that character in the Moliere play who was enchanted to learn he’d been speaking prose for 40 years without knowing it.

Strictly speaking, Sex and Suits ought to have been called Gender and Suits, if the current academic distinction between “sex” and “gender” has any meaning. “Sex” refers to biological differences and “gender” to cultural, and it is a cultural trend that Hollander has elected to follow as she traces the history of the man’s suit from the Middle Ages through its recent, two-century-long hegemony. She focuses on men’s clothing because “male dress was always essentially more advanced than female.”

But the book is more than a simpleminded fashion history. Hollander thinks the clothing of both sexes must be seen together to reveal anything about the culture that created it. In her scheme male dress led the way and made “the esthetic propositions to which female fashion responded.” Moreover, she writes, “Preserving the good looks of men’s suits has not been a deliberately conservationist, antiquarian effort….It has happened by itself, in response to some huge collective fantasy that is obviously still potent.”

The nature of that collective fantasy is revealed in her detailed history of the evolution of the suit. Before around 1100, she tells us, men’s and women’s clothes were virtually the same dresslike garment. She illustrates the point with a Byzantine mosaic, and, sure enough, you can’t tell the girls from the boys.

But by around 1300 things had begun to change. Hollander sees the origins of the male suit in the tailored and padded linen garments worn under the knightly armor of the period. When the armor itself disappeared, the so-called linen armorers, who had over the centuries formed a powerful guild, simply continued making the same sorts of suits in rich fabrics for outerwear. From that point until the mid-1600s “male dress tended to imitate armor in forming stiff abstract shapes around the body, finally culminating in the starched ruff at the neck, a kind of armor-like abstraction of the shirt collar.”

Men, in other words, had abandoned the antique clothing algorithm, but women kept on wearing versions of the dress. The details changed: sometimes dresses had long trailing sleeves, sometimes high waists, but the basic pattern remained. Hollander thinks this reflects a cultural dichotomy: the male as innovator, the woman as “guardian of basic assumptions.” Little wonder, she observes, tipping her hand as to the direction her argument will eventually lead, that when women in this century hiked their skirts, uncovered their heads, and bobbed their hair “the change seemed like a profound blasphemy.”

Hollander contends that it wasn’t until Europe rediscovered classical male beauty, in the form of the Elgin marbles, that the sort of broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped males that even now amble effortlessly through J. Crew catalogs came into vogue. (Tailors had to retool in a hurry to transform clients who fitted the pear-shaped 18th-century beau ideal into the new lean and mean model.) “Dressed form [became] an abstraction of nude form,” she writes, describing Byron and his ilk, “a new ideal naked man expressed not in bronze or marble but in natural wool, linen, and leather, wearing an easy skin as perfect as the silky pelt of the ideal hound or horse or panther.”

Hollander thinks that even the monochromatic tones of contemporary men’s clothes have a classical source. Dandies used to be peacocks, in brightly colored satins and brocades that caught and reflected the light, but by the late 18th century that sort of display had become suspect. “Sir Joshua Reynolds,” she tells us, “has written that lavish color in a painting made a base appeal to sensuality, and that the play of light over rich textures had similarly vulgar attractions.”

Meanwhile, we women were just plodding along in our nicey-nice dresses, changing a sleeve here, a bodice there. Female clothing wasn’t immune to classical influence, but women interpreted the ancients much more literally. One result was those diaphanous and revealing Empire affairs, like the one Madame Recamier wore in the famous David painting–pretty, but not especially practical. (I’ve always wondered why the wearers didn’t all freeze to death: even today Paris apartments in December are no day at the beach.)

Those classical rags failed to survive in anything but the occasional contemporary evening dress, like the one poor little Blaine Trump wore in a recent Vogue candid; the lavender and mint-green pleated chiffon made her look like a perky caryatid. To achieve the truly modern state, Hollander says, women needed to adopt the suit, which initially meant imitating men.

The riding habits worn by 19th-century women were versions of the suit, and office-bound Gibson girls wore suitlike costumes too, with full skirts and leg-of-mutton sleeves. But it wasn’t till the late 40s and early 50s of this century that Coco Chanel sniffed the zeitgeist and began “making the male suit female with no hint of androgyny.” These suits “suggested the kind of erotic self-possession that has no aggression in it…a quiet, feline sensuality that is no barrier to work and thought.”

Blended with Hollander’s art-historical approach to dress is some tart, pointed criticism of the current wisdom about stylish clothing, which is that fashion is a conspiracy against women engineered by gynophobic male designers. This theme has been sounded by pundits from Susan Brownmiller to Naomi Wolf to the otherwise level-headed Susan Faludi, and it sometimes surfaces in letters to the editors of glossy magazines after particularly bizarre photo spreads. (Why the correspondents were reading said mags is an interesting question. Maybe they’re like the fundamentalist preachers who cat around just so they can get a better feel for sin.) A recent Image magazine piece, for instance, implied that four-inch heels and tartan mini-skirts were this fall’s path to rediscovering femininity. This provoked an outraged reader to write: “I’m all for being feminine. It’s the definition of femininity served up by male fashion designers I don’t buy.”

To which Hollander would surely reply, with a wave of her well-tended hand, Have you no sense of history, ma chere? “We are now accustomed to the idea that professional designers are the ones who deliberately invent fashion for the garment industry to produce, the way movie studios produce the work of screenwriters and directors.” But even a pinch of historical perspective shows this to be false: “For six centuries, individual inventors were never held responsible for the remarkable clothing worn by peasants, burghers, or nobles.”

Who, she invites us to ask, was the conniving guy behind those starched caps–they look like horse blinders–you see on the women in the Vermeer paintings she uses to make her case? Who was the man hiding behind the hoop skirts of antebellum ladies or lurking just the other side of Edith Wharton’s bustle? He’s not there. (And in fact, the creators of the admittedly nutty clothes in that Image spread included several women, a fact the correspondent either didn’t know or neglected to mention.)

Hollander’s view is that there is no one of either sex dictating what everyone wears; trends–in clothing and in everything else–have a life of their own. They’re not necessarily caused by social upheavals, though they may correlate with them in time: the actual relation between politics and fashion “remains somewhat uncertain, since people often wear things for perverse reasons or without reasons.” The people designing clothes are trying desperately to catch the waves, but they’re not stirring them up. And if people feel they’re being told how to look, then that’s their problem: “People who…feel threatened and manipulated by fashion and have called it a tyrant…don’t trust the operation of their own taste.”

There are a few flaws in Hollander’s ruminations on haberdashery. For one thing, her perspective is narrow: not just urban, but east coast and European urban. (The jacket flap says she lives in Paris and New York, lucky woman, and she looks decidedly French.) The suit that represents the aesthetic pinnacle of Western dress may seem omnipresent from her vantage point of midtown and the tonier arrondissements, but I know plenty of men who don’t even own a suit yet manage to look pretty good a lot of the time. Somehow the huge collective fantasy passed them by.

And some of her glosses on current street fashion are so subtle they’d probably give Jacques Derrida a fit of the giggles. One such fancy: “The mode for trousers that begin to expose the underpants” in men is “an unprecedented allusion to the female vocabulary of decolletage.” I floated this idea by a teenager I know, who just shook his head with a mixture of pity and contempt. He explained that the point of the style is to have really baggy pants that puddle at the feet; exposed boxer shorts and tush cleavage are merely epiphenomena. (He may not have used the word “epiphenomena.”)

Still, though some of Hollander’s hypotheses may not stand up to scrutiny, the thesis of Sex and Suits rings true: “Modernizing clothes for women has meant copying men’s clothes.” Which is probably why, whenever I can get away with it, I wear jeans and this great secondhand men’s herringbone jacket I got five years ago for 20 bucks. I always knew it looked good. Now I know I’m carrying on a tradition begun by Joan of Arc.

Sex and Suits: The Evolution of Modern Dress by Anne Hollander, Knopf, $25.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jim Flynn.