watch

How I Met Your Mother - Barney and a History of Suits

How I Met Your Mother‘s Barney Stinson is nothing without his suit. What’s the deeper symbolism behind his legendary fashion item of choice? And what does the suit identity mean today, after the end of shows such as HIMYM and Mad Men? Here’s our Take on Barney’s iconic look and what the suits are really about.

TRANSCRIPT

Barney: “Nothing suits me like a suit.” - How I Met Your Mother 5x12

How I Met Your Mother’s Barney Stinson is nothing without his suit. It’s the uniform that makes him feel like a superhero, whether he’s at work, hanging out with his friends, or wooing women. Barney’s suits are such a vital part of his identity that even the origin story we get for this confident ladies’ man culminates in him putting on the suit. So what’s the deeper symbolism of the Barnacle’s fashion item of choice?

By dressing the way he does, Barney invokes centuries of associations with the suit: a long-held signifier of masculinity, success, and power. This unapologetic bro (who begins as a fragile, sensitive, and damaged individual) uses his everyday costume to project an idea of himself, which is the foundation of his whole worldview.

Barney: “Do you remember why we suit up, James? The suit shows that we are a force to be reckoned with.” - How I Met Your Mother 2x20

But there’s also a darker, controversial side to the “suit” identity, which plants it at the center of a culture war that’s been quietly raging for decades. And in the years since the end of How I Met Your Mother and the simultaneously airing Mad Men, the suit’s traditional connotations of strength and status have increasingly faded, giving way to new wardrobes of power. Here’s our take on why, when it comes to Barney Stinson, the suit truly makes the man, and what kind of man lies underneath it.

A Brief History of Barney and Suits

Barney comes into his friends’ lives fully formed, impeccably suited up and preaching the gospel of doing likewise. But he was once a tie-dye-wearing hippie with dreams of making the world better, who viewed “suit” types with disdain.

Barney only became the materialistic ladies’ man we know when a businessman stole his girlfriend after giving him some harsh words of advice. It was then that Barney reinvented himself, beginning with “suiting up” in the uniform of the man who bested him, in a sequence that channels the feeling of a warrior getting ready for battle.

Businessman: “Forget all that touchy-feely crap. You get money, you get laid. End of discussion.” - How I Met Your Mother 1x15

To understand why the suit holds such totemic power for Barney, we have to look back to the early 19th century and a British dandy named Beau Brummell. Brummell was a London socialite who rejected the ornate, powdered wigs and stockings favored by noblemen, dressing instead in more streamlined tailored coats, full-length pants, crisply pressed shirts, and knotted cravats. Brummell, who said he spent five hours a day getting dressed and polished his boots with champagne, inspired the rest of the upper crust to adopt his fashion and his attitudes toward appearance and hygiene. Broadly speaking, the man’s suit has continued to connote wealth and status ever since.

By the 1940s, though, suits could be produced in a quick, generic fashion, leading to the first era in which suits were worn by virtually every man. The muted colors and standardized design of the grey flannel suit reflected a society that sought order and stability after decades of war and depression. It was a uniform that proclaimed your willingness to “fit in” and play your part as a cog in the machine, rather than pursue an individual identity.

Gregory Peck: “But I don’t know anything about public relations!”

Commuter: “Who does? You got a clean shirt, you bathe every day, that’s all there is to it.” - The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit

Barney also implicitly links himself to the world of the ’40s and ‘50s. He has a fondness for old-fashioned patriarchal ideals of living that allows him to thrive in a hyper-masculine business world, where conforming to macho social norms is key to getting ahead. In Barney’s professional world, success is still about assimilation into the machine, and standing out in the wrong way can be a fatal error. This focus on fitting in is underlined by the running joke that Barney won’t reveal what his specific job actually is.

Marshall: “Conformity: It’s the one who is different that gets left out in the cold.” - How I Met Your Mother 1x17

And in his often brutal corporate culture, the suit is the armor he wears into daily battle. Much of the groundwork for Barney and his fellow business bros’ attitude was laid in the 1980s with the rise of the power suit. Characters like Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko represented a generation of suit-wearing men who’d turned the pursuit of money into a religion, making no apologies for treating the world as something to be conquered.

Lawrence Garfield: “Whoever has the most when he dies, wins. Look, it’s the American way!” - Other People’s Money

Their suits advertised their zealous embrace of work, greed, and capitalism as a 24-hour way of life. Barney’s own philosophy may be relatively less cutthroat, yet he’s no less competitive, whether it comes to laser tag or taking on wacky challenges. He approaches every woman he pursues like a hostile takeover. And like Gordon Gekko, he’s completely shameless about getting exactly what he wants.

While Barney takes obvious comfort in surrendering his individualism in pursuit of status, his friends Ted and Marshall, like many people who have been forced to wear a suit for work, associate it with servitude. Barney’s friends represent the other side of a debate that’s raged ever since the suit became the workplace uniform: Should we find our place in the machine and reap the rewards, or rage against it and carve out our own path?

Barney: “Now, I suppose you could learn to love yourself for the unique little snowflake that you are. Or, you could just change your whole personality, which is just so much easier.” - How I Met Your Mother 1x17

The Devil Wears D&G

While Barney subscribes to suits as a projection of success and happiness, they’re also about protection and camouflage, an outer layer that covers up emotional damage inside. The last time he allowed himself to be vulnerable, Barney got so wounded that he adopted a whole new identity designed to make him invincible, Darth-Vader style. He embraces superficiality because if he doesn’t have deeper feelings, nobody can hurt them. We’ve seen this idea of the suit as a kind of disguise throughout pop culture.

Like Barney, Mad Men’s Don Draper is introduced as a self-assured ladies’ man who knows exactly what he wants, and he usually gets it. However, we soon learn that it’s all a lie: Don has assumed someone else’s identity, and he uses his crisp suits, good looks, and knack for crafting ad copy to sell a false idea of himself. Yet despite dressing the part well enough to fool everyone else, he never succeeds at feeling like that man inside.

Don Draper: “I took another man’s name and made… nothing of it.” - Mad Men 7x14

American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman has sculpted himself into the image of ‘80s success: a well-groomed yuppie who boasts the cool, ruthless confidence and ability to blend in that is so valued in the business world.

But Bateman, in fact, leads a deeply insecure, skin-deep existence, where principles are replaced by choosing the right brands, and someone else having a better business card can send him spiraling into an existential crisis. His society’s lack of regard for individualism has made him lose all sense of who he is. And, driven insane, Bateman resorts to killing people in a desperate bid to somehow regain a sense of identity or even the feeling that he exists.

Patrick Bateman: “There is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction. But there is no real me. I simply am not there.” - American Psycho

Barney does not have Patrick Bateman’s amoral detachment, although he does share his love of pop music, and his reliance on consumption to fill a void. And while Barney’s backstory is perhaps not as tragic as Don Draper’s, the more we learn about his troubled past, the more we see how his reinvention was born of a similar desire to bury his true self beneath a perfectly cut Armani.

Marshall: “You were abandoned and you never dealt with it, so now you never allow yourself to feel anything, and that’s how you survive in this corporate world.” - How I Met Your Mother 3x15

At times in the series, we witness Barney grow as a person, as he periodically lets himself be vulnerable and opens up to serious connections, metaphorically de-suiting if you will. In Robin, the dude-like “Cool Girl” who seems the perfect match to his classic bro personality, he thinks for a while that he’s met the exception who can actually make him change his ways. Yet sooner or later, he inevitably backtracks and closes up again behind his shallow “suit” identity.

Barney: “I know there was a time when it seemed like I was capable of going the distance, but, if it wasn’t going to happen with Robin, then it’s just not going to happen with anyone.” - How I Met Your Mother 9x24

Hanging Up the Suit

Despite the traumatic backstories that created both Barney Stinson’s and Don Draper’s trademark styles, the popularity of both their shows helped to usher in a resurgence of the suit as a symbol of masculine glamour. During the late 2000s and early 2010s, brands like J. Crew flourished by providing men with affordable, approachable suits, while Banana Republic even debuted a Mad Men-inspired menswear collection. Meanwhile, Barney became such an icon that the Oxford English Dictionary recognized him as “the quintessence of a certain iteration of the contemporary bro.”

However, as billionaire tech moguls like Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Elon Musk became the new icons of power, they also created a new image of success. These guys were so important, they didn’t need to dress like it. They could run the world in a T-shirt and hoodie—or even a bathrobe.

The suit can even now project the opposite of its previous connotations. As Vox pointed out in 2019, “The suit has become a uniform for the powerless,” increasingly worn by people at a disadvantage, like when they’re applying for a job or appearing in court. Even old-school firms like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, once emblematic of everything the suit stood for, have shifted to more casual dress codes. And as the COVID-19 pandemic set in, and more people began working from home, the clothing companies that rode the Mad Men wave have found themselves struggling to survive. Men, in short, are no longer suiting up.

By the time How I Met Your Mother ended in 2014, there were already a few other things about Barney that were beginning to seem a tad out of step with the times: his treatment of women, his elitism, his casual racism. Today his increasingly regressive-feeling misogynistic and materialistic attitudes hardly make him appear the role model that the majority of modern men want to ape, in their wardrobes or otherwise.

Barney: “I drink every day, I sleep three hours every night, and I have multiple sex partners. I’m doing everything right.” - How I Met Your Mother 6x18

Meanwhile, the ‘80s “greed is good” philosophy Barney’s suit evokes is at the root of much of today’s crippling wealth inequality. And as the world has fallen into cycles of global economic crisis, movies like The Big Short, The Wolf of Wall Street and Hustlers have placed blame squarely on the suits—those spawn of Gordon Gekko, who exist only to rig the game in their favor Jokes about a sharply dressed rogue doing whatever it takes to make a buck no longer play as loveable or charming. These days, suits are symbols of a generation of men whose selfishness and vanity have caused more harm than good.

Ramona: “CEOs, CFOs, investment bankers, corporate raiders, hedge funders, ax murderers. Coming straight from the crime scene into the club.” - Hustlers

The suit as an indicator of backward attitudes has even been taken to nasty extremes by a group of neo-fascists and white nationalists, who have “suited up” as a way of asserting “alpha male” dominance and adding a protective veneer of legitimacy to some truly abhorrent beliefs. Like all things fashion-related, the suit has gone in and out of style and probably will continue to do so in years to come.

In Don Draper’s ‘60s, it was caught in the middle of a culture war between old-school family values and edgy bohemian ideals—this symbol of hard work and success to some becoming the thumbprint of ‘The Man’ to others.

And despite all the ways American culture has morphed and mutated since then, the accusation made by the beatniks has essentially stuck: to be a suit today is widely seen as having given up on your sense of self to serve a broken system. It’s something you are if you haven’t bothered to preserve any integrity or soul that makes you more than a walking clothes hanger.

Barney: “Because that’s who corporate America wants: people who seem like bold risk-takers but who never actually do anything.” - How I Met Your Mother 4x14

For better or worse, Barney Stinson personifies “the suit” identity. He’s an appearance-obsessed man’s man who’s built his life around the material trappings of success and doesn’t see anything wrong with that.

Barney: “What do I have? My whole life’s some money in the bank, some suits in my closet, and a string of one-night stands… My life rocks! Money, suits, and sex. These are tears of joy!” - How I Met Your Mother 1x15

So ultimately, looking back on Barney Stinson today is a lot like looking at the suit itself. It’s undeniably stylish and appealing, but also outdated in many situations, often used to lend the appearance of sophistication to something awful and ultimately rooted in a set of values that are mostly best left in the past.