The word suit has a number of meanings. It can refer to a suit of clothing, one of the four suits of playing cards, a petition or appeal, or the pursuit of something. Sometimes a person is described as “a suit,” or more properly an empty suit. This holds a completely different meaning than most other definitions of suit, and has only a slight acquaintance with “suit of clothing.”
An empty suit tends to refer to a non-important person — perhaps someone puffed up with his own importance but really having little effect on the lives of others. It is often used as an insult to disparage others who really don’t deserve the title. The true empty suit, which conjures up the image of a business suit of clothing without a person, really doesn’t know what he or she is doing. He or she is ineffectual, perhaps a phony, and is about as relevant or helpful as a suit hanging on a rack.
To call someone an empty suit implies that you think they are a complete waste of time. Editorials on politicians love to use the term empty suit to describe people seeking presidential office. This or that politician is just “an empty suit,” to quote the words of numerous political critics, and is thus undeserving of our attention.
Some politicians do deserve the title. A senator with a very poor voting record, or failure to attend senate sessions could clearly be called an empty suit because he is not really performing the job for which he was elected. On the other hand, some politicians may advertise themselves as “not just an empty suit” in order to distinguish themselves from their implied empty suit peers.
Tracing the word origin of empty suit is a difficult one. There is some suggestion in Greek mythology, credited to the Classical Greek playwright Euripides, that Helen, married to Menelaus and stolen by Paris, was actually sequestered on an island by Apollo. Paris actually stole an empty image or empty tunic of Helen, rather than the real woman. Thus the idea of someone being phony, fake or not really there, and just an empty suit or tunic may be a concept in use for over 2000 years.
From the late 1960s onward “suits” also referred to people living a conformist lifestyle, as opposed to the hippie lifestyle. Suits were people living in the mainstream who lived and died by the principles of capitalism rather than the semi-Marxist attitudes adopted by hippies. In this usage, a “suit” was considered a derogatory term by a hippie and associated with “the establishment.”
In films, one also sees members of the FBI referred to as “the suits,” by members of local police departments. Arrival of the suits is often depicted as resented because it usually means that local police involvement is either ended or directed by the FBI. There are numerous film examples of the word suit to mean FBI, but cooperative efforts to solve real crimes by local police forces and FBI members suggest local police often welcome FBI presence in investigation, and do not view suited members of the FBI as empty suits.