As modern workplaces become increasingly casual, why do people still choose to wear a suit?
It is a question rolling around in the heads of many a person. Men are no longer required to wear a suit (or even a blazer and slacks) for many office jobs now, so how come the notion of the suit and tailored clothing has stuck around? Why is it that bespoke tailoring is in fashion and the ‘dapper gentleman’ movement seems to be constantly growing? To find out, we can explore how attitudes toward suits have evolved over several generations and what those attitudes are today.
The Suit in Previous Generations
From Dawn to the 1950s
Ever since its inception as the uniform of business, men were essentially forced to don a suit as part of working a white collar job of any sort. It was not a choice of whether you would like to wear one, but an unwritten requirement of working in business. As a result, attitudes toward suits were that it was the opposite to a form of individual expression; rather a form of oppression. The suit was forced upon most working men, and as a result most men in lower and middle level jobs just went out and bought whatever fit the bill. For many, there was no deep interest behind it; it was a utilitarian purchase.
1960s: Attitudes Begin to Change
As the counterculture movement of the 1960s gained popularity and its ideas steadily latched on in mainstream thought over many years, negative attitudes towards the suit were increasingly voiced. Young people started referring to what we today call ‘corporate drones’ simply as a ‘suit’. This implied that wearing a suit represented someone selling out their individuality to the corporate space; the suit – in many minds – went from being a uniform into being an object of soul-sucking venom. The youth of the baby boomer generation grew older, and many went on to obtain senior roles in all walks of life. The negative image of a suit stayed in their minds, and in the youth of the following decades.
Fast forward to today…
Becoming a Casual Society
This social influence on attitudes toward suits naturally made people less and less willing to force others to wear a suit to work as the years passed, which has culminated in the office dress of today; many in the tech industry revelling in wearing a hoodie and shorts every day, the Casual Friday trend, and the standard work uniform going – for the most part – from a suit as the norm to perhaps a button-down shirt and slacks (or chinos if your office is more casual). Some industries still require wearing suits, such as law and banking. However, even the banking industry’s attitude toward the traditional work uniform is changing with major US bank JP Morgan saying goodbye to the tie and hello business casual.
In spite of this, we still see men of all ages choosing to wear a suit, and the idea of being a well dressed man is becoming hot on the minds of many young men. In a society that for the most part does not require men to wear a suit any longer, why is it that men are turning back to suits? Tailoring is even becoming a popular theme in the male fashion industry once again.
Not Because I Have To, Because I Want To!
Now that it is not a strict requirement, the negative associations surrounding suits are dissipating in many younger minds. The widespread appeal of masculine characters in suits within current pop culture (think Don Draper in Mad Men, the Shelby brothers in Peaky Blinders, Harvey Specter in Suits, the eternal James Bond 007 and so on) is likely to be a contributing factor to why the suit has begun to gain popularity again too. Another possible reason for the resurgence of interest in suiting is that choice is attractive; to quote a friend of mine “because people do not ‘need’ multiple suits for work, they can choose instead to invest in the suits that they want to wear”.
Then comes one of the greatest appeals of suits and tailored clothing; it is one of the most flattering forms of dress. A well fitted suit or sport jacket enhances the V-shaped appearance of the masculine torso, and can somewhat even out a portly man’s torso too. It is a sharp look that garners attention. Just ask a lady friend!
The ability to wear tailoring or a suit because you want to rather than because you have to means that rather than being a burden of oppression, the suit can then become a playground for self-expression. Want to put on a look that says ‘I am reserved, but a bit playful’? You can put on a classic mid grey suit, but dress it up with an elegant shirt and a flashy pocket square. Want to show off your rakish personality? You can put on a three piece suit made from dark burgundy cloth with a light blue windowpane pattern, a crisp shirt, a flower in your boutonniere and the energy to rock it. Want to be just about anything? You can probably express it through your suit. It is a great way to express your identity.
In Conclusion: The Pendulum Swings
What started as a stuffy uniform has become a sandbox for expression. It would be quite interesting if suiting gained so much popularity that everyone started doing it, and it became a must-wear uniform for white collar work once more. As all things go through cycles, we may yet see this happen. However, we are blessed to be in a generation where we can enjoy all the benefits of suiting up just because we want to!