Is the suit losing its status?

Dress code angst has been a recurring theme on this blog because, over a decade after the introduction of dress-down Fridays, it is still causing problems.

Yesterday’s Evening Standard carried the story of Peter Bingle, chairman of Bell Pottinger, being banned from the Soho House private members club for repeatedly turning up in a suit and tie. Not so long ago, you couldn’t get into a posh club without a suit and tie but this club has turned the old rules on their head. Inverted snobbery perhaps?

Or maybe not. Fashions and dress codes are all about signalling. (H/T Chris Dillow.) We dress in a certain way to send out signals to peer groups, prospective employers, clients and potential sexual partners. Much of the time we don’t think about it because the social conditioning that causes us to dress that way is so deeply ingrained. We only notice when we are in an unfamiliar social group or when the rules change.

And, from time to time, they do change. The suntan is a good example of how signalling can shift over time. Until the early to mid twentieth century, a suntan signified poverty and low status. The only people who had tanned skin were agricultural labourers who spent all their time outside. The absence of a tan was a signal that you were either so rich you didn’t need to work, or that you had a cushy job in an office. People would go to great lengths to avoid getting the sun-browned skin which might undermine their social status, hence the Victorian woman’s big hats and dresses with long sleeves.

Then, sometime after the Second World War, suntans became fashionable. They signified that you went on the sort of expensive holidays to hot countries which were still out of reach for most people. Having a tan in winter showed that you could afford to visit such places often and for long periods. When sun holidays became cheaper and tanning salons emerged, the all-year tan became more accessible to more people and so its value as a social signal was weakened. Health scares shifted attitudes again and the allure of the suntan faded. (Sorry, couldn’t resist that one.)

Could something similar be happening to the suit? For as long as most of us can remember, the suit has been associated with wealth and power. Apart from a few rare exceptions, such as rock stars and footballers, those who made serious money wore suits to work. Until relatively recently, anyone who didn’t wear a suit at work was unlikely to be wealthy.

That has changed rapidly over recent years. It is true that investment bankers and partners in accountancy, law and consultancy firms still wear suits but, often, if they are not meeting clients they dress down. If they are going to visit firms in the technology or creative sectors they dress down to match their clients. I’ve told the story before of my colleague who had to go back to his hotel room to change uniform when he visited two different clients on the same day. In some sectors, people in high status jobs no longer wear suits at all.  The dress down codes in these companies are often just as strictly enforced as the dress up codes in others.

Furthermore, many of those making really big money have stopped wearing suits altogether.

Habitually tieless and dressed-down casual, they sit at computer screens and construct complicated trading strategies. Many of them stay at their desks without pause or interruption from 7am to 9pm on weekdays and maintain electronic contact with markets at all other times. They are not to be pitied. Some of them are worth hundreds of millions of pounds.

The dress down clothes are, of course, as expensive as the suits they used to wear in the City. ‘Power casual’ is the dress code. No, really

Not wearing a suit sends out signals about a certain kind of power:

Ms. Garkusha sums up the hedge-fund dress code for men as the attitude that “we can dress like this because we make a lot of money.”

Suits are for people who have to impress clients or, worse, meet the general public. Power casual is for people who can do what they like:

The investment banker talks your ear off, charms you with his minor gifts. And for what? To give advice. There’s a hedge-fund put-down. “We get to pull the trigger,” says one manager. Just for the pleasure of illustrating the point, one hedge-fund guy sitting at a café in a burgundy golf shirt—he has no clients and thus no dress code—grabs his cell phone off the table. “Give me $100 million of . . . ,” he says, and names the company.

It is now possible to make lots of money in organisations which don’t require you to wear a suit. A suit could even be regarded as a signal of a lack of control. If you have to turn up to a bar or club after work in a suit, does it mean that you have the sort of job where other people are calling the shots? Those who run their own shows, or whose clients are so in awe of their expertise that they don’t care how they look, get to wear what they like.

Of course, this isn’t altogether true. There are still powerful people making lots of money who choose to wear suits. Many have just as much autonomy in their roles as the creatives, hedge-fund managers and technology whizz-kids who dress down. 

But things are changing. The signals that a well cut suit sends out are now being received differently in some quarters. Where once, the suit guaranteed status and authority, it is now seen by some as a symbol of stuffiness and, worse, a lack of power and autonomy.

Maybe this is just a blip and the suit will re-assert itself. After all, its demise has been predicted before. But new industries and new jobs create new rules. In some areas, people’s understanding of ‘power dressing’ is shifting. A suit, even a bespoke one, is not the guarantor of authority and status that it once was.

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23 Responses to Is the suit losing its status?

  1. Doug Shaw says:

    I miss Joe Strummer. This is from Garageland, 1977:

    “Meanwhile things are hotting up in the West End alright
    Contracts in the offices, groups in the night
    My bummin’ slummin’ friends have all got new boots
    An’ someone just asked me if the group would wear suits”

    Thank f*ck he said no to that one!

    I’m no fan of dress codes and I’m no fan of grunge either. I do take a little time to decide what to wear, and I keep myself clean, and these are my decisions. Just for you I’ve decided to wear a short this evening (and trousers too of course – jeans…black drainpipe)

  2. Yes absolutely. I wear a suit when I’m in front of clients and prospects. if I think i know them really well, I may go without a tie but anything more casual than that is out of the question. I think we are getting to the stage where we actually have a special costume that we wear when meeting clients,and going to weddings and funerals that bears little relation to how we would dress in any normal circumstances. A bit weird when you think about it

    Of course the issue you describe is essentially a male one. Women already have a much more flexible idea of what counts as formal business wear – but let’s not go too far into that.

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  4. It’s even more complicated being a female – business or smart casual – then suit with skirt or trousers, dress with jacket etc etc. Should I wear something that looks expensive? Will my clients think their paying for my wardrobe if I do? It’s bit like asking for toast in the States – there are so many options to consider. For me it’s about appropriateness. I have clients in a number of different organisations in a number of sectors and I try to dress to look professional but aligned with what they may wear. I don’t want to look overpowering (as being quite tall height can do that alone) so my favourite Max Mara suit from Italy which looks very professional in the City, and makes me feel very, very smart, stays in the wardrobe when visiting my client in the charity sector in the South West as they just don’t wear that sort of stuff to meetings.
    Today I’m working on a client proposal so I’m in jeans, but as Doug mentions, they’re clean, ironed and worn with an ironed shirt. Grunge is a no no when I’m out anywhere – you never know who you may run into when getting a sandwich.

  5. Laurie A says:

    The suit is increasingly rare, even in the staid world of legal practice.

    I usually only wear a suit when seeing clients, presenting or in court. The clients that I wear a suit to meet are hardly ever wearing suits themselves.

    We relaxed the dress code at the firm I work for years ago. People are free to wear a suit or not, but denim remains off-limits and collared shirts are required for men. One striking point is that given the freedom to wear a suit or not, hardly anyone actually chooses to wear a suit.

  6. Sarah Durbs says:

    As Sarah said, it’s definately more complicated for us girls. Also understand that a suit would be a no-no for her client in the charity sector. I started working for a charity three months ago. I wore smart trousers and a shirt to the interviews, and during my first week. Second week I wore a fitted, black dress with heels one day; this happened to be the day of my office tour. I have never felt so uncomfortable and out of place. I stuck out like a sore thumb! It worried me what impression I was giving, being dressed formally (in comparison) might make me seem unapproachable? Did it scream ex-private sector worker (probably!)?
    Since then I have started to build up what I would say is a more suitable “charity sector work warbrobe”. It borders on casual, includes harem pants (but defiantely not jeans) and there are a few items specifically for when I have external meetings.
    Again, as Sarah said, it really is about what’s appropriate – and, what will make you feel comfortable in any given situation. Our CEO quite often wears a suit but generally on days when he has meetings or engagements to attend. Not sure jeans and a bomber jacket would go down too well at Clarence House!

    If I can make it tonight, I’ll be wearing one of my “charity sector work but also suitable for drinks with friends” wardrobe.

  7. Julia Tybura says:

    I agree with the 2 Sarahs. I never, ever wear a suit but if I feel I need to dress with real business impact, it will be a Hobbs dress and jacket with heels – and with colour. I used to wear the usual black trousers, coloured top and black jacket. Never again! This season, I am mostly wearing… navy and cream with orange, or black dress with green jacket. I too have corporate and charity clients and think very carefully about my impression management. The same goes for cars too… .but that’s a whole different thread 🙂

  8. DugDug says:

    Power casual? These people send similar messages of restriction and constraint as suit wearers. Dressing in ostentatiously priced clothes sends a message that you care too much about other people’s perceptions of you, that you are seeking peer approval in order to fit in. These people are as much a prisoner of imposed dress-code as suit wearers, but their restraints are self-imposed and they fool themselves into thinking they are free and liberated.

    Show me a millionaire that doesn’t care if his jumper costs £10 or £1000 and I will show you someone who is truly free of the judgements and constraints of society.

    @Doug Shaw – “I’m no fan of grunge either”
    Grunge was born out of mainstream acceptance of the dress of people who just stopped giving a f*ck about fashion and dress. Watching people like this react to grunge becoming fashionable was brilliant. The liberated becoming the fashionably constrained (or at least perceived as being such).

  9. Dom Weinberg says:

    One other thing about stuffy dress codes is that they make cycling (or running) to meetings difficult, when actually we should be encouraging people to do this. The sooner it becomes acceptable to turn up at meetings in a t-shirt and shorts (and to be judged on what you say and do and not how you look) the better.

  10. There is a common theme here: the public uniform. people wear suits for their public appearance but are dressed more relaxed when with their colleagues. Your plumber can be in t-shirt and jeans, but the surgeon who will work on your “plumbing” is expected to wear a shirt and tie (at least for the consultation when you are concious).

    However, there is an issue that has not been raised. If not a suit, then what? Smart casual is difficult to define, and an unbuttoned suit shirt without a tie is, well, untidy. I am no fashion expert of course, but it doesn’t seem that fashion has come up with an alternative yet.

    A side note: anyone remember when BBC’s This Week started? It was clear that the producers had decided on a no tie rule and for several weeks Andrew Neil and Michael Portillo were visibly uncomfortable in suit shirts with no ties. Bizarre that the lack of a strip of cloth could have such an effect on people.

  11. Charles Cotton says:

    I recall a programme that I saw on Harris Tweed. The prediction was that due to concerns about climate change and fuel costs we would start wearing this fabric more as we turned down our heating. Another suggestion was that beacuse tweed was more sustainable and as cheap clothes became a thing of the past we would start to buy more expensive but resilient clothes that could be more easily repaired. So, if that’s correct, then we should start to see more tweed at work.

    I also recall reading an article that said that during a recession people smartened themselves up and tried to look more businesslike in an attempt to avoid a job cull. I’m not sure if there has been a boom in shirt, tie and suit sales as a consequence of this.

  12. MarkTarran says:

    The idea that a suit and tie could be a symbol not of power but of oppression and subservience reminded me of the story in this recent Guardian article.

  13. Since you commented on mine I thought I would comment on yours! Its interesting what you say because only the other was I talking about this with my mum, as I am going into sixth form next year I have to buy suits to wear to school whereas she was allowed to wear whatever she liked! And then we watched a programme all about the perfect suit, I’m really excited about wearing suits because it makes me feel all grown up and professional!

  14. David Goddin says:

    It’s all about tribalism and status isn’t it?

    Perhaps with generations going through less uniformed environments (eg school, army, office) in their formative careers the comfort of the suit is less. Even so, some will still keep it as a symbolic code or company uniform.

    What I find fascinating is the attitude wearing smart/casual/grunge clothes can have…. another blog perhaps!

  15. I think that in the business environment, especially in sales, you need to dress accordingly, depending on the industry you’re in, who you are meeting and what industry they work in. For example, Firebrand Talent Search are in the business of digital recruitment. Our digital Talent Agents generally will wear smart casual (jeans usually) if they’re going to visit a digital client who no doubt would wear “power casual” and wouldn’t respect a person who turned up in a suit which would be better suited to law or financial services. However if that digital Talent Agent were to visit a client in financial services, they’d, out of respect and rapport, dress accordingly – far smarter/more formal.

  16. irenicon says:

    I once had to go out and buy jeans for a client who had no ‘unform’. Every group has a unform, but sometimes figuring out what it is can be tricky. Dress codes can be a way of seeking to impose uniformity on a group, but it can degenerate into discrimination at work. I blogged about this

    My wardrobe is wide ranging and getting dressed to see clients is like being an actor considering which character will be wearing what today. I have everything from ‘social worker’ outfits for my West Country clients, to smart fashionista things for my uptown women clients in the city with variations in the middle. It is all about rapport and making the client feel comfortable without losing who and what I am in the process.

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