The new workwear: has the suit finally died?
Hardly anyone wears a suit to work now. How did we all get so scruffy? And what about all those lovely ties? Richard Godwin charts the demise of looking smart
Sun 20 Oct 2019 08.00 BST
One afternoon about a decade ago, I was standing at a pub urinal not far from my old newspaper office when the man standing next to me opened up a conversation.
“A tie, huh?” (He was American.) “Never take a job where they make you wear a tie.”
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He was in his mid-30s, wearing expensive-looking trainers, jeans and a sweatshirt. I was in my mid-20s, wearing my standard workwear: some nicely cut trousers, a decent white shirt, probably some black Chelsea boots and, yes, a tie that I would have taken some care selecting.
I tried to explain that I liked my job. And I wasn’t forced to wear a tie, I chose to wear a tie. I liked ties! I liked how the French actor Romain Duris paired his tie with a high-collared leather jacket in the movie The Beat That My Heart Skipped. I liked how those old Italian dudes wore their ties on the Sartorialist blog. I liked how I never used to wear a tie and now I did and that meant I was a grown-up. I liked how people sometimes went: “Ooh, looking sharp,” and they definitely hadn’t said that a few years before, when I thought a Sparta Prague football shirt was the way to communicate how cosmopolitan and discerning I was.
I even liked buying ties. So easy – one size fits all – and potentially bargainous. I had a fancy peacock silk one that my then-girlfriend-now-wife had bought me from Liberty, but also a weirdly chic green blobby-stripy one we found in an old flea market in Florence for about €2. But hang on – why am I justifying myself to a random toilet person? Who starts a conversation in a urinal?
The kind of man who never wore a tie, clearly. The kind of man who refused to see the tie as anything other than a corporate noose around my neck. The kind of man whose workwear vision would ultimately prevail.
For the American Neckwear Toilet Evangelist clearly had a better grasp of the future than I did. To wear a tie in 2019 is only marginally less eccentric than turning up to work dressed in chainmail. Formalwear, in general, is increasingly the preserve of dandies and defendants.
According to market analysts Kantar, sales of suits are down 7% year-on-year, ties are down 6% and blazers down 10%. Marks & Spencer is cutting back on its formalwear; Moss Bros, the suit specialist, has issued three recent profit warnings. Earlier this year, Goldman Sachs – whose bankers were once renowned for their Armani suits and Gucci loafers – announced a move to a “flexible dress code”. A company-wide memo cited the “changing nature of workplaces generally in favour of a more casual environment”. Other financial firms have since followed suit as the banks seek to emulate the “whatever” dress codes of the tech companies.
The suit in turn has become “a uniform for the power- less”, according to the American site Vox – only worn by people impelled to do so. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg wears a suit when he testifies before Congress. When he is in control, he wears the Silicon Valley uniform of T-shirts and jeans – and don’t think that isn’t its own form of power-dressing, a way of saying: “I’m not going to play by your rules.” Boris Johnson’s calculatedly dishevelled appearance is another way of communicating that, too. However, it’s his special adviser, Dominic Cummings, whose dress is emblematic of the age, somehow – a contemptuous mish-mash of athleisure, dadwear and public school signifiers: the grey Levi’s hoodie with workshirt poking out; the hurriedly grabbed tote bag; the quilted gilet. This mess is what the people voted for, he seems to be saying. Deal with it.
I am now in my mid-30s and I don’t work in a London newspaper office any more. I am freelance and I do a lot of my writing in a co-working space in Bristol where I moved a couple of years ago, amid nut-butter influencers and CBD start-ups and 20-something digital marketing types who say things like: “Yeah, a third of my capital is in crypto.” It’s kind of fun. But I have never even attempted to wear a tie there. Bristol isn’t really a tie sort of city. Not having been called to testify before Congress recently (what have I been doing with my life?), I haven’t worn a suit for a while either. The grown-up accoutrements I collected in London – the vintage mother-of-pearl cuff links, the Brooks Brothers shirts, the Paul Smith socks – I sort of left behind. If you want to know the truth of it, I’m writing this in slightly mildewy jogging bottoms and luminous orange Adidas running shoes. And it doesn’t necessarily feel like a liberation.
Clearly, I am not the only person readjusting to the new workwear rules. Dan Rookwood, formerly US editor of the menswear site Mr Porter, was once rarely seen without at least eight items of exquisite tailoring. He has recently taken a job as creative director at Nike, moved from New York to Portland, and adjusted his attire accordingly. “I now have the best wardrobe I’ve ever had – a proper walk-in wardrobe, where I can see all my clothes,” he says. “But what it shows me is that I can’t wear the vast majority of it any more. It’s all made-to-measure suits and shirts and ties and bench-made shoes that I just can’t see myself wearing outside the occasional wedding as the winds of style have changed. It’s like a museum.”
Clean cut: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men.
Clean cut: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in Mad Men. Photograph: PictureLux/The Hollywood Archive/Alamy Stock Photo
Rookwood notes that the shift away from formal is industry-wide. “Men’s fashion changes more slowly than women’s fashion. But if you look at what men were wearing in 2014 compared to 2019, it is markedly different. This is a big change. We’re just not as buttoned up as we were.” The emphasis has moved from fine tailoring to luxury streetwear; from Milan and London to New York and Los Angeles; from Don Draper on the front of GQ to Kanye West on the sneaker site Highsnobiety. Louis Vuitton last year appointed West’s old associate Virgil Abloh as the artistic director of its menswear collection. Abloh made his name with the Chicago sneaker brand Off-White, where his stated mission was to add an “intellectual layer” to streetwear. While in the past, a woven silk tie from Brioni sent a subtle cue about status, now it’s more likely to be limited-edition Yeezys. There is a whole new set of rules to fall foul of – as the billion-heir Kendall Roy discovers in the HBO TV series Succession when he fails to impress some prospective clients by wearing a pair of Lanvin calfskin sneakers to a meeting.
Rookwood feels that suits and all that will come around again – “everything comes back, eventually, in fashion” – but I’m not so sure. There’s a feeling of permanence in this shift, a once-and-for-all changing of the guard. You might cherish an idea of a father taking his son out to buy his first suit. Now a father is more likely to ask his son where to get a limited-edition Supreme hoodie. In any case, today’s 40- and 50-somethings grew up in a world of hip-hop and punk and trainers and tees. It’s what they know.
Besides, when I survey a few not-particularly-fashion-y friends, they seem OK with the new relaxed dress codes. No, hardly anyone wears a suit to work any more. And no, hardly anyone mourns this loss. It’s just easier, freer and more comfortable to wear, say, a checked shirt and chinos. And if you happen to spill mayonnaise on your Urban Outfitted crotch while snarfing an al-desko sandwich, there’s usually no need to visit a dry-cleaner either. Economy comes into play. One friend notes that if you spend £100 on a suit, you will end up with a rubbish suit, but if you spend £100 on trousers and a shirt, you can look sharp and distinctive. He does keep a suit in the office, just in case he needs to go and meet that sort of client. But it’s become the sartorial equivalent of a fax machine; a faintly arcane piece of equipment reserved for specific uses.
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The way we wore: Dan Rookwood, US Editor for Mr Porter in January 2015. Now he says his wardrobe is ‘like a museum’.
The way we wore: Dan Rookwood, US Editor for Mr Porter in January 2015. Now he says his wardrobe is ‘like a museum’. Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock
It wasn’t supposed to be like this, notes the American style writer David Coggins. “If you look at the men who wear formalwear well, they always look incredibly relaxed and ultimately comfortable. That’s what style is: it’s having a sense of ease with yourself in any situation.”
The idea of tailoring wasn’t about following trends – massive collars one season, tiny ones the next, etc – it was to find something that worked for your shape, your build, your outlook. It was a process that required a certain self-knowledge. I suppose there’s no reason why luxury streetwear shouldn’t provide the same journey. I mean, when Frank Ocean sings about Nikes, it sounds like a meaningful relationship. But one thing that troubles me about this new power-dressing is the emphasis on branding, labels, items that cost hundreds of pounds not because an apprenticed tailor has spent a long time crafting it, but simply because that’s what the market says this thing is worth. Enforced sneakerdom is its own tyranny.
Coggins suggests we have come to place too high a value on comfort as a society. “It used to be accepted that you would go through stages of slight discomfort to have an education. So you would read difficult books, or you’d sit through some operas, and maybe the first time you didn’t like it, but you would learn to like it – or at least appreciate what it is at stake. Now there’s this thought that comfort is everything. People dress as if they’re at home all the time, and they act like they’re at home when they’re in public. It’s why people lie down on the floor in airports and Facetime in restaurants and put their feet up on train seats.”
There’s another aspect of this that troubles me. One of the pleasures of wearing a suit to work, for me, was shedding it when I got home. Now there is less distinction between work and home, on and off, public and private. I might be answering a work email at 10.37pm, I might be having a nap at 3.07pm, I might be tapping away in a café a 11.45am on a Sunday while families brunch around me.
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Some freelancers I consult cherish the freedom of working in their pyjamas – “If you can’t motivate yourself without a literal suit on, maybe freelancing is not for your temperament,” says one. Another notes the environmental cost of maintaining a full office wardrobe with a different outfit each day. But others warn against the entropic lure of Uniqlo stretch jogging bottoms.
Freelancers warn against the entropic lure of Uniqlo stretch jogging bottoms
Personally, I’m usually in some smart-casual-compromise outfit that is neither truly smart nor truly casual. Maybe some overly formal trousers and some underly white Stan Smiths. Maybe a canvas tote bag with my laptop in it, or a shirt that could use an iron – but am I going to iron a shirt for the school run?
I am more often than not in trainers. I find brogues or loafers make a huge clomping noise on the laminate floor of my co-working space. And when I come up to London, I’m often, literally, running between meetings. I can’t help thinking that the move towards trainers as acceptable workwear has a lot to do with the fact that work is now so much a question of inputs and outputs; life is just hectic; we’re expected to “perform” like athletes. But the trainer is also the footwear of the retired, the overleisured, the underemployed.
In Nikolai Goncharov’s 1859 novel Oblomov, the dressing gown worn by the title character – khalat in Russian – becomes a symbol of the turpitude of the archetypal 19th-century “superfluous man”. There is even a word in Russian – khalatnost, “dressing-gown-ness” – to describe the condition. I wonder what the 21st-century equivalent would be. Sneakerness? Jerseyness? Dressing-down-ness?
I say I never wear a suit and tie any more. The one exception was a recent 20-year university reunion which required all of the men to dress in “lounge suits”. Everyone remarked on how they never wore suits and ties these days. Everyone spent the evening complimenting one another. And everyone, I sensed, enjoyed looking their unashamed best. What if you never had the chance to look your best again? What kind of future would that be?