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How Long Does the Suit Have Left?

Wear your magic money costume while you can, because its power is fading fast

Nothing pairs with a well-tailored suit quite so snugly as a classic old-school superiority complex. “Put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem,” demanded former British Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of the opposing Labour Party, during a parliamentary debate in 2016 (shortly before needlessly plunging the entire country into the Brexit debacle). Around the same time, back when he was technically still a socialist and just before he launched his campaign to be President of France, Emmanuel Macron was heard taunting a protestor, who had mocked his expensive taste in clothes, with the jibe: “The best way to afford a suit is to work.”

Quelle burn.

Targeting a rival’s tailoring is always the cheapest of shots, especially when it’s coming from a position of power. Satirists have long understood the relation between suit and snoot, and a fixation with flannel has traditionally been a sign of inadequacy — from Job’s escalating cries for help from “the guy in a $3,000 suit” in Arrested Development all the way back to the 1880s’ The Diary of a Nobody, in which the narrator is constantly horrified by witnessing fashion improprieties such as “a check suit on a Sunday.”

It’s also been held up as a sign of arrogance (see Gordon Gekko in Wall Street or Don Draper in Mad Men), or of a basic lack of humanity. Here’s American Psycho Patrick Bateman preening over his archetypal 1980s New York investment-banker look: “I’m wearing a tick-weave wool suit with a windowpane overplaid, a cotton shirt by Luciano Barbera, a tie by Luciano Barbera, shoes from Cole Haan and nonprescription glasses by Bausch & Lomb.” He tells us this in the 1991 novel by Brett Easton Ellis, just before he pops into the bathroom at a restaurant to attempt to strangle to death a man he doesn’t like — who, he notes, is wearing “an unidentifiable suit from some French tailor” (who knows, maybe Ellis had in mind Jonas et Cie, where Macron gets his made).

But in recent years, it seems that suits have been losing their swagger, both in real-life boardrooms and in the cultural imagination. In February 2018, a survey of 2,000 workers in the U.K. found that only one in ten wore a suit to work, while 43 percent of respondents said they felt business suits no longer had a place in modern offices. There have been hints that even in the banking community, despite years of faithful service in projecting money, power and firm handshakes, the revered three-piece is falling from grace. In the summer of 2016, J.P. Morgan revised its dress code via an internal memo, which recommended “business casual” as the proper attire for its investment-bank employees when they weren’t meeting clients; grey pinstripe cladding was out and polo shirts and casual pants were in. Almost simultaneously, the business consultancy giant PricewaterhouseCoopers was officially ditching mandatory suit-wearing for its 6,000 employees in Australia, citing the need to attract “the same creative, innovative and diverse people that all the other companies are chasing.”

If the management consultants and the bankers really are betraying the suit — just like they betrayed everyone else — then surely that spells the end in all walks of life for matching monochrome as the model of male success.

Death of a Thousand Cuts

“A lot has been written about the demise of the suit,” says Eliot Haworth, assistant editor at the Amsterdam-based fashion magazine Fantastic Man, who has recently been covering sartorial formality for the book What Men Wear and Why. Since around 2010, he says, cultural commentators have been proclaiming “it no longer has a place within society or the modern male wardrobe, because it served a particular function — formal, working garments — and now people just don’t wear them any more.” Symptoms have been visible, many suggest, since the early 1990s with the rise of hedonistic men’s magazines in the U.S. and U.K. such as Maxim, and “the slight relaxing of culture in general.” If not explicitly spelling the end, says Haworth, “that’s usually pinpointed as… the beginning of the downturn in the suit being ever-present, particularly in a working man’s wardrobe.”

In the digital age, this gradual decline has become a terminal prognosis. The finger of blame for global suit-icide is most often pointed at famously dressed-down tech icons such as Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, whose attachment to drab T-shirts, jeans and sweats has shaped Silicon Valley’s informal look. And there’s no doubt that this has had a disruptive influence on the fashionable aspirations of the rest the business world. In this slightly weird segment from BBC World News, Daniel Johnson, personal men’s stylist to the super-rich, lays out a hoodie-dinner-jacket hybrid which he says the CEO of “a very big bank” had ordered bespoke, to pair with white sneakers, so he could feel less out of place in meetings with “the bearded, young, trendy people,” who work for financial tech companies. The resulting combination is a mid-life crisis in cotton:

Yet, for all the flapping over Zuckerberg’s fastidious informality, Bill Gates’ lifelong suit-friendliness casts an alternative colossal silhouette over the tech industry — one that rarely gets a mention. Having spent a couple of days in Google’s head offices in London a while back, I can report that, while there were jeans and T-shirts aplenty, and probably more necks enclosed by dangling headphones than collars, a conventional sharp besuitedness was by no means absent from the meeting rooms, especially among male staff at the senior levels.

When legendary British menswear designer Paul Smith was confronted at a fashion convention in Florence, Italy in 2017, by a GQ reporter asking him whether the suit was dead, Smith retorted: “That’s bollocks… That’s just people needing to say things. There will always be, in your lifetime, people that feel suits do a job.” He went on: “Imagine coming over on a jumbo jet to Europe, and the captain met you at the door and he was dressed in Gap. You’d think, is this dude gonna be able to fly me? Do you believe him? If he’s in a suit, you believe him.”

So might it all just be casual talk? “Yeah, I think so,” says Haworth. “People like to create a narrative around these things. It makes a lot of sense as a theory: The fact that yes, you look at offices, and in terms of what’s considered power dressing, in many places it’s not a suit at all any more. But I don’t think that means that the suit is doomed, destined to become extinct.”

In fact, on the catwalks and among the showcase collections of the luxury fashion houses, Haworth detects something of a revival for the beleaguered button-down. “The last two, three seasons in men’s fashion have been incredibly tailoring-heavy,” he says, citing shows from Céline, Dior, Louis Vuitton, Prada and Balenciaga as notable examples. “It’s just something that seems to be becoming more of a preoccupation of designers,” he says. “Kim Jones at Dior seems to be exploring tailoring a lot more,” while Virgil Abloh, who took over as artistic director at Louis Vuitton in March 2018, “has actually put out a lot of suits in his shows, when many people were expecting him to basically just do what he does for Off-White and bring out a load of sweaters and tracksuits.”

This could be high fashion staging a last, desperate rearguard action on behalf of a much-loved icon, or it might just be, as Haworth suggests, “a backlash against the rise of streetwear and luxury logo-heavy clothing.” Either way, it’s an indication of the new cultural niche toward which the suit is headed. For Haworth, what’s emerging is “a different type of suit… which makes me want to suddenly wear one. Because I never wear suits,” he insists. “I’ve never had a job that has required a suit; I don’t think I really know how to tie a tie. I’m very averse to looking too formal.” But now, detached from their proud heritage of executive one-upmanship and dick-swinging, “They suddenly don’t feel like they are weighed down by all these connotations… I’m seeing these suits and thinking of them as something a bit more relevant to me.”

L.A.-based fashion historian Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell — whose book Worn on This Day: The Clothes That Made History is due out later this year — agrees that reports of the suit’s death, to misquote one of its most iconic wearers, have been greatly exaggerated. “The three-piece suit has had a long run and I don’t think it’s over yet.” But she also thinks there’s been a recent shift in how people perceive the look, away from the functional and toward the fashionable: “Suits are now associated with young, creative, beautiful people rather than middle-aged corporate drones. But the days of anyone wearing suits on a daily basis may be numbered.”

Chrisman-Campbell, too, blames the creeping casualization of corporate culture for this, alongside other threats that have been pulling at its threads. “The gig economy and telecommuting make dress codes irrelevant,” she explains. “You could also cite external factors like the ubiquity of central heating; it’s no longer necessary or desirable to wear several layers of clothing indoors.”

Sizing Each Other Up: Suit Psychology

From a historical perspective, then, the era of the suit as the uniform of commerce might indeed be coming to an end. But will it live on as a status symbol nevertheless? The suit’s evolution as the apparel nonpareil of male social status suggests that it might.

It all goes way back to European courtly fashions of the 17th century and two of history’s greatest dandies. It was the French King Louis XIV — the one that built the ridiculously ostentatious palace at Versailles — who first promoted a knee-length, fitted coat he called the justaucorps, a garment incorporating a skirt that fanned out around the wearer’s thighs like a pleated lampshade. Over in England, this was adopted and adapted, according to Chrisman-Campbell, by fellow blue-blooded longhair King Charles II — a fashion-conscious somber dresser (despite his flamboyant playboy reputation) whose tastes set the tone for the upper classes during the Restoration era. Chuck refined the long coat, paired it with a matching long-sleeved vest and breeches and introduced the three-piece suit to England in 1666.  

The look was an instant classic, says Chrisman-Campbell, and “quickly spread throughout Europe. From the beginning, it was worn over a shirt, the collar held closed by a cravat. The vest lost its sleeves in the early 18th century.” Toward the end of that century, the French Revolution marked the end of knee-length breeches as a fashion item; “they were associated with evil aristocrats, while honest working men wore trousers. Thereafter, the suit was worn with long trousers, except in very formal settings or by liveried servants.”

What’s interesting is that, almost from the beginning of the modern three-piece as a wardrobe staple of the professional classes, its imminent end was being foretold. Chrisman-Campbell illustrates this with a plaintive quote from London’s venerable Tailor & Cutter magazine in 1878, in a real-life echo of The Diary of a Nobody: “We are rapidly degenerating into a slipshod state of things. After a time Frock coats and even Morning coats will be entirely a thing of the past and if things continue on in this way will only be seen at museums where they will serve to amuse a wondering and awestricken group of sight-seers.”

Instead, while the suit cycled through endless styles and cuts — “Victorian men wore flamboyant waistcoats,” says Chrisman-Campbell; “the vest was considered very old-fashioned by the 1950s, but it has come back several times since then…; the 1980s brought us the power suit, with wide shoulder pads and look-at-me ties” — its basic template endured. And “it survived for good reasons,” she argues: “It’s versatile, flattering and commands respect.”

It’s this projection of power — descended from royalty, as it turns out — that has made the suit so seductive over the centuries, and its potent signaling of status might be much harder to shake from our heads than we think. In 2014, two psychologists from the universities of Illinois and California wanted to study how symbols of social rank triggered hierarchical behaviors in everyday interactions. They did this by recruiting 128 men from the Bay Area via Craigslist, and dressed half of them neutrally, in T-shirts and sweats (denoting “lower-class” status), or a business suit (symbolizing an “upper-class” lifestyle); they put the deliberately styled participants in one-on-one situations with the non-madeover recruits, and got them to play a game in which they negotiated notional millions of dollars. They then measured both men’s psychological and physical responses as their bargaining played out.

The results of the research were revealing in a number of ways. The men in suits dominated their negotiations, obtaining “significantly higher profits” than the shabbily dressed players, because, said the researchers, they tended to more strongly prioritize their own self-interest in the game. After examining their subjects’ saliva, the psychologists also found that the men in sweats displayed levels of testosterone that were consistently lower than their corporate-wear counterparts.

On the other side of the table, meanwhile, the guys who weren’t being dressed up or down for their encounters were also showing signs of being influenced by their adversaries’ clothing. Confronted by a man in a suit, they exhibited a greater vagal withdrawal — a reaction in the nervous system associated with the “fight or flight” response that readies the body to deal with a threat — than when dealing with a haggler in leisurewear. This, noted the researchers, suggested “that perceivers may have engaged in greater vigilance of their upper-class interaction partner” — a reading that was confirmed when they asked them about how well they thought they had done: “Perceivers of upper-class targets felt reduced power during the negotiation relative to perceivers of lower-class targets.”

It’s a set of findings that doesn’t hugely surprise Haworth. “It makes sense,” he says, in the context of “the layers and layers and layers of social significance” suits have accreted over the decades, pointing out, “There’s a reason you have to wear a suit in court.”

Ultimately, then, it’s our unconscious associations between the suit and pecking orders that has knocked it off its perch. In an age that’s increasingly allergic to hierarchy and social ranking, it’s almost inevitable that the world’s most well-worn status symbol gets taken down a peg or two.

There’s another thing that might be working against it, though, and that’s the fact that young people (as we’ve mentioned before) are putting off the trappings of adulthood till later and later in their lives. In exploring his own aversion to suits, Haworth says it took someone else to point out that it was “very obviously partly a fear of growing up,” and that he has recently been “coming to terms with maybe wearing things that are slightly smarter.”

One by one, the suit’s ties to grown-up responsibility, to Wall Street and to workwear are being severed, but this only marks the end of a successful career, not cultural oblivion. Chrisman-Campbell agrees with Haworth that being sacked from the corporate world and consigned to the realm of rarefied fashion might be just what the elegant three-piece needs to ensure it survives the 21st century. “There has been a small boom in custom tailoring, as a new generation discovers the pleasures of buying and wearing bespoke suits,” she says. “What’s changed is that men are less likely to wear them against their will, due to the requirements of their jobs or social positions.” Now, because “they’re being worn by men — and women — who truly appreciate them and wear them well, we may even look back on this as a golden age for suits.”

Though not, perhaps, if you work in dry-cleaning. And, all things considered, it’s probably best for everyone if the suit doesn’t die. What the hell would we wear to the funeral?