Are suits establishment or anti-establishment?

Now that tailored clothing has come back a bit in popularity, its place in one's wardrobe has been subject to some debate. Many see suits as a great way to express individuality and appreciate the finer details of tailoring, while others see them as soulless corporate attire and something they have to wear for weddings. But let's give some context to why these attitudes came to be.

Introducing the Lounge Suit

In the 19th century, men were pretty much relegated to frock or morning coats with stiff detachable collars for work that wasn't blue collar. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, for example, wore a black frock coat since it was the expected presidential image during his time. This looks very formal to our modern eyes, because it has, in fact, become that. Morning coats with grey striped trousers are still worn to Royal Ascot or weddings in the United Kingdom, both considered formal day affairs. The lounge, or sack, suit was considered leisure wear when it was first introduced in the 1850s. It was originally rather shapeless but would slowly become more fitted and constructed over time, perhaps for more versatility. It rose even more in popularity during and after The Great War, when many young conscripts became accustomed to wearing more comfortable clothing all day. The lounge suit would become standard business dress for the next several decades.

A three-piece suit from the mid-19th century. Note the lack of trouser creases and less structured look overall.

Casual Fridays

In the 1960s, many businesses in Hawaii began instituting "Aloha Fridays" where employees could wear the titular shirt style for more comfort in the heat. This was a campaign begun by the Hawaii Fashion Guild, promoting the Aloha shirt to be acceptable as business attire. Later on, PC hardware and software purveyors such as Microsoft and Apple would lead the rebellion against wearing a "noose" around their neck in a corporate environment, even when suits and ties were still fairly prevalent. Politically conservative world leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher may have reinforced the idea of conservative attire in the 1980s, but there were obvious exceptions. Other, more traditional businesses would start instituting "Casual Fridays" as a way to keep employee morale high. Casual Fridays would in many cases give way to casual everyday, with the suit slowly disappearing from dress codes. During the late '90s, the dot-com bubble had many internet startups adopting a business casual dress code as well, similar to the relaxed spirit of the previous decade's tech companies. The boom may not have lasted and many of those companies quickly disappeared, but the attitude towards dressing down for work remained.

Younger tech companies helped usher in business casual dress codes, a stark contrast to older businesses like IBM.


Today, we're left with an interesting divide in attitude towards dressing up for work or otherwise. A large number of Baby Boomers I've talked to have expressed a desire to be free of the constraints of a suit and tie, even complaining about having to wear one for their children's wedding! To them, it symbolizes conformity, working for The Man, and is perceived as uncomfortable. Something they worked hard to not have to wear in starting their own business or retiring. The sentiments, "I hate wearing a tie," and declaring proudly, "I haven't worn a suit in 20 years!" are not uncommon, though obviously disappointing to hear for someone like me.

Some careers do still require a suit and tie, but often relax standards when they are not meeting with clients or, again, on Casual Fridays. Law firms are a good example. Even the menswear industry has relaxed despite relying on this traditional, informal attire to drive sales. Sales careers that once required a jacket and tie at all times have gone down to merely requiring a tie. The menswear store I was employed in even had "Casual Sundays", on which ties did not need to be worn.

Politics is one of the few careers in western society that still requires a suit and tie -- by convention, if not in official dress code. Politicians may dress down a bit on the campaign trail by ditching the tie or just wearing a sports coat and khakis (or even jeans), depending on who they are addressing. Once elected into office and on duty, though, they will still wear the suit and tie for most official functions. U.S. President Barack Obama made headlines in 2014 by appearing sans tie for a press conference. Just ten days later, he again caused a stir by wearing a tan suit rather than the standard business colours of grey or blue. We are so accustomed to seeing our leaders dressed in a certain way that any deviation from it -- even the wrong colour -- is perceived as disrespectful to their office.

President Obama appeared tieless in 2014, causing quite a row in the news.

Generation Y (a.k.a. Millennials, my generation) and Generation Z have a little more interest in dressing up than previous generations. Why is this? It could be a number of media influences, including that well-dressed screen hero James Bond still wears suits and dinner jackets the same as he did over 50 years ago, during a time when either would not get a second glance. It may also be that some designers have made the suit more hip than before in the last decade. One such designer commented:
"I feel like jeans and a T-shirt have become Establishment. Everyone’s dressed down. So actually putting on a jacket is the anti-­Establishment stance." -Thom Browne
This, of course, flies in the face of some commonly held beliefs. But it's not off the mark. Society has generally become far more casual for many of the same events we used to wear suits and dresses for. High end restaurants, even ones requiring reservations, will let anyone walk in wearing cargo shorts so long as they have money to spend and are wearing shirts and shoes. Even operas no longer have a dress code despite once requiring black tie. Yet at the same time, we are treated to images of glamourous celebrities walking the red carpet... in outfits worth more than what most of us make in a year! I lost count of how many people walked into my menswear store asking me to make them look like Chris Hemsworth, Idris Elba or some other actor who has been photographed in a colourful dinner jacket. So obviously there is still a lot of interest in dressing up and looking good, even if not always in the traditional sense.

Let's get back to the original question though. Is the suit still establishment? Yes... and no. Wearing the aforementioned t-shirt and jeans as everybody else does is most definitely a way of conforming in 2018. But so too is wearing the suit and tie your workplace requires. However, I'd argue what is most anti-establishment of all is not wearing something different from what everybody does, but taking pride in your clothing. Whether it's selvage denim jeans that fit just right with quality casual boots or a made-to-measure suit with all kinds of hand-made details, this attention to detail is something unusual to see now. Even if someone can't afford high quality clothing, they can pay more attention to fit, general style details, and colour. Money does not necessarily buy taste, after all. At large, society does the bare minimum acceptable. Someone who takes time to learn what works on their body, proper fit, and good colour coordination is someone who truly sets themselves apart from the rest.

Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau occasionally indulges in fanciful details like ticket pockets and peak lapels, despite wearing the alleged uniform of conformity. He clearly enjoys dressing well, rather than simply going through the motions.

I feel like jeans and a T-shirt have become Establishment. Everyone's dressed down. So actually, putting on a jacket is the anti-Establishment stance. Thom Browne
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I feel like jeans and a T-shirt have become Establishment. Everyone's dressed down. So actually, putting on a jacket is the anti-Establishment stance.
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  1. I admire your sentiment but jeans and boots? COme on. Jeans are not something that anyone should be encouraged to wear even if they cost $200.

    1. I beg to differ. I live in Texas, and dressing up here means a nice sports coat, shirt with french cuffs, dark jeans, and lucchese boots. While traveling to other parts of the country, and the rare trips overseas, I will wear a three piece suit.

    2. Anonymous, what issue do you have with jeans and boots? There is a time and place for both and not all are made equally.

      James, I'm not a fan of french cuffs with jeans, let alone lucchese boots, but it sounds like it works for you. I am one of "those people" who doesn't mind a sport coat with jeans, however!

  2. Replies
    1. Merely my point of view. Honestly, we are all following what's been established to some extent in what we wear. The double breasted suit I'm in right now is no more anti-establishment than a pair of sneakers are.


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