Both business and menswear have cycles, and sometimes the two coincide.
There was a recent minor media kerfuffle when Goldman Sachs, the most prestigious bank on Wall Street, announced that it, too, was going business casual, calling for employees to exercise their “personal judgment” about when suits and ties might be called for. GQ noted that, despite the casualization of most Wall Street banks, popular imagination still dressed bankers in showy suits, thanks to fictional, cautionary caricatures Gordon Gekko and Patrick Bateman. Caricatures whose cautions generations of thrusting young men have ignored, molding themselves in the images of these reprobates.
If not even bankers, the profession we suppose kept expensive custom tailors in business (because almost no other profession can still afford them), are wearing suits, then who is still wearing them? What will bankers wear instead? And what is to become of the suit?
“Suits” has become a shorthand for a cohort of bland, uninspired corporate drones, suggesting a uniformed horde of the moderately privileged: lawyers (despite law firms being, on the whole, business casual as well), accountants, the gear-tighteners of capitalism. The banker, whom we expect to exult in his or her possessions, was supposed to be an exception to the drear conformity that “suits” connoted. We imagined he chose patterns and cuts with the same boldness he chose details of the overcomplicated watches only bankers wear, the same boldness that led to them being called “finance bros.”
Looking back, it turns out that the suit was just a uniform for bankers too. What’s replaced it? Something even worse than Gekko’s loud suspenders and “banker’s collar” (what Brits call the contrasting white collar and cuffs on shirts). Today’s finance bros have already adopted the fleece Patagonia vest, to the point where there was another media storm when Patagonia announced this year that it would no longer produce sportswear co-branded with the names of companies that “they view to be ecologically damaging” – including “financial institutions.”
Why the fleece vest? Warmish, unobtrusive, relatively reasonably priced from a company whose other items are so expensive it earned the moniker Patagucci, but most importantly for the financial sector, they’re apparently the outfit of some of their most important clients, the Silicon Valley idea merchants known as tech bros.
In adopting a different style of clothing to suit important customers, the finance bros have reminded us that they, too, are in a service industry and their clothing is part of the uniform of that service. The word uniform suggests subservience. Despite their aggressiveness, their celebration of their greedy acquisitions, their unironic appropriation of the title “Masters of the Universe” Tom Wolfe ironically gave them back in the 1980s, they have their own masters, the sociopaths du jour whose hubris and chimerical business plans they help reward.
For a few reasons, I personally am agnostic about the suit’s continued survival as something other than the uniform of subservience and conformity. Among other things, exactly 20 years ago the same sort of media fuss erupted when Arthur Andersen, one of the so-called Big Five leading accounting firms, switched to business casual. Journalists breathlessly asked if the suit was dead. Not long after, the firm itself, deeply implicated in the financial reporting and structuring misconduct that led to the downfall of its major client Enron, went out of business. Savile Row tailors crowed to those same journalists about the folly of switching to business casual and the persistence of the suit.
It’s worth noting, too, that Enron rose to prominence (even leading to an early George W. Bush administration announcement that some of the Enron energy-trading hotshots would take part in its advisory panels) claiming it was using new, hard-to-describe methods of financial innovation, when in reality it was hiding structured liabilities off its balance sheet and resorting to predatory energy trading strategies that caused unnecessary blackouts in California. Certain of today’s tech bros have come quite far on the strength of misunderstood and overused buzzwords, not the least of which is the idea of “disruption”: technology and business ideas that will reinvent an existing industry. Some of these ideas have made the bros untold billions through initial public offerings (managed, for fat crumbs, by the finance bros) despite the disruptive ideas in question never yet being profitable and in fact bleeding workers in both the existing and disruptive industries.
A confluence of circumstances led to the suit’s return to fashion not long after the Arthur Andersen debacle. But that return had been percolating, thanks to Hedi Slimane, even before Andersen went casual; economic and other crises in the early 2000s encouraged fashions to go more conservative and helped the suit back to the mainstream. Today the suit was just in fashion; we’re now in a period of aggressive casualization in high fashion. Lucky for me, I don’t have the means, looks or body for high fashion. I recognize that I am lucky enough to still work in an environment where suits are usually worn. And I recognize that I am weird enough to think that that is luck, as well as to wear suits in a way that would probably defy being captured by quotations as a “suit.” And in any case, the incomparable way the tailoring firm Camps de Luca cuts and hand-sews trousers is just as marvelous in teal Italian linen, worn with a casual knit shirt, as in Lumb’s Golden Bale charcoal flannel as part of a suit. Enjoy what we have in freedom from the uniform, the yoke of hierarchy even the finance bros are subject to.