Reflections Of A Relic: Wearing Suits And The Rhythm Of Life

Corporate culture continues to change or evolve, and the suit now seems to be headed in the same direction of the buggy whip. Not long ago, however, there were practical and professional reasons to wear a suit and tie while doing business. First and foremost, the suit was a way of demonstrating respect for those you were doing or hoped to do business. We dressed every business day – including Fridays – as if on a job interview. The suit was in effect a uniform for business. In the morning, donning suit and tie got me in the frame of mind to go out and make something happen. Taking the suit and tie off at the end of the day meant a transition back to personal life and leisure. The shifts into and out of the uniform helped establish order to the day and rhythm to life in general.  

We had rules to guide us, sometimes in the form of both written and unwritten corporate dress codes. The rules were willingly accepted and followed, making it easy to meet expectations and fit into the corporate culture. Dress standards developed and got incorporated into the culture to facilitate cohesion and instill an attitude of success. There was the saying “fake it till you make it,” which meant it was essential for rookies to spend more money on quality suits and furnishings then their paychecks initially allowed. It was necessary to appear well dressed in any company from the beginning. So we scrimped elsewhere to buy a Brooks Brothers suit. Once up and running, we built our wardrobes and enjoyed dressing as professionals.

I still occasionally break out one of my go-to relic uniforms, which consists of a Brooks Brothers navy suit; lightly starched Brooks OCBD white shirt; Brooks Argyle & Sutherland tie; Brooks alligator belt with engraved sterling silver buckle (a gift from a long-ago girlfriend); and, Brooks shell cordovan tassel loafers. The shoes and belt are more than 30 years old and the suit 20. The shirts and ties get replaced more frequently. While it might be comfortable to be casual, I miss the order instilled by the suit and tie business uniform. Alas, I realize and reluctantly accept that those days are in the proverbial rearview mirror.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are that of an aging white male Boomer, otherwise known as a relic. — BC

40 Comments on "Reflections Of A Relic: Wearing Suits And The Rhythm Of Life"

  1. Some of the pessimistic posts on this blog make one believe that the suit-and-tie “uniform” doesn’t exist anymore. It sure does! Go to Wall Street – nearly everyone is wearing jackets and ties (or at least dress shirts and ties in warmer weather). Suit and tie is still the only accepted dress-code in the government and commercial banking. My father wears suit and a tie to work (he works at the U.N. headquarters). Even college professors still wear jackets and ties at least occasionally (and almost regularly at elite schools, such as Yale). How is suit-and-tie “a relic of the past”, if this uniform can be found literally at any department store? Over the past decade we’ve also seen a burgeoning of online made-to-measure companies, promoting classic tailoring at relatively affordable prices, obviously targeted at a younger demographic. Suits and ties today are available from numerous sources at, literally, any price level.

  2. Well, nothing’s more Wall Street than the Wall Street Journal:

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/men-ditch-suits-and-retailers-struggle-to-adapt-11553511602

    And the Goldman Sachs story from a few weeks ago was widely covered in the media. So it’s not just relics like BC, or pessimists like me, who’s at work on a tale of sartorial apocalypse!

  3. Charlottesville | March 28, 2019 at 5:44 pm |

    Thanks, BC, from a fellow relic. My first “real” job in 1985 required a suit and tie every day, and I too enjoyed it. My office at Connecticut and L was only a block from the Washington Brooks Brothers, and they got most of my trade, and a great deal of my first paychecks. Much of that Brooks (and later J. Press) wardrobe still hangs in my closet. I have even been able to replace a few items that are no longer available at Brooks with the exact same thing from eBay.

    These days, I may wear a sport coat more often than I used to, but I am wearing an older Brooks sack suit in navy today, along with a white BB OCBD. I have the other items you mention at home, but am wearing a different repp stripe, and AE longwings, which make my ensemble even fuddy-duddier. But I see no reason to change at this point. It is comfortable for me, I like the way it looks, and at this point in my career, don’t need to worry too much about the corporate culture or passing trends. I try not to over dress in situations where I might make someone feel uncomfortable, but left to my own preferences, I tend to wear a coat and tie day in and day out, and two or three days a week, it is probably a suit.

  4. Boop McSnoot | March 28, 2019 at 6:25 pm |

    I like these small looks at the everyday Ivy moments that find their way into modern life. Thanks, BC.

  5. Hardbopper | March 28, 2019 at 6:26 pm |

    I am more comfortable in a suit (with longwings) than anything else. If it gets too hot, I remove the jacket. I dunno, man. Sometimes you just gotta act act like it ain’t your first time in the end zone.

  6. I’ll echo Hardbopper above. Nothing physically or psychologically uncomfortable, to me at least, about wearing a suit. I’m probably an outlier (and perhaps border on the eccentric), but I routinely wear them (sometimes even double-breasted models!) and neckties to teach here at Michigan State. At the very least a sports jacket or blazer, necktie, and chinos or flannels depending. I’m in The Humanities by the way. The uninitiated probably mistake me for one the administration at a distance. My father and maternal grandfather were execs in Manhattan (finance and construction materials respectively), so I come by it honestly I guess. Can’t really fathom dressing any other way for work though. Give me a crisp shirt and suit with leather dress shoes any day over the rumpled, pilled, often coffee stained, neutral colored mess that is business casual. I’ve always found the notion that one can either dressed for business OR comfortable, but never bot simultaneously, to be flat out wrong. A pulled together, business-like appearance and comfort needn’t be mutually exclusive if your gear is purchased and altered to fit your body with material weight and season kept in mind.

  7. I’ve been reading this blog for a long time. It’s strange, but I actively saw my workplace change. When I started my career I got my first jacket and tie because it was expected. 10 years later our director wears sport coats at the most, sans tie. By the time I could afford a nice suit, I didn’t need it anymore. I honestly think wearing one now would make me look like an alien.

  8. elder prep | March 28, 2019 at 9:52 pm |

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading BC’s history of the business suit. As an elder prep I, too, journeyed through my business career in a suit five days (occasionally six) a week and enjoyed it. As management, it identified me as one with responsibility and command. Most memorably was that sartorially dismal period of the mid-1970’s. I once owned and wore a 100% tan polyester suit with wide lapels while living in Virginia. It was the most uncomfortable fabric ever created. Wearing it in the summer I felt I was in one of those old fashioned steam boxes with just your head sticking out. It was eventually gifted to a nephew. I eventually career transitioned into a high technology firm just in time to experience the casual Friday movement. I’ll admit it was nice to have it both ways, the suit for meetings and management and the khakis, boat shoes and a golf shirt (with the company logo) on Friday when everyone went to long lunches and left for the weekend around 4.

  9. One of the best-dressed guys I’ve ever known was a psychotherapist in my hometown. He wore handsome tweed suits. Others who have made the list include professors, academic deans, small-town lawyers, a headmaster, an architect, the owner of a (great) restaurant, an editor, and more than a few clergymen.

    What do they all have in common? They set their own schedules, for the most part. They’re not a cogs in machines. They enjoy a certain level of independence–even creative freedom. They learned (early on) they were best suited for jobs that allowed for autonomy and a healthy dose of individuality. Now that we know that one of the primary causes of situational depression is a workplace that allows for relatively little independence and/or control, we can applaud them for their wise (vocational) decisions.

    I have no doubt fewer and fewer men who work in sales (“on a sales team”), marketing, accounting and the various versions of mid-level management wear suits. It may be suits are frowned upon–especially by the higher-up’s who seek a democratization of workplace. Clever of them: If shepherds keep the lambs in cheap khakis and non-iron shirts, and they’ll begin to feel as cheap and expendable as their clothes.

    These days I prefer sport jackets and blazers. When I wear a suit, it’s either flannel or a solid heathered gray worsted that mimics flannel. Or a cheviot tweed herringbone. Add OCBD, loafers, and club or striped tie. I reserve a few navy suits for funerals and weddings.

  10. About four years ago I started to make regular visits to our corporate office in Houston. I dressed in charcoal trousers, grey sports jacket, white shirt and rep tie with a set of well polished black shoes. On the first day an old colleague whispered in my ear that it was ‘ no longer necessary to dress like that ‘. I continued to dress the same, but mostly sans the tie. Every now and then a colleague will comment ‘elegant’. Dress is noticed by those around us.

    When I look at the average employee coming in and out of our building these days it seems like a sad race to the bottom.

  11. To the extent that dressing in a business suit is dressing to do a cog’s work, it is a slave uniform, not a symbol of power, prestige, or honor, or of free men. The business man is not alone in this position, in which there is little to differentiate him from a factory worker, but he is often more responsible than most, however unwittingly, for the machinery in which he finds himself and which often trods on others with greater and harsher force and impact than it does on him. Contemporary society has ‘liberated’ the enslaved man in dress only.

  12. Suits are still the appropriate uniform in Washington. If Congress is in session, wear a suit. If they’re not, it’s not required. If you don’t follow this rule, people really don’t listen to what you’re saying.

    I was at a meeting recently with a certain House committee. The guys from big companies all wore suits. There were also some top-notch academics there, but they didn’t wear suits. They might as well have not even showed up. Nobody really listened to what they were saying.

    There are rules to the game. Everyone is told the rules, but some choose to not follow them.

    Which point of view does the legislation reflect?

  13. Ezra Cornell | March 29, 2019 at 3:54 am |

    @Iwmarti: And this is supposed to give us confidence in our democracy? Wear a suit or be ignored….What a way to run a country.

    Let’s not forget Benjamin Franklin amidst the powdered Versailles dandies did a pretty admirable job getting America’s voice heard in the stuffiest Court in Europe.

  14. I love wearing suits and own a closet full of them. That said, I can live with styles changing. Breeches and stockings gave way to pants, tails gave away to the dinner jacket and the suit, the twenties suit gave way to the sack suit here and to the grayers in Britain. Even the appalling clothes people wore to fern bars and discos when I was in college showed some real concern with self-care. What troubles me with current men’s fashion is the lack of pride and self care. So many young men are just slobs. I live next to a large university (60,000 students) and the difference between the men and women is staggering. There are some women who are also just slobs but he majority put real effort into self-presentation whether you agree with the particular choices they make or not. The men just look pathetic and defeated and they dress like people who don’t care.

  15. Re: Iwmarti, I could totally see that amongst the political class in Washington, but most of my agency (government professionals) dress pretty casually. That said, no one would think it weird to see a man in a suit.

  16. I’ll also add that no one around here could possibly tell you whether the congress was in session at any particular time.

  17. Darn, I went to all this extra schooling so I could work in a suit and tie like my dad.

  18. Maybe everybody feels this way on some level, but I’m still amazed at the change seen during my lifetime: when I got to college in the late-80s, the computers in the lab all ran DOS (anybody remember DOS?), and four years later everything ran rudimentary Windows; the Berlin wall came down during my junior year, for Pete’s sake!

    In any event, as I went out into the professional world on the East Coast, suits and ties were, as the author said, the uniform – you didn’t even think about it: in my twenties I had a half-dozen suits that I rotated every day, including Fridays. Now in my late forties I have two, and I only wear them to court a couple of times per month. For the majority of my colleagues and clients (young, entrepreneurial, tech industries), showing up to a meeting in a suit and tie is the kiss of death. And these aren’t un-serious punk millennials, either – they may wear hoodies, but these guys are literally changing how the world conducts commerce. It’s DOS-to-Windows all over again. And it’s exciting to watch and be a part of.

    But never fear: I’m happy to report that while a suit would mark me, even in my 40s, as hopelessly old and out of touch, my Harris Tweeds get compliments from even the youngest among these same folks every time I wear one.

  19. Old School Tie | March 29, 2019 at 10:15 am |

    At times like this I’m glad for the career in Family Medicine. Been wearing the same old garb for nigh on thirty years. Bliss.

  20. PS – for what it’s worth re: the Washington comments above, I have some K Street clients as well, and their “uniform” these days seems to be neatly pressed, dark-washed (and no doubt expensive) denim, worn with brightly colored gingham shirts and suede horse-bit loafers.

  21. Yep. I did not endure years of extra schooling (at a pretty hefty price tag as far as student loans go) to look like my clothes were pulled from the very bottom of the dirty laundry hamper or a charity donation bin. The vast majority of men certainly do now seem to present themselves as though completely pathetic and utterly defeated in life, to borrow the words of a previous observer. I too was surprised and dismayed several years, while using a car dealership courtesy shuttle early one morning, to observe how utterly wretched employees, both male and female, appeared entering the doors of an insurance giant based in Central Illinois. Definitely NOT like a good neighbor, and it did nothing to induce my confidence in the company. A [misguided] race to the bottom indeed. So, it’s all settled then. The rise of the casual workplace is a good thing.

  22. @Heinz-Ulrich: my experience, per above, has been that some of those men looking “completely pathetic and utterly defeated” are actually the ones running the show these days. And the less we judge books by their covers, the better off we all are in my opinion. And, last but not least, perhaps all of this makes our group’s tailored clothing, and cordovan loafers, and regimental ties even more special?

  23. Did anybody notice what Mark Zuckerberg wore during Senate hearings last year. Nuf Said.

    Cheers,

    Will

  24. The uniform for trying to explain to grandpa how the Interwebs work.

  25. Let’s hear it for special then! And yes, I well recall Z-burg’s attire for those hearings. The chickens came home to roost in a sense.

    Best Regards,

  26. AtlantaPete | March 29, 2019 at 3:40 pm |

    In 1968, I went from the bar exam straight to Brooks Brothers to buy my first made to measure suit. 51 years later I still wear a suit or sport coat and tie Monday through Friday. I still own and wear some Brooks Brothers suits from before BB’s fall, and the rest are from J. Press and Southwick. In the late 1990s, the large law firm in which I was a partner went business casual and, in typical law firm style, adopted detailed regulations regarding business casual. Partners could be heard muttering “I have to buy a damn new wardrobe.” For me it was a whole lot easier to just keep suiting up. Another observation is that when I fly, which is more frequently than I like, when wearing a suit and tie I seem to be treated better than the guys wearing gym clothes.

  27. Trace Bearden | March 29, 2019 at 5:19 pm |

    I worked in midtown Manhattan in the ’70s and ’80 and wore a suit to my office (a block from Grand Central) everyday. Midtown was heaven in those days: Brooks, Press, Stuart, Chipp, Burton (an almost hidden gem, on the second floor of a building on Fifth near 42nd. Anyone remember it?), Church’s, all the clubs, graying men in seersucker and straw boaters, conservatively suited young women wearing Tretorns (for their walk from the Upper East Side). High up on the side of a building near 42nd was a weather-worn painted advertisement for “Ivy League suits.” What a time.

  28. In many universities, the top candidate for a new position might be asked to lecture on their subject in front of fellow faculty members and students as a part of the final stage of their interview. I attended one such lecture this morning (a Friday morning lecture) and was pleasantly surprised to find that not only the candidate but also the faculty members in attendance all wore business formal attire. The same cannot be said for the students, myself included, but it just shows that in some fields and regions, this tradition is still very much alive and embraced.

  29. I live in the midwest college town I grew up in, but I spent many years elsewhere and learned my sartorial style in New York. Dressing as I would really like to would be a mistake here now – it would put people off unnecessarily, and I can’t in good conscience do it. We’ve internalized the lesson that a tie and coat (never mind a suit) is just pretentious outside of well defined roles and occasions.

  30. As a retired former self employed CPA, I wore mostly the “uniform”, navy blazer, OCBD, tie, and khakis. Dressy enough to show and instill respect to clients. I rarely encountered other accountants in the later part of my career.

    Back in 2005, I had occasion to visit a medium sized CPA firm on behalf of a client. Imagine my amazement on entering the managing partner’s office, when the partner had an orange sport shirt half unbuttoned, no tie, a gaudy watch and gold necklace. He looked more like a porno star than an accountant.

    Like BC, I’m a relic. One good note, though. In our slob society, great items can be gotten for a song at consignment shops and thrifts. I just bought an unworn Bobby Jones navy blazer for $17. Made in USA, retailed originally for $600.

    Cheers!

  31. @ Elder prep

    I also had a 100% tan polyester suit bought in 1976. A vested pinstripe, I paid $125 for it. A really good looking suit, the most uncomfortable I ever had. HOT, and a wayward pipe ash put a silver dollar hole in the pants leg.

    Sat in the closet until the 1990s, when I tossed it.
    Cheers!

  32. Jack Hopkins | March 30, 2019 at 1:28 pm |

    I knew there was a changing of the garb when in the mid-90s in the early dot-com days, I interviewed with a start-up company in San Diego. Coming from a company in New England, where it was strictly suits/ties for execs, my interview day in San Diego was interesting to say the least. As the day progressed, I kept shedding my formal clothing as if I was playing strip poker & by the end of the day, I think I was in a hoodie! A generational change in one day.

  33. As usual, Charottesville and Wil write as well as they dress. Heinz too. Btw, he has some excellent video clips on his site today. As for those on here who bemoaned the suit, ridiculed the way things worked in Washington, and made other criticisms of the nod to tradition this site provides, one question: Why are you even on here? Just close your ipad and go on down to Macy’s and buy some new sweatpants for yourself and some yoga tights for your lady.

  34. Charlottesville | April 1, 2019 at 1:45 pm |

    Dear JoelVau,

    Thank you for your kind words! Nice to hear from you.

  35. Cuff Shooter | April 2, 2019 at 12:12 pm |

    @AtlantaPete

    “Another observation is that when I fly, which is more frequently than I like, when wearing a suit and tie I seem to be treated better than the guys wearing gym clothes.”

    This is why I always wear a jacket and tie when flying. Always. Especially on international flights.

  36. A lot of very scary stories on the gradual but steady breakdown in dress codes and what is acceptable to workwear these days. Myself I work as a manager in a medium size company in the City of London and luckily over here the suit is still pretty much a common sight. My office has a business casual code which still means a suit or smart trousers , shirt, dress shoes with the tie being optional. I still wear a tie and a pocket square to work every day and get nothing but compliments . I have also noticed that most people that wear ties , pocket squares, tree piece suits and so on are younger men so all is not lost and we are fighting the good fight…For clarification I’m in my late thirties so not a old foggey yet although I do feel like one a lot of the times?

  37. Charlottesville | April 3, 2019 at 1:46 pm |

    Tom Tom — That is very encouraging news re the City. I would love to see more young men on this side of the Atlantic take up 3-piece suits, although I still spot one occasionally.

    Cuff Shooter and AtlantaPete — I too feel that I am generally treated better when wearing a suit or at least a jacket and tie, but then that is generally my rig when out and about so I don’t have much to compare it to. I always wear a blazer or sport coat when flying or checking into a hotel, and I believe that wearing coat and tie makes a difference in restaurants and stores as well, at least those on the upper end, even if coat and tie are no longer standard. At work, I also think I am perhaps treated with more respect when meeting with others from outside my own office.

    Mainly, however, I personally enjoy dressing the way I do, and am thankful that it is still possible to do so where I live and work. I know that in some quarters, a coat and tie are viewed almost as costume.

  38. Dante Ardenz | March 26, 2020 at 2:17 pm |

    ‘ Cloths make the man ‘ …the fall of good dressing has been emblematic of the fall in society. ‘ Casual ‘ ,can be very stylish, and I have always effected this: Good slacks, sweaters ,zipper turkle necks, good shoes.
    But causual ,has slipped to wimpy ,all the way to slob .
    Its neither comfortable, inspiring, or fun .
    Goerte ,the German philosopher once wrote ,’ A man must feel he is somebody.
    The fall of good dressing is sweeps through to manners, grace , wit, and developing a distinctive personality.
    I’m tired of old women and men, who should know better dressed as farm hands, and places from business to dinner parties seeing people dressed like they are doing yard work….
    The Bolshevik mind set of mass ,is not about self respect, and respect for others. but the lowering of standards, and expectations to group think .
    Dont expect to lead, but to follow .
    This ‘ casual ‘, is not casual at all, but the herd ,being corralled into the slaughterhouse of no expectations, and the crowd.
    I refuse to follow it …public meetings. church , ceremonies of life , dinner, funeral Holidays Come as you are.
    Its not funny, cute , or ironic, but has dulled the senses of the culture, as it does the wearers .

    It’s a nefarious standard putting everyone into the mass, and expendable.
    Wearing good clothing,and being smart is smart…it sharpens the mind ,and the body .
    I refuse to go along, and never will until the last jacket, shirt , leather shoe. cufflinks ,tie pin , turtle neck, overcoat is made.
    Is the efficiency, production ,creativity, civilization, culture of life better now then the period before?
    No ,as the sloppy world, as led to sloppy thinking….
    Its not the place I want to be; a Bolshevik world of the masses hive mind , manipulated and made cannon fodder for a limited elite to keep you in your place while the best looks are reserved for them.
    Strike a blow for freedom on good ,cloths !

  39. William Timmins | August 10, 2020 at 9:32 pm |

    I wore suits my entire work career, even when those around me opted for casual dress, which appeared to continually devolve on an annual basis. Why did I continue to wear suits? I guess because I was raised in a family where men wore suits. Having attended a Catholic school from K through 12th grade also contributed to my comfort in wearing suits and sport coats. I remember once going into a fast food restaurant to pick up a quick lunch and seeing some co-workers in line ahead of me placing their order. It dawned on me that there was virtually no difference in their casual dress and the uniform of the young man behind the counter. It just solidified for me that I had no intention of giving up the personal style I had developed over the many years.

  40. Henry Contestwinner | June 6, 2021 at 12:46 am |

    I love the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders pattern. I have over a dozen ties in the pattern, varying in stripe width (1/4″ at the narrowest and 2″ at the widest), material (mostly silk, but also silk/wool blends, cotton, and linen), texture (ribbed, raw silk, knit), and color (bottle green, olive green, Kelly green, midnight blue, navy blue, red, pink, muted tones, bright tones, and more). I also have a sweater, vest, and muffler, along with with watch bands, belts, and socks in Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders. The basic pattern goes with everything, and the variations pair nicely with particular shirts, jackets, and trousers.

    Now, for pajamas and a dressing gown in Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders (I would never wear them at the same time, of course—too match-matchy).

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