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How the Suit Lost Its Cultural Capital

With bosses wearing chinos and streetwear, we've seen the death of the suit as a sign of superiority.
Photo via Wiki by Harris & Ewing

Think about the last time you were dragged into a meeting room for an appraisal. What was your manager wearing? A pair of tastefully off-white Novestas, an Engineered Garments work shirt and some bizarrely expensive green trousers? Thought so. In 2018, your boss – and his or her boss – is far more likely to replenish their wardrobe at Slam Jam Socialism than on Savile Row.

It isn’t just new media companies which have decided to jettison the suit in recent years. JP Morgan, America’s largest bank, downgraded its dress code to "smart casual" in 2016. While staff can't exactly arrive at the office for another day of doing whatever it is bankers actually do all day – inflate the price of wheat in Uzbekistan for a laugh? – in flip-flops and a leavers hoodie, they are finally free to stop starching their collars every Sunday night.


The slow erosion of the suit as the definitive sartorial marker of rule and responsibility is indicative of a changing attitude toward the very nature of work itself. This decade has seen the global rise of the gig economy, disrupting the conventional understanding of what work is and can be. Then there’s the increasing number of freelancers joining the UK’s self-employed workforce – which sits at just shy of five million people – explaining why companies like WeWork are raking it in.

Zero-hours contracts are rife, wages are falling and the tectonic plates of the 9-5 are shifting.

Royal Anwar, via Pexels

And so, businesses – understandably concerned about keeping workers onside – have had to loosen their metaphorical ties. These days, managers are your friends, offices come with acceptable coffee and the occasional free beer, and suits are the last vestige of a time when work looked like, well, work. "Casual Friday" – the fun little bone work throws your way to give the illusion that all this labour isn't actually a burden, because how can KPI analysis sessions be a burden when you're wearing trousers? – has become a way of life.

For the best part of half a century, a suit was what a man (not every man, it should go without saying) wore. At work or in the pub, sipping on a pint of mild that cost a hangnail and a sneeze, men buttoned their jackets and adjusted their hats, living out life in glorious monochrome.


The backlash began in the late-60s, when hippies, in their stoned and infinite wisdom, realised that being tied to the bondage of capitalism through dress might have a negative impact on themselves and others.

A decade on, punk sought to further discourage the impressionable youth of pre-Thatcher Britain from joining the corporate rat race by persuading them to spend lots and lots of money on tartan and T-shirts in west London boutiques – an inconsistency that was nicely rounded out 40 years later, when Malcolm McClaren and Vivienne Westwood's son decided to burn millions of pounds' worth of punk memorabilia rather than selling it and donating the money to, I don't know, literally any one of the services decimated by years of Tory austerity.

After the loadsamoney 1980s, which – if every documentary I’ve ever seen about the period is correct – saw the entire country howling into mobile phones while sucking oysters out of each others' breast pockets, came the lads mag-90s. The suit’s decline was approaching terminal. Yes, you probably still wore one to work, but you certainly didn't on the terraces or in clubs on a Saturday night. Unless you were Jarvis Cocker. Which you probably weren’t.


The suit now stands in as a means of division between the workforce and the higher-ups, the haves and the have-lesses. This, perhaps, is why in many lines of work we’ve seen a sartorial softening. In this post-crash, post-Occupy world, companies increasingly understand that they need to be seen as cuddlier than they ever deemed necessary before.


Outside of the still-suited world of finance, an easy, if incredibly superficial, way to engender an artificial sense of friendliness is to get the MD to start wearing a chore jacket and some perfectly pin-rolled selvedge denim jeans around the office. Use some petty cash to get him an Our Legacy blazer for when he’s pinged off to Cologne to meet with potential investors, and everyone’s happy.

Since the crash, it's been tempting to see suit-wearers as a devilish sub-sect of humanity. Viewing them as the braying ball of coke-snorting, expense-fiddling, bonus-receiving brokers and bankers who seemingly single-handedly sent the entire world into an economic head-spin is both a bit reductive and really quite cathartic.

Think about how you react to the sight of a group of suited and booted blokes in a bar or a club after work on a Friday night. If they colonise the table next to yours at six, or seven, you’ll probably be able to tolerate their guffawing, boorish banter: everyone’s entitled to smash through four to six pints of strong continental lager after a hard week. Any later and it becomes distracting. They look out of place but exude a kind of monied confidence that often bulldozes into outright arrogance. I’d wager that most people reading this have an instinctual "Oh god" response when a horde of blokes in brogues barge their way to the bar, having decided that Corsica Studios was the perfect place to reminisce loudly about their last corporate away-day.


That response is understandable. After all, the suit outside of a smattering of very specific non-work contexts can only ever remind of us of work – work being something that many of us dream of escaping.

The en-masse arrival of the suit also often spells danger for allegedly-trendy areas. Gentrification occurs in three stages, and those stages are glaringly obvious if you take a second to lower your gaze and have a look at what people are wearing on their feet. The tatty Vans of the young artists become the gleaming Red Wings of the media professionals. Then, as night follows day, the boots become a pair of incredibly well polished jet black Grenson penny loafers. The suits have arrived. The process is complete.

All that is why, when David Cameron demanded that Jeremy Corbyn "put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem" in early 2016 he wasn’t simply requesting that the right honourable gentleman tidy himself up for another thrilling PMQs encounter. Rather, Cameron was implicitly voicing a fear that the notion that a smart suit was the measure of the man was coming to an abrupt end.

Let’s hope he was right.