The Passing of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
The rise of business casual has left men confused and adrift.
In an era of rapidly changing cultural, sexual, and social mores, one surprising development came and went without much comment. In 2019, Goldman Sachs announced that it was relaxing its famously strict dress code. High finance, long a bastion of suit-and-tie traditionalism, had finally surrendered to the encroaching forces of “business casual.”
Goldman’s white flag was a lagging, not a leading, indicator of trends within American workforces. Ill-matched khaki and dress shirt pairings have been de rigueur in many offices since the mid-’90s. The tech industry, which has supplanted finance as the career of choice for ambitious strivers, openly disdains workplace formality. Disgraced crypto mogul Sam Bankman-Fried famously used his casual wardrobe to woo potential marks. Credulous investors thought they had found the next Mark Zuckerberg. What they got was Bernie Madoff in sweatpants.
What happened to American menswear? It is not surprising that the country that invented blue jeans and casual Fridays increasingly eschews tailored clothing. As dress codes relax and jackets and ties become a rarity, however, men are caught between the few occasions that still require formality and a wider society that has opted for comfort over presentation.
The relentless advance of business casual is both a cause and an effect of the decline of the domestic garment industry. Brooks Brothers, arguably the exemplar of tailored American clothing, declared bankruptcy in 2020. The post-bankruptcy recovery plan for the company that once made a custom frock coat for Abraham Lincoln involves a shift to casual wear and a new mascot, Henry the Sheep. Ralph Lauren and J. Crew, mass market inheritors to the style popularized by Brooks, make most of their clothes overseas. Even casual clothiers and suppliers aren’t immune to fickle consumer trends and international competition. Cone Mills, the last selvedge denim mill in the United States, produced its final yard of fabric in 2018.
The spread of casual dress codes and the fall of Brooks Brothers signal the decline of a distinctively American style of clothing. Although less formal than Europeans, Americans are inheritors to a tradition of tailored menswear that reflects our history and habits. This tradition is in danger of disappearing, or at least becoming the exclusive province of well-heeled hobbyists.
If Britain is the father of modern menswear, the United States is its more relaxed younger brother. Often called “Ivy” or “East Coast” style by aficionados, American suiting has several subtle distinguishing features. As the name “Ivy” implies, this tradition was shaped by our most privileged institutions, but it also has some strikingly egalitarian features. “I think we're a bit more casual and less interested in things such as strict social hierarchy and inherited titles,” says style critic Derek Guy. “So when you look at [American tailoring], it reflects this general liberal, democratic attitude.”
G. Bruce Boyer, a veteran menswear observer and former editor at GQ, Esquire, and Town & Country, says that the structure of the American suit reflects our more relaxed social conventions. “Stylistically, Ivy tailoring has a softer feel and look than the British garments: the Brits construct a more architecturally built suit which has a harder, more definite, and built-up cleaner shape with a higher shoulder and nipped waist and flared skirt.”
The country that pioneered mass production brought a similar sensibility to its tailored garments. “The Brooks Brother suit, which they named their No. 1 Sack Suit when it debuted at the turn of the century, became one of the cornerstones of the Ivy look,” explains Guy. “It featured a slightly softer, natural shoulder, and machine stitched lapels.”
“The last part is important because American tailoring has always been a little more about mass production than its European counterparts,” he continues. “Brooks Brothers invented ready-made tailoring in the mid-nineteenth century, and their lapels at the turn of the twentieth century featured a machine finished edge.”
Beyond the suit and tie, twentieth century American tailoring was characterized by other casual features. Guy cites “the unlined oxford cloth button-down, which has a nice rumpled character, the two-piece suit as daywear (differing from our European counterparts, who wore the three-piece), [and] slip-on shoes with business suits. Think Cary Grant in suits and tassel loafers—unheard of at the turn of the twentieth century, especially in London.”
Today, the idea that wearing a suit with tassel loafers is casual seems charmingly anachronistic. But in years past, thumbing your nose at formality was a way to signal your populist bona fides. In the 1890 congressional elections, “Sockless” Jerry Simpson won notoriety for mocking the silk hosiery of the railroad magnate he was running against. His opponent replied that silk stockings were better than no stockings at all, but Simpson won the vote. Two years later, firebrand socialist Member of Parliament Keir Hardie shocked his colleagues by wearing tweed and a cloth cap in the House of Commons. “It was as if a red flag had been raised in Westminster,” wrote historian Barbara Tuchman. In the twentieth century, beatniks, hippies, antiwar protesters, and various other countercultural groups would adopt casual or distinctive clothes as social or political signifiers.
Dressing informally was once a subversive gesture, but in an era of sweatpants and Crocs, foregoing a suit and tie has lost its edge. Moreover, the buttoned-up rules of yesteryear had much to recommend. Contemporary fashion is overwhelmingly drawn from youth subcultures and sports, which means the clothes are designed to be worn by the young and fit. The middle-aged, the portly, and the couch-bound are unlikely to look good in “athleisure” or a t-shirt and jeans. A well-cut suit, with its broad shoulders and trim waist, is designed to artfully conceal (or at least de-emphasize) age and infirmity.
Formal business attire is typically derided as stuffy and elitist, but the old office dress codes were much easier to follow than the ambiguous directives of “business casual.” The Goldman Sachs announcement notably omitted any information on what constitutes appropriate office attire. Employees were left to use their own best judgment.
The class implications of business casual-ification are obvious. Over the past decade, a baroque canon of social justice-inflected language and conduct has overtaken academia, media, big business, and government. Universities now impart rules of behavior that are at least as opaque as any bygone code of aristocratic etiquette. Like most codes, these rules are meant to distinguish outsiders from those in the know. Navigating the strange new world of business casual requires just as much savoir faire.
“All of us know what is and is not appropriate for the workplace,” the Goldman Sachs dress code memo ominously intoned. If you’ve gone to the right schools and gotten the right internships, perhaps you understand the subtle gradations of business casual. For outsiders, tailored clothing has been replaced by something altogether more confusing.
In contrast, “the suit-and-tie uniform was an easy, democratic solution in an age of a rising urban middle class,” says Boyer. “It made identification easy, and any subtle manifestations of individual style could be left to the whims of personality.”
Then there is the matter of aesthetics. Instead of liberating us to pursue our most outrageous or creative fancies, casual dress codes have resulted in an undifferentiated mass of sneakers, t-shirts, and joggers. In the corporate world, suits and ties have been supplanted by schlubby fleece vests. Once derided as a symbol of staid conformity, the man in the gray flannel suit seems a relic from a halcyon age, a Roman statue pulled down by a horde of marauding barbarians in sweatpants.
It is not that men are suddenly uninterested in dressing well. Devotees of tailored clothing still argue over fabrics, shirt collar proportions, and the subtle differences between American, British, and Italian tailoring. Similar subcultures exist for sneakers, streetwear, military surplus, workwear, and a host of other styles. As with so many hobbies, the Internet has been a boon to the true enthusiast.
What was once part of the wider culture, however, is increasingly restricted to aficionados with the time and money to immerse themselves in tailored clothing. Those who don’t care about pick stitching or the intricacies of a sevenfold tie have fewer opportunities to absorb the basic rules of formal dress and fewer opportunities to put those rules into practice. Business casual-ification has left men confused and adrift, unsure of how to dress for occasions that still demand formality.
Is there a happy medium between tracksuits and a slavish devotion to the costumes of yesteryear? In many ways, the challenges facing the domestic clothing industry mirror broader changes within American society. “[In the] mid-twentieth century, most American men would have had a few decent ready-made tailored garments,” says Boyer. “But over the decades since then the middle has hollowed out. Most men have drifted toward the casual end, while a few have moved towards the bespoke (higher tailoring) end. The result is that there's no middle any more.”
Some of these challenges are connected to structural economic factors. Brooks Brothers’ recent struggles prompted it to close factories in New York, Massachusetts, and North Carolina, citing slim margins and competition with cheap foreign labor. Yet changing consumer tastes and bad business decisions also played a role in the decline of an iconic American brand. Elsewhere, Guy has noted that Brooks was hamstrung by corporate over-expansion and a series of expensive retail leases.
For the domestic garment industry to survive, Americans may need to recover a shared understanding of how and why to dress up. Hosting a dinner party or planning a wedding with a relaxed dress code is no longer novel or exciting, and a straightforward suit and tie requirement is easier to decipher than “creative cocktail attire” (whatever that means) and yields better photos, anyway. It’s also nice to bring an elevated sensibility to certain events. “One of the social trends that I'm particularly worried about is that we are losing our sense of occasion,” says Boyer. “I see people at weddings, funerals, graduations and commencements wearing the same clothes they would to rake leaves.”
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Men still want to dress well. The romantic aura that clings to figures like Cary Grant and John F. Kennedy is evidence enough that tailored clothing retains its appeal. In many ways, the challenge of reviving formal wear reflects a broader tension within conservatism. Namely, how do we sustain or recover traditions that have already been eroded by diffuse cultural, economic, and social factors?
There are no obvious answers, but in the meantime, I have a few modest suggestions for men who want to improve their wardrobes. Start with a navy or charcoal gray suit and dark dress shoes. When it comes to tailoring, the hoary cliche “buy less, buy better” is still a useful guide: a good suit and a good pair of shoes will last longer and look better than a closet full of cheap knock-offs. Find a decent tailor who can help you get fitted for your body type. And for God’s sake, don’t wear “fun socks.”