Vox recently ran a piece on “the decline of the suit” in American business and public life. Americans not only buy fewer suits, but the suit has also declined as a status symbol. Consider how Mark Zuckerberg appeared in his testimony to Congress last year, which the New York Times described as the “I’m Sorry” suit:
It said to suspicious, establishment lawmakers: I am in your house, I will accept your rules. It said, O.K., maybe we in Silicon Valley really don’t know best. It said: I acknowledge the responsibility I bear and take this seriously. It acceded to the general interpretation that this was a growing-up moment, because in the iconography of clothing, the suit is the costume of the grown-up, while the T-shirt is the costume of the teenager, the off-duty, the breaker of rules.
As a “costume of the grown-up,” the suit is what you wear to fit in rather than stand out. One view of this expectation is that the suit represents successful integration: you show respect for the norms and expectations of others in your environment. Another way to look at it is that suits represent the repression of individuality: you wear a suit precisely in contexts where you aren’t in control like court appearances, mid-level management, service sector jobs, interviews.
The Vox piece celebrates the trend toward casual wear for primarily for its egalitarian benefits. Eliminating formal dress codes makes elite spaces more accessible to previously excluded groups. I think we should be skeptical of this view. It’s worth noting that the trend toward casual wear has occurred at the same time that social mobility has cratered in the United States. Greater opportunity for self-expression in our wardrobe choices has occurred precisely at the same time that Americans have become more racially and economically segregated.
Rather than allowing people to fit in, casual dress codes often reinforce the distinction between insiders and outsiders. This is because knowing how to dress and what constitutes good taste requires insider knowledge, or what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “cultural capital.” A nice example is the unspoken rule against wearing brown dress shoes in the City of London. A further anecdote Tyler Cowen shared from a reader also illustrates the point:
When I was a young associate at the biggest law firm in Rome, casual friday was the time when my Sicilian provincial middle-lower class background was most transparent. I didn’t have the money for smart but impressive casual clothing. But above all I didn’t have the cultural and social capital to know how to dress casual in the right way. My casual dressing was made of nerdy, unfashionable and cheap clothes: you could immediately say that I haven’t accomplished anything. And I didn’t even know that there was a “rich” way to dress casual. A decent suit and tie is not that expensive but, above all, is socially and culturally accessible in a very easy, standard and replicable way.
Perhaps there’s no better example of a “rich” way to dress casual than the $295 price tag on Mark Zuckerberg’s signature gray tee shirt. (You can buy a decent first suit from JCrew Factory for the same amount).
It’s also plausible that the contrapositive of the hypothesis I mentioned above is true: where social mobility is high, and strangers from many different backgrounds need to interact together in public settings or in the workplace, dress codes tend to be quite rigid. In one respect, this seems like a very good thing — a rigid dress code means one less thing to worry about in an environment where there may be a lot of culture shock and uncertainty about what the appropriate norms are.
We should be more wary, then, about uncritically celebrating the decline of the suit and treating it exclusively as a symbol of sexism and classism. The trend toward casual attire among people who can get away with it seems to be precisely a symptom of diminishing rather than growing opportunity.