Ideas

Why white-collar men all dress alike

White-collars hurrying to work
iStock

Men’s clothing is a notoriously starched market. Men’s magazines labor to present tiny tweaks as innovations, and the fashion world can spend years trying to push the average Joe into, say, a slightly slimmer-fitting suit. Ties widen and narrow, collars expand and shrink, and pleats crease and flatten. (They’re back, supposedly.) But when a man opens up his closet in the morning, he is faced with essentially the same options he has had for decades.

“It’s kind of shocking how enduring business attire has been,” said Susan Kaiser, a professor of gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at the University of California Davis, whose research focuses on clothing. “If you think of ‘Star Trek’ and things like that, some futurists were predicting we’d all be dressing like that. That really hasn’t happened.” For sociologists and fashion scholars, this homogeneity presents some interesting questions. Why are men content to dress in the same uniform decade after decade? And how has the suit come to not just symbolize power, but to perpetuate it?

White-collar men have been wearing suits to work for well over 100 years now. The suit became standard workwear for urban clerical workers in Europe and North America around the 1880s, according to Christopher Breward, a cultural historian at the University of Edinburgh. Around then, office work was becoming professionalized and regulated just as clothing production and sales were becoming more efficient. Voila: “The sharp, mass-produced lounge suit soon became synonymous with the sharp, mass-produced desk worker,” Breward wrote in an e-mail. Suddenly, an item of clothing that had existed since the 17th century was the de facto “uniform” in the increasingly dominant office. Breward’s book “The Suit: Form, Function and Style” will be published this spring.

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By the mid-20th century, the uniformity of white-collar men’s appearances was so complete that cultural critics began reading it as a symbol of homogeneity of the soul: think “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” Deviation was akin to deviousness. “A shirt that wasn’t white in the 1950s would have been seen as kind of eccentric,” said Erynn Masi de Casanova, author of the new book “Buttoned Up: Clothing, Conformity, and White Collar Masculinity.” “And it used to be a huge faux pas for a man to go out without a hat.”

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But at the apex of conformity culture, the seeds of freedom — or at least khakis — were being sown. First came casual Friday, a concept De Casanova tentatively traces to Hawaii in the 1940s or 1950s, where employers allowed workers to don the islands’ traditional floral shirts on “Aloha Fridays.” Other standards have eased a bit in the intervening decades. Some (but not all) colored shirts are commonplace now, and some (but not all) patterns are respectable. Hats have been doffed. And, more dramatically, many workplaces now encourage business casual rather than the traditional two-piece.

Even in more casual offices, however, men high on the food chain tend to wear suits. And so do men meeting with clients or going out on job interviews. De Casanova’s research suggests that there’s a reason that the suit lingers as “the epitome of prototypical business masculinity.” Among the dozens of men she interviewed for her book in Cincinnati, San Francisco, and New York, many said business-casual codes actually made them nervous. “Having less guidance and having the standard be less clear causes anxiety,” she said. “They know what a suit involves . . . but business casual doesn’t have a solid established meaning, so they have to feel it out in their different workplaces.” Across cities, industries, and occupations, she writes, she found men “embracing conformity, toeing the line, choosing to blend in rather than stand out.”

The suit can be constricting, both literally — witness the ritual loosening of the collar upon arriving home — and figuratively. But it is also empowering. De Casanova argues that white-collar men accept the narrow expectation of their work dress codes because it helps them maintain their status, aligned as it is with white, middle-class, heterosexual masculinity. Groups with a less sure grip on power tend to be freer in their fashion choices; Kaiser points out that for African-American men and gay men, it is much more acceptable to be interested in style and to dress with more personality.

Conformity seems to become even more important in times of economic insecurity. Several of de Casanova’s sources said their offices had been somewhat casual until the financial crisis of 2007. As the severity of the downturn became clear, their dress codes began to tighten. “When the economy softened, then we were looking for all kinds of reasons to get things getting better,” the head of a national recruiting firm told her. “Let’s get everyone a little more . . . bounce in their step.” And De Casanova points out that in service-oriented industries without precise metrics of individual success, looking competent becomes one of the few ways to signal one’s worth as an employee.

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Trendsetters have announced that suede and x-shaped necklines are among the fads that will define the year in women’s fashion. For men, however, noticeable change in 2016 is much less likely. And so, the suit lives on. “I have no doubt it will continue to evolve for another 400 years,” Breward said, “so long as a sophisticated human civilization, which in some ways it symbolizes, endures.”

Ruth Graham, a writer in New Hampshire, is a regular contributor to Ideas.