Do business suits still suit business?

 Nearly a year into the new abnormal we wonder if certain office traditions are going extinct. 

There you are, on your Microsoft Teams meeting. Greeting you is a mix of familiar and unfamiliar faces. You and your team are meeting with a new client. But something isn’t quite right (besides the fact everyone is working remotely). Sure, one person’s home office is in the garage while another has a very colorful background going on, but that’s not it. It’s the person wearing…a baseball hat?  

We’ve all made numerous adjustments and sacrifices as we trudge onward through the pandemic. Over the past year many of the traditions we used to practice without much thought are going by the wayside. From our kids’ schooling to how we socialize to the one white collar institution that seemed invulnerable to change – business attire.  

In this new era of living and working online, one can’t help but wonder if business suits still suit business. 

Business…Casual 

Ever since the French bequeathed us with the cravat, the forebearer of the necktie, fancy dress for formalities has been, well, a formality. For more than 150 years, a sharply pressed suit has been a mainstay of the business world. Even before the advent of air conditioning we’d been applying social pressure to each other to wear long sleeve shirts, long pants and coats indoors – in the height of summer, no less – as part of our shared conception of what business should look like. 

However, over the past few decades there has been some achingly slow change afoot. Casual Fridays have been an office custom for awhile now, though In many cases this amounted nothing more risqué than a polo shirt and jeans – or a Hawaiian shirt like Bill Lumbergh gamely proposed. No one dared get to get too casual though. 

But now here we are on Teams for the majority of our day and the dress code is decidedly more casual than ever before. So why is that happening?  

In a December, 2020 article published by Northeastern University, associate teaching professor of marketing Daniele Fay Mathras said the pandemic has forced people to re-evaluate who they are and how they present themselves. 

“People over the last year have developed a new way of being, a new way of defining who they are, maybe prioritizing themselves a little bit more and their comfort, because we need that,” Mathras said.

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Perhaps the whole contrivance of business attire is one of the many facades the pandemic has exposed, like the notion widespread, long-term remote work was untenable.

While technologies like SharePoint and Teams certainly make remote work easier and more productive, it’s been viable for a long time. It’s just that few were willing to make that leap until they were forced to do so.  

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Besides, as wittily pointed out by Bloomberg last Summer, “Now that the boss has already seen you in a rumpled flannel shirt and your old-school client has gotten used to your  Jon Snow mane, it feels pointless to revert to pre-pandemic fashion pretenses.” 

Being successful in business is at least in part about being innovative. Pretense is the enemy of innovation. While it’s undeniable this past year has brought with it a lot of pain and hardship, it’s also given us time for self-reflection and to evaluate the things that are genuinely important to us. And for a lot of people the business suit just didn’t make the cut.   

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