What We Wore

zoot suits

Dress Left, Dress Right: What We Once Wore to Work Said Who We Thought We Were, But No More

For most men in business, jackets and ties are stuffy throwbacks to an earlier era.

My first job, after grad school, was with a small company in ancient offices facing Manhattan’s Bryant Park, which before its renovation was a pretty wretched place. It was beastly hot that summer, and not every office in town had air conditioning  Subways were “cooled” by slow-turning ceiling fans that did little to relieve the heat or subdue the stink of summer.

Most of us removed our jackets the moment we hit the office, but there was no loosening of ties. And, if we were summoned to meetings, we knew our jackets were only an arm’s reach from our desks.  Decorum was maintained at all times.

Yes, the 70’s were times of rock-star-ready men’s clothes—sneakers (sometimes painted), shabby jeans and expensive T-shirts with holes artfully placed. But that kind of gear was mostly worn at chic ad agencies and fashion houses. You’d only have to walk the streets of midtown New York to know that, for most businessmen, daytime fashion was pretty dull and regimented.

Then something called “casual Friday” took hold. It meant that executives could ready themselves for weekends in the mountains or at the shore without having to change clothes before rushing off to late afternoon trains.

For younger guys, it was a chance to feel cool and also look cool. Individual taste came to the fore; we didn’t all look the same any more. And it wasn’t just men who took to the idea of  “casual.”

I remember an early morning staff meeting in a conference room wherein a newly hired assistant arrived in a strapless sundress. A few people blinked, but I don’t believe anything was said. To my knowledge, none of my male colleagues ever came to work in shorts. There were limits.

Then, little by little “casual Friday” became “casual weekdays,” and soon those of us who were deskbound could dress any way we liked. Executives and members of the sales force had to hew to jackets and ties, of course, but the rest of us felt liberated. If we weren’t meeting the public or someone being pitched for business, why dress like pouter pigeons?

Were we as productive as before? Was there any less respect manifest between superiors and underlings? Can’t say. But I don’t think anyone took advantage of the privilege we felt we’d earned. And, of course, the new-hires in our midst were incredulous that we’d once been compelled to dress for success every day of the year. Even the youngest old-timer began feeling like a dinosaur.

My friend Tom, who tended to be a mite conservative, came to work one day wearing a gray suit and a somber necktie. His appearance struck such an odd cord that people questioned him repeatedly, “Job interview today?”

He was mortified, of course, and as a result spent most of the day in his office, leaving only when it was time to pick up his dinner date. He’d selected a pretty pricey restaurant and was eager to look the part and also make a good impression on her.

When he arrived at her apartment, she opened the door and gasped when she saw what he was wearing. “Oh my God, who died?” she asked.

Since then, I don’t believe he’s ever wrapped a necktie around a shirt collar—to which I might add, “Amen.”


Very awesome photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

About Mervyn Kaufman

Mervyn Kaufman became an essayist and short-story writer after a long career as a writer and editor in the field of consumer magazine publishing. Merv is the author most recently of The Shamrock Way, the history of Arizona's biggest and most enduring food-service company, and coauthor of the Gary Stevens memoir, The Perfect Ride.


  1. In some ways, I feel like wearing a suit and tie is the new “eccentric” in the workplace. I totally understand that older generations carry the baggage of the enforced dress code in a way that the younger persons don’t have to deal with.

    I wear both almost every day, though I do enjoy the ability to mix it up with jeans and other apparel. I’m 28. I work in the larger mortgage industry, which while never as formal as “traditional banking” is still a somewhat conservative industry. I’m constantly amazed by the “casualness” of most places of business. I equate my suit and tie wearing to my preference and my desire to be well-dressed and to present well. In part, my job is a touch face-to-face customer service, a touch PR and a little bit of salesman mixed in. The difference in attitude between customers treating me well and like crap has been night and day since I started wearing a suit. Earned or not, I gain a ton of off-the-bat difference and respect when I dress in a suit and tie. It makes my own job simpler and more streamlined as I spend a lot less time establishing my credibility and authority (again, earned or not).

    In fact, when I started wearing suits to events where my (remote) co-workers were present, I started to see the men begin to dress up, as well. Just an observation I’ve chuckled over a few times.

    But in an age of “anything goes” for officewear, wearing the suit is daring and off-kilter. For a young ‘un like me, it’s what sets me apart and certainly not what makes me fit in. In no way would I want for the culture to change, either. I like my suits and ties and I’d hate to force anyone to wear things they thought were stuffy or uncomfortable. For me, it increases my productivity and provides a great little lift to my day-to-day self confidence. I’ve been doing it for the last year or so, and plan to continue indefinitely. My father remarked to me a while back that after months and months that it was the first time he had seen me without a tie in long time.

    And let’s be frank: men have very few wardrobe options compared to women. Ties, suits, vests and the like are our little ways to find variety in an otherwise limited wardrobe.

    And, lastly, let’s not miss the fact that suits are probably the easiest in terms of care. I wear a suit a few times (depending on the level of use) before I send it to the cleaner and pick it up and fresh and perfect again. Trading a large portion of my day-to-day wardrobe for suits makes laundry a thousand times less daunting as a necessity.

  2. Dan Kellams says:

    Don’t forget the hats. In the early 1960s, many of the older men in business–and a few of the younger ones–wore fedoras to work, but not in the office, unless they were newspaper reporters, who had a scruffy sarcastic image to maintain.

    It was said that when John F. Kennedy went bareheaded at his inaurgural, despite the snowy weather, it finished off fedora-wearing for good.

    And then, a few decades later, slovenly teenage boys began wearing baseball caps backward, as if they all played catcher. Not only that, they had the gross indecency to wear the caps indoors, even in restaurants.

    I once asked a man in the cap business when this fad would end. He replied, “As long as people have heads they will need caps.”

    • AnonymousDog says:

      The Kennedy story is a myth. Kennedy wore a hat to the inauguration, but took it off when he was sworn in and while he spoke.
      Hats had been on their way out for some time already when Kennedy was elected. The WWII generation began abandoning hats after the war. Kennedy just confirmed that abandonment by taking his off at the inauguration.

      The cost of a good hat, and the reluctance of retailers to devote resources to stocking a variety of different styles, colors, and sizes of hats is what finished them off. Baseball caps are mostly one size fits all.

  3. Years ago, when I was in the corporate world (at least 20 years ago) I worked for a health care organization and reported to the company president (George). He and I as well as one of my senior account execs had a business meeting with a client in down state Illinois. While waiting in the lobby, My rep had crossed his legs and Georges eyes darted toward the reps feet. I looked down and noticed he was wearing dark muted argyle socks. Later that evening, while we were at dinner and the rep went to the men’s room, the president turned to me and told me to not allow the rep to wear anything but solid socks.

    When I met with my rep and explained that he needs to see that he wears what George considers appropriate socks, the rep rolled his eyes and said “are you kidding?” Note that this guy was a senior rep and was a great employee. But it is what it is. George called the shot, no matter how anyone felt. Appropriate business attire is dictated by the business and level you work.

  4. Since then, I don’t believe he’s ever wrapped a necktie around a shirt collar—to which I might add, “Amen.”

    While id never wear a suit n tie again, as i find it dismal and can wear ‘women’s clothing’ in public to expand my modest clothing palette . I have recently warmed to the suit n tie, just for one sole reason. It is so foul, that as with the fashion for young men to wear their trouser waists under their buttocks, that so few women will wear it.

    Of the western trousers suits, the sacque suit and its offspring (business, lounge, tuxedo suits) are usually dreadful – unless the jacket buttons start from near shoulder height.
    the look can be slightly improved by the wearing of a small hat (though not with the tux) – gives the silhouette and bottletop finish.
    Or, without a hat but with the top button of the shirt undone, and the tie up to that point – well it looked good when Frank Sinatra did it.
    The double breasted jacket with wide lapels 1930s style is a pretty good look too.
    Trouser suits look best with a kneelength coat like the frock coat, morning coat, zoot coat.
    The length gives a gravity, a grandeur, to a man.

    The 4inhand tie goes better with a winged or mandarin collar. The tie with the current soft foldover collar is dreadful. Looks scruffy cos 1. Enhances the asymmetric nature of the knot 2. Doesnt hide the gap/top button of the shirt 3. Certainly does not flatter the necks of a. stout and overstout men b. men with saggy necklines.
    The tie is a variation of the 1700/1800s neckstock, tied around the neck of men in the cold uk to wear their necks warm and keep their shirts tight around their neck for further warmth. It is odd why a tie is still worn when the shirt collar does not cover the neck, and overheats worn if in warm weather. the tie has lost its scarflike and holding function.

    The ludicrous lapels that infantalise will go along with the tie(i have thoughts as to the varying causes of the disappearances, but im not in the mood to find and type them now). To atune your eyes, look at jackets with bordered lapels, they make men look boyish, like a middle school prefect.

  5. I suspect that the suit and tie are going to make a partial comeback. we’ll see.

    I like it when I get to wear a suit and tie. I usually don’t when I have to wear a suit and tie.


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