New York Apparel Peopling of New York, Spring 2015

New York Apparel

Why Do People Wear Suits?

The Suit and New York

By Henry Levine

Suit and Skirt Combo for Women

Suit For Men from fashion catalogue

Suit For Men from fashion catalogue


The origins of the modern business suit are similarly complicated and contradictory to one another as the contemporary arguments for them. “Fashion” as we know it today didn’t develop in Europe until the late 13th or early 14th century. Before then, clothing tended to be loose and had less gender differentiation. On the other hand, modern clothing, after this point, was form fitting and emphasized the body characteristics of the wearer. Between the 15th and 18th century, fashion developed different pieces and versions of what would eventually become the 2 piece standard suit, which has remained functionally unchanged to this day.

How the suit developed in France and England sheds some light into the tension between the suit as a worker’s equalizer and a symbol of the elite. In France, the suit became associated with the working class as a part of the Revolution. The nobles in France were the only ones who were allowed and had the means to wear fancy and colorful garments. Because both the proletariat class and the bourgeoisie wore suits, it demonstrated the principles of equality and fraternity that were central to their revolt against the privilege of the ancient regime. However, in England, the suit was first adopted by the elites and then filtered down to the working class which sought to follow the styles of the elites to enhance their own statuses. The suit arrived in America as a result of our taste for British culture. However, somewhat ironically, here it was associated with “meaner types” who would have offended the British elites who they derived their fashion from.

More generally, there were common reasons for the adoption of the suit in Europe. It fit with various environmental and habitual factors in Europe. For example, the mild climate and the European seated resting position made the suits less uncomfortable for Europeans than they would later peoples who wore them in hotter climates and who sat differently. Cultural currents flowing through Europe during this time period also helped spread the suit. Europeans were obsessed with Parisian fashion, so as the masses in Paris adopted the suit, as did many others across the continent. Thinkers of the Enlightenment favored dressing in plain, simple ways that didn’t connote elitism. The rise of capitalism also played a role in the adoption of suits. As the gap between exploiter and exploited became more entrenched, and the suit helped to mask this inequality by placing workers and their employers in the same clothing. It also helped to put workers into the mindset needed for the new industrialized economy where they could no longer own their own land or express themselves as artisans. They needed to become interchangeable pieces of machinery.

It is worth noting that even within Europe there were attempts to resist the domination of suits over the country’s traditional garb. Countries like Poland made efforts to promote their traditional clothing and costumes over Western suits and in Scotland, people invented the kilt as a symbol of nationalism and resistance against the British. Ultimately these countries mostly failed, however some remnants of their traditional clothing remain a part of their national fashion. For example, the kilt is still worn in Scotland in various non-ceremonial contexts.

Outside of Europe, the spread of the suit was dominant but not necessarily uniform. Colonies with European settlers followed fashion trends back home and picked up the suit that way. Some countries, such as Japan and Russia, willingly adopted the suit as a part of their modernization efforts. They wished to catch up with and compete with the West and they believed that this required them to abandon many of their old traditions in favor of the new industries and styles that made the West successful. In general, the countries that most easily accepted the suit were already relatively developed when they first came into contact with European imperialists. In other non-Western countries, people took to the suit more slowly. Elites, the young, men, city dwellers rather than the working class, older generations, women, and people from rural areas were the first to wear suits in their countries in order to make dealing with European colonizers easier. Even then, they did not fully accept their new Western clothing. People would wear Western attire in public but would wear their traditional clothing at home. They would also sometimes mix their traditions with Western ones to create something unique to their region that still fit within the larger Westernized scheme of the world.

In many ways, suits were spread to other countries through various forms of coercion. As textile manufacturing became more efficient, it became cheaper and cheaper to purchase the mass-produced Western suits rather than spend large amounts of time and resources sewing your own clothing. More recently, Western nations have been exporting second hand clothing to poor countries around the world, with similar effect. In some colonies, the colonizers conscripted the locals into military service, which required them to wear the military uniform version of the suit. In some cases where the colonizers were exploiting the local population for labor, suits were part of an effort to break the individuality and cultural identities of the workers. In the United States, the government would provide Native American Reservations with Western clothes and force the children to wear suits to schools.

Despite this, there were several efforts which, to varying degrees of success, sought not only to resist the suit, but to refute it as part of a larger protest against their condition of oppression. In India under British rule, Gandhi once wore a suit as a British educated lawyer. When he began his protest against British Rule, as part of the Swadeshi Movement, he advocated for a boycott of British goods, including clothing manufactured in Britain. He told people to only wear simple, home-spun clothing in order to starve the British of a market for their cheaply produced, culturally consuming goods. Today in India, it is rare to find a politician that wears a suit. Most wear clothing similar to that worn by Nehru as a way to appeal to a broad and diverse population without giving in to Western influences.

What does the suit mean to contemporary people?

In an attempt to gain an insight on how contemporary people interpret the meaning of the suit, I searched for discussions about suits and business attire online and found some interesting and confusing lines of thought.

On an online forum thread, a businessperson from the Midwest made a post to ask what “business casual” meant in New York City for a conference he were going to. The responses seemed mixed, but what I was able to gather is that business casual is a grey area which encompasses several articles of clothing, such as slacks, khakis, jeans, polo shirts, and button down shirts which I tend to lump together as uncomfortable formal wear. The only consistent piece of advice people seemed to agree upon was that you didn’t have to wear a jacket or tie and that it depended on the industry this person was in. However, the most insight about this whole thread came several posts in when the original poster commented to clarify that she was a woman. Prior to this, all but one poster just assumed that she was a man and gave advice accordingly. After she clarified her gender, people completely switched their recommendations. Where before when he was a she, the posters would have never recommended for the man to wear shorts even though the conference was in the summer, however they were quick to allow for skirts and short sleeve tops to account for the weather in the case of the woman. This is a great example of how formal attire has gendered meaning to it. Men have to wear standardized suits because culturally, they are still the professionally important gender. Women can and are expected to change their appearance because this implies that they still serve a decorative role in comparison to the male interchangeable labor role. This is unfair both ways. Men have no choice of what to wear, but this means that they don’t have to make decisions in order to be accepted in a setting where they need to advance their careers. Women have the freedom to choose their clothing, but this means that they have to spend extra time, money, and effort trying to figure out how to dress in order to gain the same acceptance as a man gets by throwing on his pre-selected uniform.

I also found a blog post written by Mark Cuban, a successful tech entrepreneur and venture capitalist who is vehemently against suits. He (rightly) points out that there does not seem to be any good reasons to wear suits. They are uncomfortable, impractical, expensive to buy and maintain. He thinks if you need one to feel confident, then you might not be very smart in the first place. When he was still poor and starting up his first company, he spent money to have two suits while he was living in a small apartment with 5 other people. Once he became successful, he decided to never wear them again except for situations like weddings or funerals where it would be more of a hassle to answer the question “why aren’t you wearing a suit?” than it would be to just wear one. He asserts that if CEOs ended the requirement for their employees to wear suits, it would be like giving them “a tax free raise” without cutting into the profits of the company.

The comments section was interesting because while there seemed to be more posts arguing against Mark and for the suit, they tended to get severely down-voted in comparison to the posts which were against the suit. In many cases, the posts arguing for the suit seemed highly aggressive, snobby, and circular. Some argue that they, or women, like suits without delving into why this might be. Some try to disparage others who don’t wear suits by asserting that they are slobs or children who don’t care enough to look professional and therefore can’t be trusted. In response to Mark’s assertion that suits are uncomfortable, one commentary argued that they are comfortable as long as you buy a good one or tailor your suit to fit you. However this seems to ignore or contradict the point about the cost of the suit. Several posters claimed that suits were fashionable and allowed men to customize their appearance and express themselves, but this is in direct contradiction to the conformity and professionalism role that suits have and negates the idea that it frees men from making choices about their appearance. The argument that suits make it easy for men to dress is equally confusing, as it would seem to contradict the idea people have that the suit indicates that a person has put thought into their appearance. In the comments of another article, someone made a statement which reinforces the idea that the suit plays a role in capitalism: “You turn up to work to do a job, not express yourself.” In modern capitalist society, people are not self-expressive individuals. They are a means of production. The suit is necessary in the business context because it strips workers of their individuality, making them easy to replace and discard like an orange peel when they are no longer useful.

The Case Against Suits

Knowing what you now know about suits, I implore you, whatever your role in life, to rethink this tool of oppression that has become entrenched in our society. Humans are people not machines. They need to be able to express themselves and their cultures. Even if you can’t let go of the premise that people need to have some standard appearance in a work setting, there are more sensible guidelines that could allow people to wear clothing which is more comfortable, expressive, and less expensive to them.



“Globalization reconsidered: the historical geography of Modern Western Male Attire”- Wilbur Zelinsky

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