"If you have had to wear a suit to work every day, haven't you wondered why? If you are the CEO or in charge of a company, haven't you wondered yourself why you are making your employees waste all that money and come to work and spend the day in uncomfortable clothing?"
Not a rant from a random geek, but the words of a self-made billionaire and owner of the Dallas Mavericks Mark Cuban.
So why do people wear suits? Because if they don't, it's an affront to convention. But if adherence to an arbitrary dress code is merely a means of showing respect, then those who dress in accordance to convention are under the same brand of control as people forced to wear burkas or penis sheathes. If within the framework of modern societies dress codes are regarded as necessary, then they ought to limit rather than prescribe, pared down to the few items that are unacceptable rather than the one or two things that are acceptable. An explicit and specific dress code, as history has shown, doesn't lead to equality in partnerships, discussions, or negotiations.
Yet still the question arises—why suits and ties, as opposed to something else? As all fashion trends appear little more than arbitrary companions to time, let's have a brief look at history: France and England, 1600s—the king orders courtiers to wear suits—over centuries the design evolves—major influences on design include industrial revolution across the U.S. and Europe, encouraging a more pragmatic uniform than florid Baroque styles—finally, U.S., 1800s—the suit becomes more or less what we call today the Business Suit.
Its current partner, the necktie, can be traced back two millennia, when it was worn ornamentally by soldiers. In the 19th century, it indicated membership to political parties, private clubs, or schools and was the unequivocal accessory for dandies, but it wasn't until the 20th century when the tie finally became required wearing.
While the suit at one time at least had a practical edge over other clothing as practical and inexpensive, attempts to justify the tie's existence—let alone its compulsory accompaniment to the suit—don't seem to amount to anything more than lame excuses describing the tie as a handy tissue (go figure how that fits into today's corporate environments) or as a mainly decorative piece to cover laces on the front of shirts—a function rendered obsolete nearly 200 years ago with the advent of mass-produced buttons.
In his essay "A Call for Professional Attire," Erik M. Jensen, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, cites tielessness as a sign of a general lack of professionalism. When he poses the question "Are ties that important?," cynics in creative industries might like to respond, "To control oxygen supply to the brain," but Jenson answers his own query: "For men, yes." He continues, "The tie is important because it's always been important; its importance makes it important." The circular argument indicates that the tie's importance ought to be left to the psychologist to determine, especially given its clichéd designation as a phallic symbo and that in most cases ties are purchased by women for their men.
As a major portion of the U.S. economy, California made its mark on dress codes in America's corporate world when the once-creative hard and software industries settled on the notoriously casual American west coast, a trend that started in the 1980s and peaked in the 1990s with the explosion of the dotcom bubble. The growing importance of the IT industry influenced others, dress codes relaxed to include "casual Fridays," which eventually morphed into daily "business casual" or even simply casual-without-the-business dress codes in many industries, extending as far as traditionally conservative workplaces including banks and law and investment firms. But with dotcom death, the business suit has been making a comeback in the new millennium in the West; the number of workplaces allowing business casual attire is on the decline, and as of 2005, even NBA players are required to suit up, in suit coats, while sitting courtside but not playing, and in business casual attire during any other off-court professional appearances.
In China, however, the Western business suit is relatively new, and the tie even more so; the suit started to make appearances in the early 20th century when Qing Dynasty gowns were still dominating the fashion culture. After the fall of the dynasty, Sun Yat-sen (Sun Zhongshan) allegedly instructed Huang Longsheng, a tailor from southern China, to design a suit that would take into account both Chinese tradition—to resist simply adopting another Western fad—as well as the trends of the world. The resulting garment, known as the Sun Yat-sen suit (中山服), saw significant design changes over the course of the next half-century, a major and lasting one being the incorporation of elements of German military dress, including a turndown collar and four symmetrically placed pockets. Despite its roots in foreign design, popular mythology assigned revolutionary and patriotic significance to the Zhongshan fu.
Starting in the 1920s and '30s, civil servants were required to wear the suit, and after 1949 it became the standard dress for most people for both work and private life. The widespread wearing of the uniform came to an end after Mao's death, but for leading members of the Communist Party it was still the expected attire until the late '80s. The first time a high-ranking official ever appeared on TV without a Mao-suit was in 1984, when reformist party leader Hu Yaobang donned a dark blue Western-style suit; the occasion was noted as extraordinary and symbolic. It wasn't until the 1990s and Jiang Zemin's presidency that other leading party members began appearing in Western suits; nowadays, most Chinese urban employees own or wear a suit, even in industries you wouldn't expect in the West.
But this recently established standard is already loosening. President Hu Jintao—known for his generally conservative decisions, including wardrobe choices—made a public tieless appearance in summer 2007. The appearance was acknowledged as a forward-looking move, as it appears to encourage the wearing of lighter garments and fewer clothes, thus reducing the need for frigid air conditioning in the corporate world. Although a tie seems befitting of National People's Congress meetings, Hu explained, "[We] should act as a model to save China's limited energy resources."
So economic and ecologic considerations may set an early end—as is the case with many issues—to the debate over corporate dress code or at least to the compulsory tie, perhaps with China leading the way.
Unless, that is, you count take into account the vision of yet another high-ranking corporate elite—IKEA founder Ingvar Kamprad, whose eschewing of the suit and tie within the corporation is just one part of his determination to maintain a non-hierarchal business structure.
This article was originally published in CHENGDOO citylife Magazine, issue 11 ("guanxi"). Illustration by Largo Damatta
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