On a few occasions recently, mainstream commentators have been predicting, less than ruefully, the demise of formal menswear. The global pandemic has left us all, so the narrative goes, with a greater appreciation of the things that really matter in life. To the masses, it seems, dressing up in a collar and tie isn’t one of them. Although I’m viscerally opposed to their rationale, mainstream commentators are probably right on this occasion. The suited look, if not actually deceased, is certainly not making any holiday plans for next year. For the discerning Modernist aesthete, the end of the stylistic race to the bottom can only be a good thing.
The appearance of these pieces in the press at various times over the last eighteen months has tended to coincide with the removal of Covid 19 restrictions and predictions of a sustained return of office folk to their office lives. After multiple false dawns, during which neither of those things happened, finally, the sun appears to be rising in earnest on the post-pandemic cultural world. In western Europe at least, people are now returning in number to the business setting. Office blocks are filling up and the daily commute for many is now something more than the bleary-eyed 30 seconds it took us to get to the spare room in our pants since last March. Cue the opportunist advertising campaigns from high street menswear retailers looking to flog us the fantastic formals we need to accompany our coming migration. One retailer has even gone as far as to invent the concept of ‘office envy’ in a cynical effort to put sartorial FOMO into the vulnerable, and wind into the sails of its workplace sales.
For more than half a century, the office has been the final stronghold of the suit, shirt and tie. The last bastion of opposition to a veritable shitzkreig waged by the casualisation of menswear. The global pandemic has now ensured that the relentless march of universally unsharp dressing into every corner of modern life is now all but unstoppable. Where our grandparents, and certainly our great grandparents, invariably wore a whistle to the pub, the pictures and the police station, today some of us can barely be arsed to tuck our t-shirts into the elasticated waistband of our often suspiciously stained sweatpants for a funeral. Heaven help us all.
For all their commercially motivated enthusiasm for the smart outfit, formal menswear retailers are probably peeing into a category 4 hurricane of indifference. Firstly, universal full-time office life is unlikely ever to return. If it does, an open-neck casual shirt and smart jeans will probably do as the default clothing choice for many. It’s likely that more flexible working arrangements will be standard, permitting employees to balance business tasks with Amazon deliveries and feeding the squirrels. This so-called ‘hybrid’ working pattern will inevitably lead to our domestic persona bleeding over into our office self far more than previously. In a reversal of pre-pandemic norms, the workplace may eventually be seen as an extension of the home. This is wonderful news. Taking one’s whole self to work is undeniably positive in terms of performance and well-being.
So how can the anticipated death of the formal outfit ever be a good thing for those gifted with impeccable taste? For a start, I for one certainly won’t lose any sleep over the loss of the spectacle of blokes dutifully but reluctantly (read badly) wearing a suited outfit to work. Formal dress needs to be approached with passion and each outfit assembled with love, time and attention to detail. Where these are not present, the finished ensemble can be more offensive to the aesthete’s eye than mass market sports casual. A miss is as good as a mile.
There’s also a more tactical reason why we Modernists should be putting up the bunting to celebrate the death of the suit. Mods have always delighted in swimming against the ebbing and flowing tides of convention. It’s what we do best. Thanks to Covid, the early middle years of the current decade promise to give us the very best opportunity for two generations to do just that. If, as widely expected, the bricks and mortar business environment does indeed become the territory of trainers and trackies, those of us remaining resolutely suited and booted will stand out from the commuter and c-suite hoards like never before. And that, dear reader, is what Modernism is all about. So, bring it on, I say. The suit is dead-long live the suit.
Image: Adam of London.