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Schlub-wear is comfy, but maybe put on a suit now and then.
I wear suits probably four to six times a year. I wear a suit on the first day of classes each semester, just as a sort of ritual. I feel that it impresses on the students that I’m serious, it lets them see that I actually own a suit, and there’s a certain male-model aspect of showing some male law students what it looks like to be professionally dressed. (A certain percentage of them really don’t know, and it occasionally shows in unfortunate ways when interview season rolls around.)
I wear a suit for certain important meetings, and for funerals, and that’s about it. I thought about it because I wore one today, for a meeting of the Board of the University of Tennessee’s Institute for American Civics. It’s a pretty fancy group, with two former governors and a bunch of famous academics, but I don’t have to wear a suit for it – Randy Boyd, the president of the University of Tennessee, doesn’t. He wears what I usually teach in – a nice sportcoat over a polo shirt over slacks or jeans.
But honestly I think I wear a suit to these meetings just because I have quite a few nice suits in my closet and I seldom get to wear them.
I wore this gray Canali today, since it was cool enough outside for flannel. The tie is one my daughter gave me. I think it comes from the Met.
Whenever I wear a suit and tie I get a lot of compliments, but I still don’t wear them much. This seems to be the general pattern for men. When I used to lurk on Yik Yak, the campus social media site, women were always going gaga over how attractive the fraternity pledges looked when they dressed in suits, as they were required to on Mondays. (The rest of the week they dress like John Fetterman.)
Men on Yik Yak, generally speaking, wanted women to wear as little as possible. Women wanted men to wear suits. So why don’t they? (We?)
You might say it’s about comfort, but a properly fitting modern suit is really pretty comfortable. It’s true that they require more care, and will run up your laundry and dry-cleaning bills in a way that jeans and t-shirts won’t, but still. And there are some modern synthetic suits that don’t look like tacky 1970s polyester and don’t require special care at all.
I ordered this one on a whim last year after seeing endless Internet ads, just out of curiosity. They don’t even take a size, they just ask you your height and weight and have you select a build from a list of silhouettes. Mine turned out pretty well. (The brand is Sene. It cost about $400.) It’s a little skinnier than I would have chosen, but it fits fine, that’s just the style today, though I prefer a more Italian look in the shoulders. (Pictures by Helen, who likes to photograph me in suits).
You can pack this one folded up in a suitcase, leave it there for a few days, and take it out without any wrinkles that last past hanging it up. I’ve worn it for travel a few times.
As I said, I bought it last year out of curiosity, but I don’t really buy suits anymore because they don’t wear out, since I wear them so seldom. And classic men’s styles don’t really go out of fashion, which is a good thing since most of my suits are 15 or more years old. (Sportcoats too, though I do occasionally buy a new one of those). But the point here is, you don’t need to spend a lot of money on dry cleaning to wear a decent suit.
So to recap: Men in suits generally look much better, especially to women. Suits are not hard to wear. And since I see Hawaiian type shirts for sale at $150, they’re not even super expensive.
So why don’t men wear them?
One reason, I guess, is a fear of looking stuffy. Even the term “the suits” is a derogatory reference to managers who care more about their resumes and organizational politics than to accomplishing the mission at hand. And it stings, or used to, because reflects a measure of truth, or used to.
But now the people who run things don’t wear suits. They tend to dress business casual. You may be rebelling against 1950s managers, or at least 1980s managers, but in 2023, managers for the most part dress like everyone else: Not too well. And now wearing a suit in most workplaces would fit in as oddly as dressing like John Fetterman would have back in Mad Men days.
There’s some research indicating that dressing better imbues people with more confidence, causing them to do better. It might be true.
On the other hand, I quit wearing suits as my regular teaching uniform because I felt that I had a better rapport with the students when I dressed less formally. For the first couple of years I wore suits because I had a closet full from law practice, and back then pretty much the whole faculty wore suits. (Except for Grayfred Gray, who dressed like a Hobbit: Lots of green, often in corduroy, usually with a vest.) Then our A/C went out, I ditched the suits for khakis and a polo, and despite the heat I felt like I connected better in less formal wear.
And maybe we don’t need suits anymore. In one of her books -- I think it was Bourgeois Dignity – Deirdre McCloskey notes that in the old days, without credit ratings, etc., middle- and especially upper-middle-class people advertised their trustworthiness by various forms of expensive signaling, which included wearing involved clothing that wasn’t particularly comfortable (modern suits are comfy, but try wing collars and lots of buttoned up wool) and was kind of expensive. This advertised that the person so dressed was probably one of substance. And suits, unlike the garb of previous years, were ill-suited for wearing swords, and featured something tied around your neck, which isn’t combat-friendly. The point of a suit, as somebody (maybe Deirdre) said, was to show that its wearer was there to talk, not fight.
Now people are surveilled and credit-rated to a fare-the-well, and gentlemanly (or un-gentlemanly) combat is uncommon in commercial circles, so we don’t need to signal those things anymore. Dress like John Fetterman – hey, the Senate changed its rules to accommodate him – and you’re still fine. At least, fine enough.
But James Bond still wears a suit, and shows like Mad Men have a certain appeal. Comfy as today’s schlub-wear is, I can’t help but feel that it lacks a certain panache and mystique that the dress of previous generations possessed.
Well, we can live without panache, and mystique. And likely will for the foreseeable future.
But maybe put on a suit now and then, just because.