POSTED ON JUNE 10, 2009:
Suitable for Summer?
Business attire impractical for sweltering summer months
It's going to be hot as hell this summer. My scientific theory has been reached by the fact that it was a freakishly warm winter and because at the very cusp of summer, the temperature remains in the very balmy 90 degree range from early morning and extends way past dark. As I possess a weak long term-memory, this could be the regular temperature routine every year. Instead, it just feels like the summer is on a heat trajectory that will have rivers boiling by mid-July.
Unlike the charms of winter, when you can bundle up in layers to combat extreme temperatures and still be appropriate for all occasions, summer clothing doesn't extend those same opportunities. The casual clothing we wear to stay cool doesn't translate easily into a work environment. Certainly, some businesses have a more liberal dress code that permit shorts, but so often a working guy or gal is stuck in sweltering pants. But no one suffers the wrath of the summer heat quite like the men functioning every day in suits.
Ah yes, the plight of the white-collar man. They still exist, however small a group they are. When you are accomplishing a task for eight or more hours a day (i.e. your job) you should be comfortable while doing it. Comfort seems a distant thought when your work wardrobe consists of a shirt, jacket, and pants in (typically) dark colors. And this warm work wear does get regulated most entirely to men. Women in the same career fields that require more formal attire and do wear suits still catch a few breaks. A woman's suit will still feature a long sleeved jacket, but she is still able to wear a skirt to assist in cooling her down. She can also pair a professional-looking tank top or short-sleeved shirt under her jacket. A man's suit has always been and continues to be a long sleeved shirt, jacket, pants and tie.
Granted, society as a whole has come a long way from the "Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" times when every man left the house in full-on suit mode. Stretching my own brain to recall family members or friends, including those who own their own businesses, I came up significantly short in finding just one whose profession required a business suit as their professional wardrobe.
Travers Mahan, owner of the same named store at 8146 South Lewis Avenue, has been a part of men's professional and formal fashion for the last 46 years, including being a retailer at that location for the last 12 years. He believes that the change in men's attire--going from every man in business suits everyday to the random business wear today--occurred in the 1980s. He said that the economic hardships of the 1980s meant that businesses wanted to give extra incentives to their employees without actually giving fiscal incentives. By lessening the restrictions of a dress code whereas suits weren't required, employees didn't have to invest as much money into their wardrobe. Polo shirts are cheaper than the upkeep and purchase of seven to 10 business suits. Mahan said this way, businesses were giving their employees a little more money without actually having to pay them more money.
And what a difference those 20 odd years have made. The work environment, as time progresses away from the "Gray Flannel Suit" era, has still progressed. Technology, I can only assume, is a huge factor in the decline of the suit. The suit was (and continues to be) a way of presenting yourself professionally when conducting business.
But that's when business was conducted face-to-face. How modern business is conducted today, with instant messaging, emails, cell phones, computers and more, you may spend your whole day only seeing your fellow co-worker around the coffee pot or as you pass each other on your way to lunch or the bathroom. More important than how you dress is how you present yourself to your clients, but you may only know your clients through their voice on the phone or how they write their emails; you may never see them in person. In this instance, couldn't some businesses proceed and thrive even if their staff never bathes and spends all day in their pajamas? Or, since it's summer and everyone wants to be cool, some shorts and a t-shirt?
Mahan's thoughts are that a person's dress equates to that person's productivity. That mentality does seem accurate. Would the outfits you associate with sleeping entice hard work at work?
Obviously, it's a grand generalization to say that most of the workforce spends its day in non-technological solitude. Certain positions and professions currently still require more pomp and circumstance work attire. One might feel uneasy being represented by a lawyer in a flannel and some jeans. You might be hard pressed to take the medical advice of a doctor in flip flops and a graphic t-shirt. We'd feel safer to part with our investments if the banker or person in sales was dressed to the nines.
It's these professions, Mahan said, that continue to keep the suit relevant. And it might be another economic crisis, the one we're currently in, that will keep suits on the radar. Mahan said that now, its imperative to the workforce to present oneself in the most positive way. He notes that young graduates, all of whom may have the same credentials in this weak job market, should wear a suit in interviews because it gives them that extra edge to entice an employer to hire him over their counterpart with the same experience and education.
With the suit not going the way of the dodo bird (or for a more appropriate analogy: the codpiece or toga) for those who require a daily suit, staying comfortably cool is all about adapting. Mahan notes they have been doing it in the South for years. The image of blue and white seersucker suits come to mind, inciting more thoughts of an old fashioned ice cream social, not a businessman. In actuality Mahan said in the last five to 10 years, mills have been producing lighter weight fabrics and lighter weaving that makes suits easier to wear in the summertime. A combination of broad cloth and light weight dress shirts ensure that comfort can still be reached. Linen sport shirts and/or silk sport coats assist in keeping garments porous and ensure that they breathe. In a turn that still seems to be more fashion than function, the shirts are still long sleeved.
And, surprisingly enough, there is thankfully a summer break on business attire. Mahan said that formal fashion is modified during the summer to more business casual. As with any fashion definition whose second word is "casual" (another example is "dressy casual"), this term is quite loose. Typically, Mahan said, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, business casual means a polo and a nice pair of pants. And then once fall hits again, those professionals would return to their jackets and suits.
Though it possesses no practicality in the coming months, the suit still remains in our culture. They've come to signify a group of people ("the suits") but they also remain one of the few pieces of the past that we can hold onto. While the rest of the world has changed, gotten a little a bit more relaxed, maybe a little bit sloppy, someone out there is still wearing the suit. And the generations coming up continue to support aspects of the suit. Young men hit the town in blazers. Ties are worn with button downs and t-shirts. Dress slacks are paired with t-shirts and vests are worn with anything. It's doing what modernity does best: taking something and modifying it to be more comfortable and easier. And that's something that everyone wants in the hot, hot summer--suit or not.
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