Homecoming at the ‘Old School’ goodbye to Business Casual, welcome back Tradition!
Suits are back! At least that’s what the magazines say. Could it be that people have finally realized that men actually look better in suits? Or is it merely the latest fashion trend? I am not a hundred percent convinced we have concrete evidence of this shift in our daily lives. I still see too many hoodie/blazer combos. Or even worse, hoodie/blazer/flip-flops combos. A trip down any street in the world still composes a distressing collage of un-tucked shirts and exposed undershirts. Like the news from Washington about our economy, however, I am willing to believe what I read. At least for now. No, I won’t quite hurl myself off the Empire State Building. Not just yet.
During the last decade, a period when American men spent record amounts on clothes that didn’t necessarily make them look better, a most peculiar phenomenon emerged: “Business Casual.” This movement, the ‘90s equivalent of leisure suits, the Enya of men’s fashion, is, mercifully, on the wane. Maybe it’s over. Hope springs eternal! Let’s sent that memo to Hollywood.
In the boom years of the dot-com ‘90s, America, led by Silicon Valley Beau Brummells, stopped wearing suits and ties. Those guys were the renegades who were making all the money. Logically, because they were making all the money, they must have known everything—including how to dress. Their informal attitudes replaced the time-honored button-down, buttoned-up conventions. America followed suit, conformed to the non-conformists, and, suddenly, the world had changed. Retailers were sent into frenzies as the suit-and-tie “carriage trade” virtually disappeared—virtually overnight. Even that staunch bastion of traditionalism, Brooks Brothers, changed its format. Their old program was to current trend what Muzak’s “All Music, All the Time,” is to “Today’s Light Rock Favorites.” Gone were the Cheever clothes of my childhood—the seersucker suits, hopsack blazers, madras patchwork pants and all the beloved nerdy things that had been the company’s stock-and-trade for decades. Gone, for that matter, was my childhood. My final loss of clothing innocence came in early 2001, when three bypasses left my father shaped a bit differently that he had been. I rushed to Brooks Brothers in Atlanta for a quick fix. The suit department had shrunk by 90 percent and color charts were being handed out about how to mix and match your new Business Casual wardrobe. Clothing for the new sensibility. Was nothing sacred? Even the meticulous salesman I had known since ’77 was sportin’ some grotesquely fitting golf togs. Crestfallen, I left empty-handed. Every day, it seemed, was casual Friday.
Chaos ensued. For an outraged and stylish minority who refused to adopt the new credo, snickering at the suitless Kool-Aid drinkers became a spectator sport. Five-star restaurants, terrified of losing clientele, quickly relaxed their dresscodes. Without irony, other restaurants adopted something called “Smart Casual.” (What happens when you’re neither?) Flummoxed by the times, and unconvincingly guided by those how-to charts, American men were in the throes of sartorial catastrophe. Old rules were Old School—and Old School was out. In the nadir of B.C., with literally no one comprehending what was appropriate to wear, Gerald Levin and Steve Case met to seal the deal of the merger between AOL and Time Warner. They had big plans. Levin wore jeans to appeal to Case’s dot-com sensibility. Case wore a suit.
In like thunder, out like a whisper. Suddenly, the pendulum started to swing back. I was lucky enough to catch a small slice of this year’s Grammy awards on TiVo, and the rap stars, long proponents of the, to say the least, “oversized” look, are now wearing suits. The chains are still there, but the suits are three-pieced ones that fit. Mr. P. Diddy, one of my favorite style icons, has founded a successful clothing line with a strong suit department. That chameleon Ralph Lauren, never failing to hear a market’s cry, has brought out yet another line of suits, shirts, and ties, this time shaping it more slimly for the “modern” man. Hosannas ring!
Even Brooks Brothers has gone back to the things we love them for the best. At last, my father can have some nice new clothes.
To what do we owe this pleasure? A synthesis of things. First and foremost, dot-com became dot-bomb and those would-be-style pundits fell very much out of fashion. As their portfolios crashed, they had to get real jobs. They went on job interviews. They put on their suits and ties and went back to work. A brief whirl through Columbus Circle and one can’t help but notice that AOL has been deflagged from the Time Warner Center. And, let us not underestimate the cumulative effect of today’s political and religious arch-conservatism either. Ellie Mae! Jethro! Put on your Sunday-Go-To-Meetin’ clothes!
Tailoring has been on a huge upswing in the past several years as some Americans, tired of looking like slobs, have gotten wise to the custom tailor’s tricks of accentuating strengths and hiding flaws. By taking a systematic series of measurements, assessing what body type his customer is, and applying rules that have taken centuries to, excuse me, fashion, the master tailor can even make the pauper look like a prince. Well, maybe not a pauper; these luxuries don’t come cheap! But if you’ve never done it before, save your pennies and go out and have a custom suit made. Nothing is as flattering. I know a man who makes ties, and whose company has done so since 1928. Last week, perusing his fashion-contrary selection, I was stunned to see patterns and shapes that had vanished long ago. His vaults of silk are a virtual archive, a stroll through the Twentieth Century sensibility of traditionalism which, although reassuring and classic, arguably could have used some shaking up. But these good were indeed the real McCoys, folded outside in and preserved by a generation of dust.
“You know,” I mused aloud, “I wonder if anybody knows you have all this. The traditional things are really hot again. They’re coming back.”
“Traditional never went anywhere,” he replied. “It’s the people that are coming back.”
- Alex Hitz