The past, present, and future of the business suit : The Indicator from Planet Money For 400 years, the business suit has been a staple in men's fashion...then the pandemic struck. Today on the show, the end of the business suit?
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RIP Business Suit?

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RIP Business Suit?

RIP Business Suit?

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

CARDIFF GARCIA, HOST:

The last six months have been incredibly hard on retailers. Ann Taylor, Brooks Brothers, J.Crew, Barneys - these are just a few of the many, many retailers that have declared bankruptcy.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

And of course, all those companies have something in common. They make fancy clothes for the office.

GARCIA: Yeah, and all the working from home and the Zoom calls have changed the way we dress. In fact, sales of business suits have been down 75% compared to last year.

VANEK SMITH: That is our indicator for today - 75%. Sales of men's suits are down 75%.

GARCIA: Yeah, but it's not like we've stopped buying clothes altogether. I mean, overall sales of clothing are actually up since the pandemic. We're just not buying suits.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Cardiff Garcia.

VANEK SMITH: And I'm Stacey Vanek Smith. Today on the show, the business suit. It has been the ubiquitous uniform for white-collar professionals for a long time - a really, really long time, as it turns out.

GARCIA: Yeah. Today on the show, is the business suit dead?

VANEK SMITH: Tina Opie is a professor of management at Babson College, and she says a lot of her students will come to her, you know, before they're interviewing for their first internships or first jobs. And they will ask her, like, what should I wear to this job? So she thinks about the question of, like, how to look professional and professional norms a lot.

TINA OPIE: When I ask most people what is the most ubiquitous symbol of the business world and business professionalism, almost everyone says the business suit eventually.

GARCIA: And Tina started thinking about why and about where these norms come from. Also, she herself had a special relationship with the business suit because before she was in academia, Tina worked in banking.

OPIE: And I absolutely wore business suits because, you know, when we think about - the prototype of a banker is that you have a tailored suit, you're a white man, you play golf.

(LAUGHTER)

OPIE: I'm a Black woman who doesn't play golf, so I had to get the suit right. And they were super...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter).

OPIE: I mean, I had the best suits. They were beautiful suits, and they were tailored. It was like putting on a crown almost. I felt special. I felt - you know, I have on my uniform. This is my beautifully tailored uniform. And people perceived me differently.

VANEK SMITH: So now Tina works in academia, and she loves researching things. And so all of this got her thinking, like, wait; why is the business suit the thing that we all wear to work? Like, what about kilts or robes or why not something else? So she started tracing the business suit back through time.

GARCIA: All the way back to its origins in the 1600s. It turns out we have Charles II to thank for the suit. He was the king of England 400 years ago.

VANEK SMITH: Yes. And at the time when he became king, the fashion in the royal courts was, like, very, very over the top. Men wore these huge poofy wigs, and they had these big sleeves on their clothes and crazy colors because dye was very expensive, so it was a sign you were wealthy. Men were high-heeled shoes. But all this over-the-topness in the royal courts, it was starting to cause some problems for Charles.

OPIE: He had been getting all this criticism from religious and economic leaders who were saying that the royal family, they were morally corrupt. They were overly decadent. And so he was looking for a way to try to present himself and people in the royal court as more restrained.

GARCIA: And the suits back then were made from wool instead of silk. And even though the colors were still kind of like easter egg colors - just all over the place - this was still super-restrained at the time.

VANEK SMITH: And it started to get even more restrained. So the tails on the coats when Charles II first started wearing them were quite long, but they got shorter and shorter and shorter. And eventually the colors that people wore in suits became more muted, kind of like we see today.

GARCIA: Or at least what we used to see. I mean, I actually can't remember the last time I saw someone in a suit. And Tina Opie says she can't remember the last time she wore one.

OPIE: I have on a workout shirt, yoga pants. But, you know, what - typically going to work, I wouldn't have this on.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, it's the same for me.

OPIE: Don't you like the freedom? I love the freedom.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, it's so nice. Oh, yeah. I kind of like it, actually.

GARCIA: There has been a lot of talk on social media and in all of these articles and think pieces about how much people have been loving dressing down lately, living that yoga pants life.

VANEK SMITH: Right. And it's not like working from home is going away. I mean, millions of offices are closed through the rest of the year and beyond, and even for people who do go back to the office, the setup is probably going to be pretty different - probably fewer people, some partitions, maybe less reason to suit up.

GARCIA: Yeah. Also, Tina says that now that people have tasted this yoga pants life, going back is going to be hard.

OPIE: There is something to say about the sigh of relief, the collective sigh of relief I think the world had. That tells you that there was labor associated with getting dressed in a professional way.

GARCIA: Tina says that for now, she is advising her students to still put in that labor for job interviews in banking and consulting jobs, or at least take care of the top part that people are going to see on Zoom.

VANEK SMITH: Suit jacket, suit jacket.

GARCIA: (Laughter) Exactly. And, you know, the suit has survived 400 years of change. Electricity, the combustion engine, the Internet, two World Wars - the suit has survived all of that. Is working from home really going to be the thing that takes it down? Death by yoga pants, seriously? It was yoga pants that killed the beast? Come on.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) I like the idea of the suit as King Kong, but, you know, I don't know, Cardiff, because the business suit has been around, as you say, for a very long time, for 400 years. I mean, things change, and maybe this is the business suit's swansong. Like, maybe it's time for us to start wearing other kinds of clothes. I mean, we're not going to be wearing suits forever, right?

GARCIA: True.

VANEK SMITH: I put this all to Tina, and she said, you know, if you want to know the fate of the suit right now, you've got to talk to people who work in fashion - right? - like, a fashion person or a trend watcher - about what we're seeing from shoppers and what designers are doing.

LAWRENCE ZARIAN: Hello. My name is Lawrence Zarian, and my title is the fashion guy.

VANEK SMITH: You're the fashion guy?

ZARIAN: Mmm hmm.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) Excellent.

GARCIA: Lawrence is the fashion guy for ABC. He covers trends for "Live With Kelly and Ryan," and he also does ABC's red carpet coverage. So he wears suits basically all the time, or at least he used to. Now he's wearing pajamas, you know, like the rest of us, but, like, fashionable...

VANEK SMITH: Fashionable pajamas...

GARCIA: ...Pajamas, I'm guessing. Yeah.

VANEK SMITH: ...Right? Probably, like, designer pajamas.

ZARIAN: Every time I walk by one closet, I have all my suits saying hello, do you remember me?

VANEK SMITH: So I put this question to Lawrence and, you know, to his closet full of lonely suits. You know, that suit has basically been like the thing that - the iconic thing we wear to work for hundreds of years. I don't know. Like, do you think - is the suit dead? Is there a permanent shift?

ZARIAN: The suit isn't dead, but the number of suits a man need is basically put on pause.

VANEK SMITH: Oh. That's not good for - if you're making suits.

GARCIA: So Lawrence does not think the suit is dead. He does think, though, that there are going to be fewer and fewer occasions to wear a suit. Professionally, he says, the suit is going to hang on but probably in a much smaller way. I mean, if people are going to the office three days a week instead of five, they could probably just get away with having and wearing fewer suits.

VANEK SMITH: Trend-wise, Lawrence says the restrictive, kind of labor-intensive clothes that were used to wear, like, you know, suits and skinny pants and jackets and high heels and neckties, he just doesn't see us jumping back into those. He says that is just not the direction that designers or shoppers are moving in right now.

ZARIAN: Everything is taking a big step back to relax.

VANEK SMITH: I don't know, maybe the leisure suit will come back (laughter).

ZARIAN: Crickets.

VANEK SMITH: I thought we got cut off for a second.

(LAUGHTER)

ZARIAN: You know when some things...

VANEK SMITH: You were just - you were, like, just trying to handle - like, deal with how deeply offended you felt by that suggestion.

ZARIAN: You know when some things come and go? Some things have gone. Stacey, let it go.

VANEK SMITH: Sometimes it's good to say goodbye. OK, I will let go of my affection for the leisure suit. I'll let it go.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Jamila Huxtable and Darian Woods. It was fact-checked by Sean Saldana. THE INDICATOR is edited by Paddy Hirsch and is a production of NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC SONG, "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

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