There are a lot of old expressions about how people judge you on your clothes. And in the world since COVID, a lot of conversations have taken place about business attire. Early in 2020 we wore nice shirts and blazers with sweatpants underneath for our Zoom meetings. Now we’re all as likely to show up in tee shirts.
What some of us have realized is that “dressing down” for work has been trending for years. In fact, as far back as 2017 big New York firms had already stopped requiring suits to work.
But what if you don’t work at a big New York City firm?
As many of us start transitioning back to in-person work, it makes sense to take a hard look at the traditional suit, and decide whether we should keep wearing them. We’ll take a look at three scenarios many of us are facing, and break down the pros and cons of the traditional pants, jacket, and tie.
In some cases, the toughest day of work is before we’re even hired: the Interview. Deciding what to wear for the all-important first meeting can be a tortuous affair. If we dress-down we could come off unprofessional. If we show up dressed in a better suit than our prospective employer we could look cheeky, or worse, desperate.
For job interviews, our ruling is business casual. There’s no playbook for this, but for men this definitely means slacks or chinos, a suit jacket or blazer, and a nice button down. In these scenarios, it’s best to play your industry by ear. If you already know someone working in that field, ask them what’s appropriate.
Another overlooked tip: ask what the company dress code is when you set up your interview. Don’t worry about sounding like you don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ll actually give the opposite impression, that you’re looking to fit right in and that you’re open to taking direction. An old adage is to show up to your interview ready to start work right then. If you’re interviewing for a position building houses, you better have your work boots and tool belt. And for a job interview, there’s no better way to know how they’d like you to dress than to simply ask.
Already at Work
If you’re an established member of your organization, and you’re not sure if you need to keep suiting and booting, then the simple answer is: you don’t. We say that because if you’re working in an office where it’s even a question then it means that there’s enough flexibility to start dressing down.
On the other hand, if you’re working in an office where everyone is wearing full, tailored suits, you’re probably nowhere near asking the question.
When it comes to dressing down at work, we recommend starting small. First, ditch the tie. Play it by ear after that. You might notice you’re the only person who’s gotten rid of the tie, in which case you’d better keep one in the desk drawer to put on in a hurry.
Other ways to dress down while still looking professional are to ditch the jacket and keep the tie. It’s a casual look that still has an air of professionalism.
Outside Your Own Office
Of course the real litmus test for whether to wear a suit is when you’re outside the relative comfort zone of your own office. Meeting with clients, conferences with other companies in your industry, and appearing in the media as a representative for your company are all times when your dress matters.
What makes it difficult to judge is that in today’s business world, wearing a suit can say something definitive about you that you might not want to project. For instance, to a lot of millennials, only uptight older people wear suits, and if you wear one, they might not trust you.
Meanwhile, if you are meeting with a client from an older generation, not wearing a suit can make you look unprofessional or unprepared.
The bottom line outside the office is to play by the big three for suits: weddings, funerals, and court all need a suit. After that, the days of needing a suit to conduct business are largely over.
Even in situations with clients or partners who do wear suits, if you don’t normally wear one, putting one on just to meet them can make you look like you’re trying to please them. Let’s be frank, some business situations are about projecting from a position of power. And if you wear a suit just to meet a rep from another company, and they know you don’t wear suits at your home office, it can make you look like either you’re combative or you’re bowing to their pressure.
In the End, Dress for You
The bottom line is that suits are largely out. That isn’t to say you should never wear one. There are definitely occasions when a suit is absolutely necessary. For instance, even Zuckerberg wore a suit in front of Congress.
But even outside of that, if you feel comfortable in a suit, and you look good, that will project when you wear one to work. Nothing is worse than watching a person uncomfortable in a suit. The flip side is that a person who really pulls off a suit really pulls it off. A suit can distinguish you from the crowd of business casual—if you do it right.
All that said, wearing a suit is no longer a must for the business person. Most modern offices have gone hybrid, and with so many people meeting online, casual wear has come to the workplace to stay. Wearing a suit could look out of place, and could put people off. In the end, it comes down to situations, looking good, and being comfortable, whatever you decide to wear.