There is a very definite image of a business person which has endured for decades. Look for a graphic to depict business and the chances are most of the population would select a man in a suit. More than likely, he will also be sporting a bowler hat, umbrella and briefcase. The reality of the situation, however, is changing hugely, not least because of the rise of work away from the office. Gudrun Limbrick considers if the suited image of the business person can endure for much longer.

The industrial revolution brought people out of the fields and villages and into towns. The wealthy upper middle classes moved into business jobs, running the factories, banks and ports and took their dress style with them — suits for the men. Thus, the image of the business person began — a three-piece suit and bowler hat became the normal attire for the serious business person. As few women entered business at this early stage, there was no need for a female alternative.

A high-quality business suit became not only an outfit for work, but also a badge of respectability, credibility and, ultimately, success. The idea of dressing the part very much took hold in the business world with customers basing, to a lesser or greater extent, their judgment of whether they should trust a person, on their clothes and the way they looked. The business suit became a badge of success and scores of businessmen would be seen going into the city, for example, dressed in identical attire. The logical consequence of this was that anyone not dressed in a similar fashion would not be taken as seriously as those who were in suits, such was the importance given to the way businessmen looked.

There are some very convincing arguments saying that the best thing that could have happened to the traditional popularity of the business suit is that it disappears. One of those arguments is about gender. One of the interesting characteristics of the business suit is that it has not really stopped being a male-only outfit. While some women do successfully wear business trouser suits, they continue to be in a minority; the majority of people wearing business suits continue to be men. This is interesting as there is no real reason for this, many items of clothing and styles have become unisex over time, but the formal business suit has not. Instead, women wear feminised suits or alternative outfits which can mark them out as looking very different in male work environments. A group of men in business suits of grey or black, with a female colleague in a skirt and blouse tends to highlight the uniqueness of the woman rather than the cohesiveness of the whole team. For this reason, the demise of the business suit could have significant advantages.

The other advantage of no longer having a dependence on the business suit is that they can be viewed as elitist. Business is by no means the exclusive bastion of the upper middle classes as it was in its very early days. These days anyone can be a business person and not everyone feels comfortable in a suit or feels the need to wear a suit. Losing the suit as the standard form of dress is a very visible illustration of how the business world has opened up to all sorts of different people coming from all walks of life. It is also an indication that business itself has opened up into different fields. No longer is business solely about imports and exports, banking and insurance, but all manner of different activities many of which have a significant creative or social component. The dull business suit arguably no longer reflects the nature of business itself.

One of the driving forces for the loss of the business suit in very recent years is the end of the office as the home of business. Advances in communications have meant that many people who would traditionally have been based in an office are now working from home. Without the need to go into offices, the need for dressing up in business attire has gone. More than that, so many people are now working from home that the need to look smart is disappearing altogether and people are getting used to dressing much more casually for work. Jeans and t-shirts are now not uncommon at meetings, a complete anathema to the Victorian businessmen who decided that an extreme level of smartness was expected of all people working in business. As business is moving out of offices, business people are moving out of suits.

While a quality business suit was once an indication of the success of the person wearing it, other factors are now being used to tell colleagues and customers about our credibility as business people. The gadgets that get put on the table at meetings demonstrate one of the ways in which we attempt to show our business worth to others. Similarly, the trend of using business jargon and acronyms to prove our business acuity is showing no signs of waning.

This is not to say, however, that the business suit is looking likely to disappear altogether. Stand in a commuter train station at rush hour, and there is still a predominance of business suits. They might now be intermingled with a wide array of other business wear but they are by no means extinct. In fact, business suits are remarkably enduring having changed very little over the decades. The fabrics may have changed since the 1930s, we may have lost the bowler hat, but the basic design components have changed little. The tie, too, is stubbornly remaining with us. It first appeared in English fashion in the 17th century but, unlike ruffs, doublets and codpieces, has stayed with us with only very few modifications. The fact that such a key part of the modern business suit has been with us for four centuries is an indication of quite how enduring business attire is.

There may have been large changes in the wear of the business suit and how it is viewed, but complete change has not yet happened. The business suit is stubbornly sticking with us for now. This seems largely because many areas of business are quite traditional and there is still a significant proportion of people in business who remain conservative in nature.

For the majority of people in this country, the suit is now the reserve of special occasions — used primarily for three very different life events: weddings, funerals and court appearances. Some offices, and some professions, are continuing to prefer its workers to be suited and some individuals prefer to wear a suit to work. There have been significant changes, however, in the numbers involved in recent years and it seems more than likely that the slow demise of the suit will continue. Even for weddings, funerals and court, the suit is losing its stronghold with other attire becoming less unusual.

Last reviewed 14 June 2017