The topic of this article is supposed to be Why Men Don’t Like to Dress Up, but I’m having some difficulty with it, because the premise is obviously untrue. Men love to dress up.
If you have any doubts, go to a football game—NFL, NCAA. Look in the stands. You’ll see tens of thousands of men who have taken enormous care with their day’s wardrobe, starting next to the skin with the luckiest of their lucky T-shirts and building to the regulation team parkas. They will wear the official jersey of a current star, or the throwback jersey of a retired idol in order to help draw the mystic power of mighty ancestors into the day’s conflict. They will top off the ensemble with a well-chosen cap, or imitation leather helmet, or plastic pig snout, or styrofoam cheese head, and they will feel that they have dressed perfectly for the occasion.
And they will not be alone in their sartorial exactitude. Civil War reenactors in blue and gray will scour the hinterlands to find the precise regimental button to wear to their mock conflagrations. Star Trek devotees will never be caught wearing items from their Deluxe Captain Kirk Uniform Packages from the original series when they meant to be wearing Gold Kirk Uniform Shirts from the 2009 film. A yachtsman will have his special windbreaker and a golfer will have his special sweater and slacks, and many a tennis player will continue to sport his short McEnroe-ish tennis shorts long after his slender McEnroe-ish figure has joined John in retirement. One need look no further than the example of Mr. Elmer Fudd, who always wears the same cap with the side flaps snapped together at the crown whenever he hunts that cwazy wabbit.
What most men do less and less, and what many men no longer do at all, is dress up for work. There was a time, as we see on Mad Men, when men were expected to dress for the office, and that the more successful you were, the better you were expected to dress. None of this came to anyone as a shock, since the world was still governed by a relatively small elite, and they mandated fashion and taste. Appearances mattered, often too much: men who had the right look often rose higher than men of greater ability who didn’t. And even those who challenged the powers that be—Martin Luther King Jr., Lenny Bruce, Chuck Berry—wore versions of the suit and tie. They wanted to change, challenge, join the power structure, not destroy it, and their clothes demonstrated that.
But as Mad Men shows, not all men take to a suit and tie. Don Draper looks great and takes pleasure in the power that his appearance brings him. But Pete Campbell, young and unformed, doesn’t so much wear his suit as is worn by it; the suit is like the outline of a drawing that he is filling in. And for poor Harry Crane, deskbound and thickening, wearing a suit is a yoke of servitude, another obligation that society, family, marriage imposes upon him.
The sixties, of course, changed everything. The new fashion freedom men enjoyed fell on peacocks and drones alike. But over the years, the easygoing spirit of Casual Friday took over, and in many places became Sloppy Whenever. “Suits’’ became a synonym for executive power that was clueless and stodgy. Instead of the Don Drapers pulling the Harry Cranes to dress up, the Cranes pulled the Drapers down. “The only people in Los Angeles who wear a tie,’’ a friend from the television business recently noted, “are the agents.’’
“It’s appalling how men dress today,’’ Tim Gunn, the creative director of Liz Claiborne said to me in a recent phone call. “More and more, I’m meeting men who have attained some professional stature, who not only don’t wear a tie, but who don’t know how to tie a tie. I’m flabbergasted. It’s like they’re wearing a sign that says `I have arrested development.’ What are they signifying?’’
What indeed. Back in 2005, the current chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank Ben Bernanke gave a speech in which he answered that very question. “The biggest downside of my current job is that I have to wear a suit to work,’’ the former scholar and researcher told his audience. “Wearing uncomfortable clothes on purpose is an example of what. . .Nobel Prize winner Michael Spence taught economists to call ‘signalling.’ You have to do it to show that you take your official responsibilities seriously.’’
Bernanke’s right (although you’d think a guy who’s able to understand credit default swaps could find himself a comfortable suit.) Men should be as willing to demonstrate their pride in their families and their professions as they do in their teams. And don’t forget: a lot more people are going to admire the way you look in a suit and tie than the way you rock a cheese head.
This article originally appeared in BG, the magazine of Bergdorf Goodman.