Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Endurance of the Suit', Engineers Australia, January 2001.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

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Suits and ties are not just fashionable, they are mandatory for most business men. In fact the suit and tie has become a symbol or icon of the businessman. And their stability and endurance through the great many fashion cycles of the 20th Century is a wonder. Even during the 1960s, when so many traditions were challenged, the tie withstood, albeit in a wide garish colourful state.

One reason for the endurance of the suit and tie, is the way it makes dress choice simple and not fraught with the possibility of faux pas. It is like a uniform for businessmen. They can be assured of dressing appropriately and not being out of step with colleagues, clients or bosses. It eliminates the uncertainty of knowing what is appropriate dress when meeting with clients or going for job interviews. And employers and clients may well judge prospective employees and business associates by their clothes. Businessmen seek conformity in their dress to avoid this uncertainty. However business women and professionals have learned to deal with this sort of uncertainty, so why can't men?

Indeed, this dress adaptation is now an urgent requirement. Modern business attire is environmentally unfriendly, especially in countries like Australia. The suit and tie are too hot in summer and require huge amounts of air conditioning to ensure that businessmen, politicians and professionals can be comfortable in offices, conference rooms and restaurants. The air conditioning requires CFCs, which deplete the ozone layer and add to the greenhouse effect, and which also uses large amounts of energy.

Even in hot climates where Western dress has not been worn traditionally, business people, professionals and office workers are now expected to wear Western business dress. In South Asian countries it is normal for business people to go without jackets but retain the tie.

The tie does not have any obvious function and appears to be merely a fashion item. Its origin is uncertain. Some say neckware was introduced in the Middle Ages because doctors believed illnesses entered the body via the throat. Others claim that a heavy knot at the throat was thought to provide protection against sword and spear wounds. One theory is that the tie was a fertility symbol pointing down towards the male genitals. And others assert that the neckware worn by Croatian soldiers after a victory over Turkey in 1660 was so appealing to Louis XIV that he created a regiment of Royal Cravattes (cravat being derived from Croat) and the fashion soon spread to England.

The jacket seems to have been adopted as a uniform of businessmen in the 19th Century. Unlike the tie it originally had a very specific purpose which was to hide the body contours of sedentary office workers. In a period when hard labour was still broadening the shoulders and deepening the chests of low status manual workers, managers needed to pad out their shoulders and hide their paunches in order to have authority.

During the 1990s casual dress was experimented with by many US companies and in some Australian workplaces during the hotter months of summer. Although the suit and tie is still mandatory for most businessmen, a 1997 poll found that 53% of US office workers were allowed to dress casually at work. The trend started with the technology industry. In fact engineer and CEO Jack Welch introduced a tie-free casual dress code into General Electric in 1981 that has remained in place to the present day.

Casual dress is particularly popular amongst employees. One survey showed that it is the second most popular employee perk after flexi-time that an employer can offer and a significant factor in attracting employees. Even so, in companies that have a casual dress code, it is common for staff to keep suits and ties at the office for meetings and trips outside the office. What is more, some in the fashion industry say that in 2000 the trend towards casual is on the way out.

Whichever way the fashion goes for office workers, the problem of overuse of air conditioning will still remain if the decision-makers —businessmen, politicians and professionals — remain maladapted to hot climates. Suits are environmentally unsuitable.