What We Wore Simply put, the history of office attire for men goes something like this: suits, suits, suits, suits, khakis. A closer look reveals a more textured (and patterned) evolution in work wear.
(FORTUNE Magazine) – 1900s
At the turn of the century, business titans donned custom-made frock coats complete with vest, watch fob, striped trousers, and top hat. The look came directly from Europe, where subtle class distinctions could be read into the stripe of a pant or the weave of a vest. Meanwhile, the first ready-to-wear, single-fabric leisure suits were produced by American manufacturers like Hart Schaffner & Marx. They were intended for the home--hence the name--but at $15 to $30 a suit, working-class men seized upon them for work wear. Women's magazines advised female office workers to wear dark colors that resisted staining--and avoided attracting male attention.
The Army created a new fashion trend when it issued wristwatches to soldiers fighting on World War I battlefronts. Sales of wristwatches surpassed those of pocket watches by the end of the decade; they also contributed to the demise of the vest, where the pocket watch was stored. By 1920 most young men had adopted the leisure suit as their dress-up uniform, much to the consternation of elders, who continued to wear frock coats, striped trousers, and vests. The leisure, or sack, suit evolved from its shapeless form to a more fitted, three-button jacket, often worn with cuffed trousers. Men still wore stiff, detachable collars, but soft, attached ones were gaining popularity.
Despite the stock market crash and the Great Depression, the elite dressed with style. Businessmen stepped out in glamorous suits in checks and subtle plaids; jackets had wide shoulders and trousers had double pleats. Particularly popular was the English Drape suit. Esquire in 1934 called it "the way to dress if you are so sure of yourself under the New Deal that you are unafraid of offering a striking similarity to a socialist cartoonist's conception of a capitalist." Working women also adopted chic suits, which they complemented with matching hats, gloves, bags, and shoes.
With young men off fighting in Europe and Asia, men's fashion at home became more somber. Wartime cloth restrictions, which forbade the sale of vests, patch pockets, and the two-trouser suit, helped create the trend. Manufacturers also stopped churning out cloth-eating double-breasted suits. Before the war, double-breasteds made up almost 50% of all suits made; by the end of the '40s they accounted for only 12%. Suits got slimmer, with narrower trousers and shorter jackets. The patterns of the '30s disappeared as men opted for dark suits or conservative chalk stripes.
Post-war American working women adopted a feminine look, rushing to buy sweater sets and Coco Chanel's knit suits. Fashion followers embraced Christian Dior's New Look, with its tiny waist and billowing skirt. Critics noted that Dior's skirts used up to 20 yards of fabric, which they found wasteful after the austere war years. And in Louisville, 700 female office workers signed a petition against the New Look. Men's suits continued to shrink. The natural-shoulder "Ivy League" look manufactured by Brooks Brothers became a businessman's favorite.
John F. Kennedy wore a two-button suit to a televised debate with Richard Nixon, and overnight it emerged as the look that expressed youth--and youthful thinking. When Kennedy went hatless to his inauguration, the hat industry died. Jackie Kennedy favored Oleg Cassini's suits, a style American women found perfect for the office. But credit unglamorous Lyndon Johnson, not Kennedy, with another presidential fashion innovation: He was the first President since Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II to be inaugurated in a suit rather than a cutaway jacket.
European designers, who had begun to infiltrate America in the 1960s, insinuated themselves into business fashion. Nehru jackets may have been rare in corporate wardrobes, but business shirts gained personality with loud patterns and long lapels. In 1970 some 80% of shirts sold by Arrow--then the largest shirtmaker--were anything but white; six years earlier the reverse had been true. And, increasingly, shirts were cut from brave new synthetic fabrics. Ties screamed with color and ballooned in size, with knots the size of small apples.The women's movement popularized pantsuits in the office, but slacks were still banned from high-end restaurants.
Wall Street. Milken. Trump. (Donald and Ivana.) Need we say more? The '80s were about conspicuous consumption. And flaunting power. Wall Street men brought suspenders back into fashion and donned contrast collars. Women were told that looking like men--stiff suits and short hair--was the surest path to success. By 1985 linebacker-like shoulder pads were in every power-woman's wardrobe. At the end of the decade Donna Karan finally offered chic clothes for working women. Meanwhile, Giorgio Armani broke through as the first European designer to become a Wall Street must-have.
Blame it on the rise of techno-geeks, marketing by Gap and Levi's, or the creativity of human resource managers, but the suit succumbed to khakis and jeans as required office wear. In 1994 magazines like this one were full of tech entrepreneur rants against the suit: "If you don't have anything to say, wear a suit," Bing Gordon, the co-founder of Electronic Arts told FORTUNE. To be a "suit" is to be antitech, uncreative, living in the past. In other words, dull. Women, well versed in the nuances of dressing, adapted easily and more gracefully to the casual atmosphere, as pants and sweater sets replaced the stiff pseudo-men's suits of the past decade. In the name of minimalism, women have thrown away most of their jewelry, makeup, and shoulder pads in favor of all-black or -gray outfits and sensible shoes.