Work attire is a tricky subject in classic menswear. Are we too fashion-forward? Or are we too old school? Let’s discuss.
I’m going to start this essay by plugging the podcast, as I normally do, because at the time of writing, I’m not even sure where I’m going with this. Business attire has never been a true part of this blog and I’m only writing about it because I have some strong and probably wrong ideas about it, simply because I’ve never had to adhere to it. So listen to the podcast for an equally pointless discussion and then read my words below.
Those of you who know me well or followed this blog/IG for a long time (which is almost the same thing, due to parasocial relationships) know that I studied accounting in college. I was around business majors everyday. I dressed in variations of #menswear to class, my campus job, and my eventual internship at a local family-owned CPA firm. Everyone thought I dressed well, despite the double breasted jackets, slim Zara blazers, and the few occasions of white pants and sockless loafers.
Despite the praise, there was one time where I got a bit of flak for what I was wearing. I remember it clearly because it was a day where I decided to wear a bow tie to my internship. Everyone thought I looked cute, but my boss (the son of the owner) told me that it was good I was working in the back, because it wasn’t client appropriate. I’m sure he meant well (he later clarified that he likes vintage looks and even wore brow-line glasses and tie clips because of Mad Men), but it was something that stuck with me. Would I eventually run into issues with how I dressed in the working world? I was already “hiding” my true self by wearing period accurate attire on the weekends!
It was odd to me that no one batted an eye at my DB jackets or tassel loafers. It was just the bow tie that struck out. Business attire, especially in LA is weird.
To no one’s surprise, I have since pivoted away from the corporate world, at least in overt terms. I now work for a company yes, but it’s a media agency that specializes in gaming and content creators. Typical business attire (whatever that means) doesn’t really apply here; a few people have found my IG and don’t mind what I wear! But to be quite honest, I (and most of my friends) have never been in a position to dress for business. I’m pretty sure I’ve ensured that my career goes in a direction where I have at least some freedom in what I wear. I also live in [the Greater} Los Angeles, where business clothing really doesn’t mean much more than slacks and a “dress” shirt.
So please take my thoughts on business attire with a grain of salt because odds are, unless you are in a similar context, you may or may not have as much leeway with clothing as I have.
Now it’s my belief that business attire is an incredibly nebulous thing that people simultaneously care and don’t care about. I’ve seen guys show up to work in the frumpiest suits and baggy shirts. There are also guys with the ginghams hirts and slim navy chinos, accented with tan derbies and Happy Socks; sometimes they even go to the “next” level add in the electric blue suit. In essence, most business attire (in LA) either is Menswear House-chic or is stolen off the backs of influencers on your IG explore page. There is little in between!
This is why my ideas of business attire (or more accurately, what you wear to work) really doesn’t matter. In the sea of blue suits + tan shoes and gingams and chinos, a dark checked jacket, OCBD, and grey flannels isn’t going to offend….well, anyone! It’s one of those things where outfits have been ruined by online discourse about menswear. I’ve been told that a lot of my outfits (even the safe tailored ones) could not work in an office. That’s total bullshit because no one other than menswear guys (especially people on reddit) know the true intended “purpose” of many tailored garments. No one cares than an OCBD is more casual. Your boss isn’t going to say that you’re dressing casually when you have patch pockets over jetted ones. No one is going to send you home for wearing a navy cotton suit. All they see is a suit and tie (the idea that classic menswear is boring is the subject for a different essay). Again, this could just be particularly for LA, but I have a small hunch it could apply [almost] anywhere. We menswear enthusiasts tend to know the rules and origins, but regular people don’t, so we should use that to our advantage (within reason).
To be fair, work attire is really meant to look professional and conformist, rather than fashionable. While you can certainly slouch in it, you shouldn’t start off with slouch in mind. In most cases you are meant to look powerful and confident, wearing power suits to close deals and win interviews. Padded shoulders are the move to do, as well as the use of plain shirting/ties, and black shoes. As tailoring has been mainly been reverted to only office and event wear, I guess I can see why it’s hard to think of tailoring as it’s own fashion subgenre, worn for fun and in some cases with an
ironic post-modernist approach.
I actually think that a lot of my sartorial choices (by which I mean my outfits with suits and sportcoats) are rooted in business wear. Just maybe not “current” business wear. When you look at old Apparel Arts illustration and menswear ads, you’ll see that my tailored attire is a nearly spot on ressurection. There are plenty of solid suits (even brown) all worn with striped shirts and foulard ties. I’ll give you that separates as office wear was not appropriate until later. However, that’s probably a good thing as suits remove the guess work from matching a jacket to a complementary trouser- just put on a full suit and all you need is a shirt and tie!
Obviously American menswear has always been more casual than British ones, since you can find brown suits, OCBDs, and loafers all encouraged to be worn at the office; this is why I felt “right” in the inspiration I’ve been able to gather from vintage ads. Let’s not forget the huge influence ivy had on mainstream menswear in the 1960s, which even lead to the iconic looks of 1970s trad (which is even reflected on “old” or “out of touch” characters in films in the 1980s-90s). I wonder if ivy-trad simply became safe work attire by default as more casual outfits became more office appropriate.
Even with that said, a lot of business attire of the 1980s-1990s retain the ideas of that Golden Era style, at least in my eyes. While the suits may have gotten more somber, with more black and greys rather than navys and dark browns), the fun with striped and patterned ties didn’t stop. I’ve seen plenty of photographs of Yuppies wearing shirts and ties that look remarkably close to what I wear today. Madder ties of the 80s and 90s had plenty of personality and Armani was even famous for his abstract tie designs, both worn with some wide awning stripes. Granted, some of what I remember may be through pop culture, worn by characters on Seinfeld (George!), Frasier, and Office Space. But I still think that much of what I liked from tailoring (and vintage) was still plenty appropriate for the office; many old guys still do those looks today, if my recent brunch dates are any indication.
To be honest, I’m probably just idealizing work attire of 20 years ago, simply because it aligns with my taste in silhouette and pattern mixing. Maybe they thought it was boring back then too! Who knows, I wasn’t born until the mid 90s and my family never worked in overly corporate places (they’re in the medical field as most Filipino immigrants tend to be).
I will say that in my biased eyes, work attire has gotten a bit more boring, a opinion which I attribute to the loosening of dress codes. Instead of foulard ties and slouchy houndstooth jackets, we are left with the same boring gingham shirts, chinos, and Patagonia fleece vests. Even though I’m pretty sure most men only had a handful of tailored garments and accoutrements, the freedom from tailoring has probably led guys to focus even less on classic menswear. That idea of just throwing on a suit has been changed to throwing on khakis and a vest; at least the khakis and vest are machine washable. They just don’t need our version of classic menswear. And that’s fine…if not a bit sad.
That being said, the idea of corporate dressing is not gone. Like most of classic menswear, I believe that it exists fully as an aesthetic to be picked from, rather than a something you have to wear to work. It’s the future of menswear. And to me, I also think that a lot of current menswear is still inspired (perhaps idealistically) by the business attire of old. They may not look at the old Apparel Arts office illlustrations, but I do think these menswear guys (many of them in finance or law themselves) look at the hey-day business looks of the 80s-90s.
Guys like Alan See and Olof (both come from a corporate background) wear striped suits, thin striped shirts, and Macclesfield ties, just a bit more reserved than the Wall Street Yuppies and Power Ties of old. In general, most of the tailoring “influencers” out there are quite restrained, perhaps stemming from the fact that they have corporate jobs; I’m sure many of their followers are also older millennial corporate guys who need someone to follow. I’m at least glad that these menswear guys don’t simply do elegant/upgraded versions of gingham shirts and fleece vests. Maybe that’s because these guys lived through that period and want to stay true to their authentic self; they simply don’t identify with the “current” lexicon office attire. Or perhaps more accurately, they come from non-American backgrounds where business looks haven’t changed too much from “tradition”; the gingham shirt and/or vest seems pretty modern corporate ‘Muricah to me, which seems to be derided by our international cousins.
There’s also the fact that most of classic menswear is quite post-modernist at this point, by which I mean that its all a conscious decision to dress the way we do. I firmly believe that almost every outfit is chosen after some aesthetic (provided the wearer is aware of it). Based on all the boards of the mood and zood variety being shared around IG, it’s clear (to me) that many of these guys reference the tailored looks of the 80s-90s. We also can’t forget how Gianni Agnelli is often touted around as an explar of the business-meets-sprezz look or how James Bond is technically wearing business suits in all of his appearances (save for the Craig era). If the menswear world was truly in pursuit of fitting in, all of our icons would be wearing two button Ludlow suits and skinny ties. Even then, most corporate guys just wear plain suits and open collar shirts when they aren’t in polo shirts. It’s only the menswear guys who keep the true business look alive.
Despite the boring state of business wear in the modern world, I truly believe that many outfits worn around the #menswear world is perfectly fine to wear to work, though like I said in authenticity, your gut will tell you what you can and can’t get away with. Based on some interactions I’ve had on r/MFA and my own discord, there are certainly some jobs that are quite strict, preventing you from wearing a DB as an associate or for even walking in without a tie. It seems that that level, the high income/career potential unfortunately doesn’t seem coincide with the ability to wear cool clothing, even if it is tailoring focused. However, that strata don’t really apply to most people, especially not in LA or the people I hang out with. After all, the blog is written from my own, casual life perspective. My friends and I may not have the expense accounts, but we aren’t terribly restricted in our work dress, allowing for some freedom even in suit environments.
I think that having a steady source of good inspo to follow will help you make the right choices (if you really need convincing ) which is why I’ve included a fair amount of my favorite examples in the photo dump below. It really seems like a lot of them are taking the safe, Italian industralist look and simply upgrading the details, turning business attire into a type of accessible cosplay. #Menswear uses 100 Hand spread collar shirts, Vanda bespoke ties, and Liverano tailoring to evoke this wealthy industrialist fantasy, just as I use a mix of vintage and contemporary RTW to approximate a Golden Era creative. Their cosplay is just much safer and lowkey, which is why I think that a lot of their looks are absolutely appropriate for work. I mean, who doesn’t want to look like you run marketing for the network or run your own law firm, just with a refined taste which people in those positions seem to lack.
Again, it could be my very heavy bias and lack of corporate experience, but I think that guys like Jake Grantham (and his brand Anglo-Italian) illustrate a safe way of doing classic menswear that won’t turn heads at their desks. Anyone can do it; the only trick is that you have to make sure your execution is good. A double breasted suit sounds like it might be out of place, but wearing a navy or grey one with a pencil stripe shirt and a solid grenadine (I prefer a repp stripe) is perfectly somber. Brown sounds like it’s for the country, but a charcoal brown worsted seems plenty fine since it’s not a dandy tweed. Soft shoulders aren’t even noticeable unless you point them out to someone. Foulards sound crazy when discussing them in menswear forums, but when they’re either smaller in scale or surrounded by solids, you’ll be okay. I actually think most tailors do this “corporate” style well, since they are more restrained than the enthusiasts themselves.
Looking over all the inspiration photos below, I really think you’d be hard pressed to find anything wrong with them Again it’s not like any of these are particularly loud or dandy. I really don’t think anyone is going to bat an eye, other than at the fact that you’re wearing tailoring at all. Again, the trick is to look good (whatever that means) and to try your best to not do anything wild. With that said, I do think many of these guys actually do something bold that others might assume are incongruous with business attire, at least on paper. The execution and gut will tell you how to do it right. For example, I wouldn’t wear a 3PC as an intern, at least not for the first few months. That self awareness might be the mark of an “advanced” dresser, but anyone can do it. Unless you’re aiming to be the CEO (a job title which has a horrid track record of good fits), you have a lot of leeway to dress, especially if you like the ideas of classic menswear.
My friend Michael, whom I’ve noted in a few other blog posts is a law student and intern, gets to be his version of trad when going to the office. He accomplishes this with university stripe shirts, solid ties, and navy cotton suits (which are actually chore suits). The only comments he gets are about his formality level, of which he is praised for; he notes many of his law colleagues are in polo shirts or jeans.
Damon, another lawyer, is on the other side of the equation, preferring to look strong with his Sexton-style tailoring. . He’s told me that he’s heavily inspired by business wear of the 1970s-80s, infusing the ideas about pinstripes, striped shirts, and geometrics/repps with his own context. Overall, it still looks quite safe which allow him to effectively look authentic while fitting his context; he tells me he’s only mainly surrounded by navy suits and bad black shoes anyway.
And then of course we have Ryan who I think is right in the middle. He worked in a super casual office full of other illustrators and designers, many of whom are not into menswear at all. Ryan is a huge fan of dressing in variations of ivy-trad with a small helping of simplicity. He’s not wearing cotton work suits or strong shouldered jackets; instead he invests in things like navy blazers, striped OCBDs, and chinos, particularly in khaki and olive. He does have a few bold pieces (like a green fresco suit and a patchwork madras jacket), but it actually works well with his solid knit ties and grey odd trousers. It’s not exactly corporate but not super casual either. It’s just about being safe for work while still retaining your personal authenticity. You could even say that business wear is something to idealize and incorporate into your look, especially if you aren’t required to do so.
Surprisingly, I am not immune to the idea of cosplaying business wear, though my approach is certainly more egregious since I have even less of a reason to do the look in any capacity (though again, the others aren’t forced to either). It’s actually a natural lean for me, as I’ve already stated that many of my tailored looks are already inspired by 1930s tailoring (and by extension, the similar looks of the 80s-90s). Despite those aesthetic biases, I definitely understand that the goal of work attire isn’t about presenting an overt look per se, though like with authenticity, it’s about finding how your personal style can still be present. For instance, I could still wear checked shirts and vests with trousers, but my ginghams will be a spearpoint, my vests will be for utility rather than fleece, and my trousers will be full cut and high waisted. It’s about how Ethan would dress if he actually followed through on that accounting degree and ended up as some hot shot auditor at KPMG. Maybe it’s my inner Yuppie (or Yappie?) breaking through.
A lot of my full suit looks are solid and are found in somber shades of navy and brown, which leads to fun ideas in the shirt and tie, a phrase which basically means a striped shirt and patterned tie. I definitely like wearing foulards, especially since I don’t think mine are that wild for business, though I try to make sure its surrounded by a suit or at least is approached with a more serious nature. I also like wearing solid knits and repps, because they seem to be more “serious”, especially when most of my shirts are spearpoints. To be clear, I don’t see this as losing my authenticity, but rather as me using what I already own to evoke the ideas of work attire through a desired aesthetic.
To my eyes, the fully suited outfits I typically wear seem to be pretty normal, especially since I’m also inspired by a lot of contemporary menswear guys who are also quite safe. Maybe it’s may way of approximating them, just with the pieces I already own (and I own a lot of clothes). Everything is quite proper, though it’s only the “details” like a high rise, pleats, and soft shoulders (things that people seldom notice at first glance) that make it more me. I only break out when I decide not to wear a tie, which usually involves sport shirts or knitwear, both of which are not expressly safe for most workspaces (though I also think they would be fine to wear). I will say that it does take a bit of effort to soberize my separates which lean heavily on a more “fun” take on ivy trad, which some argue can be “loud” in personality, yet are still called boring or old man to others.
It’s that last part that really makes me think that tailoring as work attire as a restrictive dress code is truly gone. People will put a trad outfit with corduroys and a soft Italian jacket in the same boat as a navy suit with Captain America motif socks. Since that’s the case, I think that it’s simply best to wear what you want and let your gut tell you what you can and can’t get away with. I’ve been pretty good, regardless of my taste in foulards or my predilection for collar bars (which are seen by many as formal).
I’d argue that that you’re better off dressing casually for work than wearing a suit, as most accessible workplaces are much less formal than you think. No offense to many of you, but if you’re reading this, you probably aren’t working at a stuper stodgy place like KPMG or are any where near the C-suite (at least right away). After all, most of you guys tend to be younger and in more creative industries that have leeway, perhaps even more than you’d expect. I know that my job/career is never going to require sober dressing, at least on a daily basis. Even my friends who have traditionally tailored jobs aren’t as “formal” as plenty of these guys are increasingly able to wear casual pieces. Hell, based on the selfies I’ve seen in that wholesome Asian American Discord I’m in, you’d be just at home (or in the office rather) in hoodies and jeans. It’s not really that serious, it seems.
This shift to being dressed-down at work is why most of my outfits takes lean on the more casual or rugged side, despite using tailoring. I’m never offended when people tell me that they can’t wear what I wear to a hypothetical bank job, because that’s not the point. Obviously my attire includes things like lapels and full cuts that are typically seen as dressy, but the approach is not meant to be one for formality or professionalism. Instead, it leans more on wearing classically casual pieces like workshirts or milsurp and introducing ideas of tailored outfits which include soft shouldered jackets, foulard ties, and tassel loafers rather than wearing tailoring and then dressing it down. The result is something just as nebulous as an office dress code but walks the line between casual and formal. After all, I like to wear suits which some people consider to be formal, yet the way I wear it is considered casual. It’s neither too fussy nor too sloppy. I think that this is what makes my attire perfectly fine for most accessible offices, though with some reasonable edits; I wouldn’t wear a beret to the office until I knew it was okay!
Overall, I’d imagine to think that my friendly personality and good work ethic shine further than my clothes at my work. Then, after a few months, only a keen observer will see the difference when I actually decide to wear a solid suit and a more conservative geometric. And even then, as I’ve been told many times by my non-menswear friends (and girlfriend), only menswear obsessives will know the difference between my take on true business style and what I wear regularly. The world simply doesn’t care.
That’s why I think it’s quite a bit of fun in dressing corporate and imagining yourself as a hypothetical Italian Industrialist or a Swiss Banker, even if no one knows. It truly reminds me of the old ideas of tailoring, where the idea was to look commanding and clean, at least when it was worn to the office. Thankfully my friends and I aren’t forced to wear this everyday, which makes it enjoyable to break out as an aesthetic every once in a while. I can definitely wear a sportshirt or merch cap to the office and then break out the gingham shirts and repp stripe ties when I’m feeling #menswear and then the soft bespoke navy worsted and minimally scalled foulards when I want to believe I’m a C-suite consultant…even though I handle small scale gaming campaigns.
Perhaps this is the way business wear will survive- as a post-modern “cosplay” to pick from, rather than an overt workplace uniform.
- 06:40 – Topic Start
- 13:22 – What We Think Corporate Attire Is
- 21:25 – Business Dress Function Differs From Menswear
- 26:47 – Business Attire Has Become More Formal/Losing “Tradness”
- 30:41 – What You Can Wear In The Office
- 36:03 – People We Know
- 40:10 – Too Formal For The Office
- 43:15 – Journalist’s Forced Practicality
- 44:35 – You Have To See It In Person
- 45:15 – Safe Ethan Looks
- 46:38 – What You Are Conveying With Attire
- 49:38 – Corporate Attire Mindset Isn’t Necessarily A Bad Thing
- 50:53 – Wearing YOUR Look To The Office
- 55:18 – Corporate Look Can Be An Aesthetic
- 1:02:02 – Closing
We followed this podcast and essay on stream, diving deep to some of the “critiques” I got on Reddit. In it, Aldous aptly points out how many of these office dressers keep bringing up interns and the issues of “outshining your boss”. On the one hand, most [stereotypical] bosses dress quite schlumpy, which allows for a certain degree of freedom since no matter what, you will be better dressed than your boss- even in a basic gingham shirt and navy chino. On the other hand, the corporate adherents bring up Hermes ties an example of something to avoid. Aldous then infers that their issues are with Hermes being a status symbol rather than a style symbol, and bosses have an issue with freshman associates wearing something that they have to earn.
Afterall, this really wasn’t a “how-to” essay for beginners (who usually don’t like the rest of blog to begin with), but instead was for “advanced” guys who already have the ability to dress in [close] to what they want and simply want another source of inspo. In the end, I maintain that if you are a good, personable worker, you can probably dress with a certain degree of freedom- usually this comes with experience (both in dressing and at your job) and a bit of a gut check so you’re not caught off guard when wearing something cool. This also presumes that you’re not explaining/defending the history of patch pockets and knit ties to a critical coworker; that’s not what a good worker (or dresser) does.
Take a watch above for the full conversation! I might be a little excitable since I was drinking alcohol at the time. Cut me some slack- it was poker night!
- Permanent Style – tbh, Simon is your best bet for this topic
- Put This On
- Die, Workwear
- On the black tassel, a good #menswear piece that is still quite business-y.
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I need a scarf for my Navy raincoat, and glad I kept my bit loafers.