Let’s start with history and practicality. Suit jackets were never meant to be taken off. A man, no matter what his place in society, strained to have a clean collar and cuffs in order to appear smart. But these were detachable from the main shirt, which would be reworn for reasons of economy.
The maximum that was ever visible of a man’s shirt was his collar, cuffs and shirt front. For example, in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit, the younger Chuzzlewit observes that many immigrants to America pack their suitcases with detachable shirt fronts – and have no real shirts at all. They maintain an air of respectability by having clean, white shirt fronts. They cannot afford a shirt, but no one will know they are not wearing one, because no one takes off their jacket.
The suit, with the possible addition of a waistcoat, was worn in its whole both for smartness and for warmth. The head-to-toe grey, blue or black was considered proper and smart – only a labourer or someone at particularly heavy work would take off their jacket (hence the association of being ‘in one’s shirtsleeves’ with toil). And only someone who was not afraid to get cold. The absence of central heating and air conditioning meant men wore a three-piece suit in heavy wool merely to keep warm.
Have a look at those old Hollywood films. How often do you see a well-dressed man’s shirt?
So, a suit from head to toe. Probably with long socks – both for warmth and for smartness again, to prevent showing naked leg and break that formal, dark figure. And the collar would be kept together with a tie, tucked into the jacket or waistcoat.
Today, if men wear a suit to the office they almost immediately take off the jacket. It would be too hot and probably uncomfortable to work at a computer with all day long. So they walk around the office in suit trousers, a shirt and possibly a tie. Without anything to tuck into, the tie may flap around unflatteringly. The effect is reinforced if the tie is loosened and the top button of the shirt undone. Plus, unless the shirt is very fitted, it will balloon a little around the waist.
If the man goes outside, it is likely that he will either put on both the jacket and a coat (in winter) or nothing at all (in summer). Either way, the jacket is redundant.
This redux of the classic lounge suit is often unflattering. Gone, for most of the day, is the waist-concealing silhouette of a well-made suit. That most attractive of outfits, which flatters many men like nothing else, is lost.
It is no wonder that many in the US have adopted a casual work outfit. If all you were wearing was suit trousers and a shirt, what’s the difference if you wear chinos and a shirt?
It is no wonder that putting a suit on to meet a client can feel a little artificial, like donning armour. And it is little wonder that many young men feel bored by a suit and prefer not to wear one (unless it is fashionable, as it has been for the past few years). But it is a pity.
The solution to this modern workwear dilemma will appear in the second part of this posting, on Monday.