"President Bush wears suits and expects his staff to dress up, unlike the Clintonites, who showed up at the office on Saturdays in their bathrobes. After Sept. 11, a bracing sense of life's seriousness has reinforced the trend. With layoffs looming, dressing up to look less expendable has struck many employees as the better part of valor, while others have been donning suit and tie to sneak out at lunch for safety-net interviews."
—Holman Jenkins Jr., in his "Business World" column on the Wall Street Journal's op-ed page, Nov. 21, 2001. The headline was "Uptight Is Back in Style."
"Sales of men's tailored clothing, which includes suits and sportcoats, fell 13.3% during the first nine months of 2002, from $3.66 billion to $3.17 billion, and declined 0.8% from 2000 to 2001."
—Amy Merrick, "Apparel Group Spins a Yarn About the Return of the Suit," in the Dec. 27 Wall Street Journal.
Discussion. Kudos to Merrick for including in her story a swipe at the Jenkins column (which, unfortunately, she misidentified as an "editorial") and also at a news story by Teri Agins from the Aug. 16, 2002, Journal. Chatterbox let Agins off the hook because her piece was really about how the fashion industry was pushing for a return to suit and tie.
Jenkins, on the other hand, really wants to believe the suit and tie are back. Whopper veterans may quibble that Jenkins says merely that "many employees" choose to wear a suit and tie, which is impossible to disprove. (How many is "many"?) But Jenkins does himself in with his use of the word "trend." If wearing suits is a trend, that can only mean more people are wearing suits. But Merrick demonstrates that sales declined this year and also declined the year before.
Merrick credits the Men's Apparel Alliance with spreading the "dressing up is back" myth, for obvious reasons of economic self-interest. Last February, for instance, it got the New York Times' "Personal Business Diary" to do a brief trend item entirely based on a survey conducted by … the Men's Apparel Alliance! Jenkins, to his credit, avoided data ginned up by the men's apparel industry. Instead, he used a survey conducted by Jackson Lewis, a law firm specializing in workplace issues, that attributed various forms of workplace degeneracy to casual attire—or, to be more precise, showed that a minority of human resources executives attribute various forms of workplace degeneracy to casual attire. That's a very far cry from anything resembling evidence that the suit and tie are "back."
It is possible, Chatterbox supposes, that people could be wearing more suits without buying more suits. They could be taking their old suits out of mothballs. But precious few salarymen can count on fitting into the same old suit year after year. (Click here for data from the U.S. surgeon general on overweight and obesity.)
[Update, Dec. 30: Holman Jenkins e-mailed the following response:
Chatterbox must be hurting for material to make a big deal out of two relatively light pieces in the Journal (separated by 13 months!) on the return (or non-return) of the business suit. Anyway, isn't a Whopper supposed to be a falsehood?
What sparked my column was that a Wall Street CEO had told his tailor that he was trying to get his folks back into suits. I piled on a bunch of anecdotal evidence and quotes that some business people (mostly bankers) were tiring of business casual. I even cited a memo from a Xerox exec to his sales staff asking them to get back into suits and ties. Sure enough, in the following weeks, Bear, Stearns and Lehman formally reinstated a dress code.