When business casual came into vogue, men got sloppy. Women dressed sharper and nabbed more promotions. Today, men are taking fashion lessons to regain lost ground and that all-important image builder — the business suit — is making a comeback. This time, it’s dressier.
“Women traditionally grow up knowing how to dress themselves to project a positive image,” said Brent Warr, owner of Warr’s in Gulfport, a men’s clothing store. “Men in America haven’t. They go from khakis and jeans to suits. When men began dressing down in the 1980s and 1990s, they were dressing down the wrong way. Women knew how to present a better image and got promoted. Men have had to take notice of that.”
In Faith Popcorn’s “EVEolution” (Hyperion, 2000) and similar books, the importance of fashion marketing is explained. Suits with broad shoulders are dated. So are slouchy styles. Men don’t need jacket buttons below the waist. And suits with permanent rumples and those that haven’t been worn in several years need to be tossed.
“Men did not know what smart-casual really was, and took advantage of it,” said Billy Neville, owner of The Rogue Ltd., a men’s clothing store in Jackson. “It became jeans with holes or khaki pants, anything goes. As the economy stumbled, people realized they needed to look their best and be at their best. If you have someone coming in your office and looking like a slob, it doesn’t exude confidence in your potential client. You need to have everything working for you.”
Michael Olivier, executive director of the Harrison County Development Commission, said dressing the part is important, but deciding what to wear and when depends on the circumstances.
“Wearing a three-piece suit in a print shop may not be a good thing,” said Olivier. “In that situation, business casual may be more acceptable and less intimidating. You don’t want to be in a tie-and-coat looking at drainage projects, for example. When I go into a manufacturing plant, I always give consideration to how the plant manager will be dressed that day, and what I will be doing there. If I will be touring the facility, business casual may be appropriate. If I will be meeting with senior officials visiting the plant, who may want an overview of the Coast economy, I want to wear a business suit.”
Most days, Olivier wears a suit to the office, and he cares about how his staff dresses. “Oh, yes, Mr. Olivier likes for us to dress professionally,” said a receptionist. “You never know who will walk in the door and we have to look sharp.”
Business suits open all doors in a rough-and-tumble business environment, said Neville.
“You’ve got to look the part, and there’s no better way to do it than dress the part,” he said. “That anything-goes look has gone.”
Even in a temperate southern climate, the all-wool tropical suit is a wardrobe staple.
“You’d think the traditional cotton suits would be preferable, but that’s not necessarily the case,” said Warr. “People have to keep in mind that businessmen don’t typically work outside. Every place they work is air-conditioned.”
Men typically build a basic wardrobe around a couple of suits of winter weight wool and one or two summer weight wool, wool blend or cotton blend suits. They are usually two- or three-button single-breasted; about half have a center vent, the other half are ventless. Even though men are sporting more colors and patterns, such as seasonal tones and plaids and stripes, they usually stick to navy and charcoal gray, and punctuate suits with color, said Neville.
“Men look better in darker colors because it’s more professional and serious,” he said. “There are few occasions where it cannot look the best. And nothing beats a crisp, white shirt.”
When darker colors are chosen, men usually add an infusion of pop color, like a cobalt blue stripe in a dark gray suit, said Neville.
“Chalk stripes rather than pinstripes have made a comeback,” said Warr. (Pinstripes have two distinct colors; chalk stripes have faint colors.) “People have moved away from traditional business suits to dressier suits. French cuffs are starting to ease in. You’ll see blue and blue patterns, but not the old traditional blue, and darker blue or end-on-end patterns. Why? The economy drives it. So do TV shows like The Practice, where young stars who are obviously good at what they do in the show are very well-dressed.”
Some men overlook one of the most important accessories of a business suit: good shoes.
“Shoes have become more casual and you can mess up a great-looking outfit with the wrong shoes,” said Warr. “Just make sure it looks the part.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at (601) 672-0146 or firstname.lastname@example.org</a.