Is this the end of the work suit?

3 Sep 2021 By Shakil Butt

With sales of men’s business attire dropping and large retailers opting to stop selling it in stores, Shakil Butt asks if Covid has meant the demise of the humble jacket and tie

I only knew two things when thinking about my career options. I knew I wanted to work in an office as opposed to being outdoors, and secondly I wanted to wear a suit because they looked smart. As far as career paths in front of me, I could only imagine working in banking, the legal profession or as an accountant mostly because the careers advice at school was fairly limited back in the 80s. 

It was the late 80s whilst I was still studying that I started a part-time job in retail and because uniforms took a while to arrive, I was asked to attend work in a suit. I noted how customers would engage with me differently thinking I was a senior member of staff in the store compared to my uniformed colleagues. I particularly noticed the change in customer attitude once my uniform arrived and I was no longer allowed to wear a suit. I learnt that beyond looking smart, suits sent out a certain message. 

In the early 90s I began my career in earnest as an accountant believing that I had ticked off my limited wish list at a medium-sized accounting practice. I learnt many things during my trainee years, such as how to reconcile bank accounts, completing quarterly VAT returns and carry out audits for a range of businesses. I learnt the importance of some softer disciplines of work such as ethics, timekeeping, client engagement and being always presentable and professional. The latter two were intertwined: being professional meant looking professional which meant being in a suit. 

The accounting practice had a dress code that mandated wearing a suit, but not only that, I was expected to ensure the top button of my shirt was always done so my tie would sit neatly and squarely in the centre and shoes were typically Oxford brogues. I was surrounded by variations of black, grey and navy blue suits. The only real variation allowed was pinstripe or plain suits and single- and double-breasted suits. Loud suits were a definite no-no. 

So began my long-term relationship with the suit. Even as I changed job roles moving from the accounting practice to the charitable sector I stayed in my suit despite my colleagues, peers and seniors opting for more comfortable attire as per the norm in the sector. As I transitioned to a HR career, I switched things up and began wearing a three-piece suit. I took great pride in looking ‘sharp’ and being known for being ‘suited and booted’.

Last weekend, Marks & Spencer announced it would no longer sell men's suits at more than half of its 254 larger stores. This could be attributed wholly to the pandemic, with individuals working from home opting for casual wear instead of formal attire, with casual wear at best shifting to smart casual wear typically being a shirt and maybe trousers for online meetings. 

According to market research firm Kantar Group, sales of men's suits in the UK have fallen by 2.3 million over five years. Research found that men purchased two million suits in the year to July 2021 compared to 4.3 million for the same period in 2017. Kantar also reported a fall in sales of women's suits over five years, but it was less notable in comparison to men's professional wear. 

The decline in Marks & Spencer stores selling men's suits had already started pre pandemic back in 2019 when the retailer reported sales of suits falling by 7 per cent. This general trend was accelerated during the first two months of the Covid pandemic when millions of people were legally required to stay and work from home. Marks & Spencer reported it sold only 7,500 suits – a substantive decrease in sales of 80 per cent compared to the same period the previous year.

The drop in sales and the changing attitudes to working in an office environment – the ‘great resignation’ – suggest that the reality may be that suits have had their day and are relics of the world of work from the past that deservedly need to be given the boot. 

At a personal level, in the last year, I have only worn a suit on just two occasions. In both instances I opted to wear a suit, but there was no expectation to do so. 

Wearing a suit always made me feel like a professional. It was most definitely like wearing a uniform of sorts, and gave me a mindset that said I am here to work. It would give an unsaid message to everyone in and outside of work that I held a position of importance, that what I did mattered, that I had made it in some professional capacity. Wearing a suit was a precursor to the introduction, the exchange of titles and business cards. It was a self-affirmation that I had made it. Whatever ‘it’ was. ‘It’ would manifest in the way others in whatever capacity would interact with me. The suit commanded a certain level of respect and courtesy. 

Like many, I have my suits sitting in my cupboard that I am itching to slip back into, but is this just a reflection of my mindset that I have adopted believing certain facts to be absolute truths? I believe that when the opportunity arises, I will still be inclined to wear a suit if for no other reason that I still think they look smart but even as I write this from home, I am wearing a t-shirt and chinos. Something to reflect on. 

Shakil Butt is founder of HR Hero for Hire

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