Slacks have given way to chinos. Oxfords have moved aside for loafers. I understand polo shirts are now acceptable in many offices. I work at a university, and many of my colleagues dress for comfort. I’ve read a number of explanations for the rise of business casual, the fall of conservative business dress, and the emergence of the jacket and tie as a symbol of self-expression rather than rote conformity.
None of these explanations have been substantively rooted in the cultural context of this shift. This might be because the scholars who study culture have better things to be doing (feverishly pursuing tenure at the expense of their students). It might be that the bloggers who write about clothes have more interesting things to write about (e.g. clothes). It might be because the cultural context isn’t necessary to understand this shift. But I think it is, and this is why:
In 1984, Geert Hofstede, management scholar, social psychologist, and octogenarian, released his groundbreaking book, Culture’s Consequences: Comparing Values, Beliefs, Institutions and Organizations Across Nations. The book proposed (and measured) five dimensions through which a culture could be understood: uncertainty avoidance, power distance, collectivism, masculinity, and long-term orientation.
A telling observation among North Americans.
Canada and the United States score towards the extremes of two of these dimensions: collectivism and power distance. Collectivism speaks to the degree with which individuals identify with their group memberships and the importance of that group membership to their individual identity. Ask an American what he does, he’ll tell you he’s a lawyer at IBM. Ask his Japanese colleague, and she’ll likely tell you she works at IBM, where she’s a lawyer. See? Group first. As a result of the importance of the group, people from collectivistic cultures place great store in social harmony, avoiding conflict and anything else that might be disruptive to group cohesion.
Both the United States and Canada are on the lower end of the collectivism spectrum: we’re incredibly individualistic. Similarly, we are very low in power distance. Countries which are high in this dimension expect rigid hierarchies in their organizations and for authority to be unquestioned. None of this boss-is-your-friend mumbo jumbo. Languages used in these societies are often filled with honorifics, allowing speakers to demonstrate proper deference to status. Bugger that. My chair’s name is Frank. I call him Frank.
Both of these qualities—low power distance and individualism—made the US and Canada a place where sartorial tradition, once strong, was likely to crater (Mexico was always too sensible for neckties). A final dimension, cultural tightness, is probably also responsible.
Tightness came to the cross-culture studies game late, in a 2006 Journal of Applied Psychology paper written by Michele Gelfand and her colleagues (you can check out a 2014 article on the topic in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which does not require a subscription. Do it. I’ll wait). In tight cultures, there is a strong expectation that social norms are followed and that deviance received sanction (and before one of you super smart readers objects, it only correlates with collectivism at around 0.3). The U.S. and Canada both like to keep things loose.
Alright, so we have two culturally loose, individualistic, low power distance countries. What does that mean for the suit and tie? Nothing good, I assure you. To the degree that this type of business attire served as a status symbol, it was doomed from the start. Cultures low in power distance tend to demonstrate disdain for artifacts of status, and if organizational members feel more comfortable without them, they’re gone. A boss is much more approachable in an OCBD than he is in suit and tie, and approachability is at a premium in low power distance societies.
Looseness and individualism operated synergistically to undermine the incumbent sartorial order. Individualism encourages greater creativity and greater self-expression, and what we wear became a way to express ourselves. If we were part of a collectivistic society, our clothing might be geared toward demonstrating our membership to some group and there would subsequently be less variety in our outfits.
Similarly, our cultural looseness meant that violation of the social norms was not likely to be met with any sort of repercussions. Over the last several decades or so, as a result of this process, relevant social norms have eroded, such that I doubt tightness or looseness really matters any more: wearing a polo to work is not violating a sartorial norm, it is now conforming to it.
A resurgence of the jacket and tie.
This brings us to the bizarre resurgence of the jacket and tie via that fantastic online wave of #menswear. When business casual is the new norm, the jacket and tie crowd are the deviants. This would be an issue in a collectivistic society, in which to eschew the polo would be to break from the group, or a tight society in which such deviance would result in physical punishment (e.g. whippings, forced labor, prolonged exposure to Nickelback, etc) or more likely huddled whispers in the coffee room. In a high power distance society, it would be unthinkable to out dress your boss; to do so would be to flaunt hierarchy.
Fortunately, here, it’s only a little awkward thanks to our individualistic, loose, and lower power distance cultures. Frank sometimes wears a Grateful Dead shirt under and open OCBD. Weather permitting, I wear a jacket and tie. He only sometimes gives me a hard time about it.
A.C.L. is a PhD candidate at a college of business somewhere in America researching things of little practical significance (this won't stop him from talking at length about them). He thinks getting "DiMaggio & Powell, 1983" tattooed on his arm might be a good idea. He likes clothes and owns many neckties. You can find more inspiration from him on Instagram.