Even when business casual swept the country, there were always hold-outs. Suits and ties have still been the norm in some old-school professions, like law and finance.
But now, the elite financial giant Goldman Sachs is allowing its highly paid personnel to hang up their suits, if necessary.
And many men are finding themselves contemplating a similar style update. Maybe it comes after taking a buyout at your company and accepting a new job in another industry.
Maybe you became an entrepreneur, and now you can decide what you want to wear every day. Or, maybe you changed locations and find that business apparel is different in your new town.
What’s the most comfortable way to update your wardrobe?
Jeffry Aronsson has some advice. The lawyer turned fashion executive ran the operations of Oscar de la Renta, Donna Karan, and Marc Jacobs before launching his own consulting company.
Lately, Aronsson has been spearheading a drive to create a fashion campus in Detroit, his home town, where fashions would be designed, produced, and marketed, providing jobs from entry level to manufacturing.
He prescribes a four-step process for men who are wondering what to wear now.
1. Size up the situation
Aronsson has always worn suits, and his fashion sense was right in sync at de la Renta, whose elegant founder was known for his exquisite taste.
But then Aronsson went downtown in Manhattan to run Marc Jacobs, a more cutting-edge fashion label. Not only was the address different, so was the look.
“The only person who wore a suit there was me,” Aronsson says. “I even wore a tie. Everyone else there wore ripped jeans.”
His attire brings to mind the 2015 Nancy Meyers movie, The Intern, in which retired executive Robert De Niro shows up smartly dressed to work at Anne Hathaway’s casual online retailer, where the boss rode a bicycle and employees sat in a shared office space.
But, Aronsson says he didn’t immediately change his wardrobe, and you shouldn’t either.
If you think best in a suit, keeping wearing one, he says, until you’ve had time to assess the affect your attire has on the people around you.
Who knows? You may find co-workers coming to you for style advice, like De Niro’s young colleagues in The Intern.
It’s important to remember that not every part of the country has gone completely casual. In big Southern cities, many businessmen still wear beautifully tailored suits and distinctive silk ties, especially in sophisticated places like New Orleans and Miami.
Some change their suits with the seasons, switching to seersucker and linen during the hottest summer months. And, you might even spot men in jaunty hats, well beyond the baseball caps and hipster fedoras that have been part of casual wear for years now.
So, don’t Kondo your suits just yet, particularly if you do business beyond Silicon Valley.
2. Adapt with what you already own
Still, Aronsson says he understands that people want to blend in. That’s especially true in fields where casual dressing has become expected, not optional.
“The uniform has gone from a suit and a tie to a nice pair of slacks and a woven shirt, a zip-up sweater, and a vest,” he says.
“You see that throughout baby boomers and non-baby boomers, everywhere from Generation X through Z,” he says.
Aronsson hasn’t given away his suit wardrobe. But, as he’s shifted from being a CEO to acting as a consultant, he’s sized up the places he visits to see how his wardrobe might blend in.
He’s gradually set aside his suits and ties for all but the most formal meetings. Instead, he chooses one of his well-made jackets, a good dress shirt, and a pair of pants that contrast with the jacket.
“It depends on where I’m going, and who I’m seeing, and the decorum,” Aronsson says.
In other words, read the room, and the culture, then look at your closet. You may already have the pieces you need.
3. Show a little flair. It’s not hard
It’s true that a man can go to many meetings in khaki pants, a golf shirt, and a navy blazer. But that doesn’t mean you have to set all of your style aside.
These days, some men are having fun with colorful socks. The late President George H.W. Bush relished his many pairs. “I’m a self-proclaimed sock man,” Bush said. “The louder, the brighter, the crazier the pattern, the better.”
He had socks that read, “Vote,” socks with the American flag, and lots of striped socks.
Maybe you’re a fan of distinctive dress pants, like Nantucket Reds or those patchwork pants often seen on the golf course. Or, you collect vintage watches. Or even fountain pens.
Never let your personal style vanish, even if your clothes don’t particularly stand out. Use that neutral canvas to highlight who you are.
4. Got it wrong? Own it
In the 1936 movie Dodsworth, Walter Huston shows up on the first night of an ocean voyage in a tuxedo, only to learn that no one wears formal clothes on the inaugural evening at sea.
Likewise, you might walk into a WeWork space in your favorite double-breasted suit, only to encounter a flock of office goers in t-shirts and jeans.
What should you do? Nothing, Aronsson says. Just own your choice, and put aside any suspicions that you’re being mocked on Slack or that people are texting each other with laughing emojis.
You actually might be surprised at what they’re really saying.
Rather than viewing you as clueless, you might be perceived as someone who is “sufficiently comfortable in their own skin,” and willing to go against the cultural grain, he says.
“At the end of the day, it’s as much about the person, and who they are,” that’s reflected by what they wear, Aronsson says.