Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

The Anti-Suit Movement

I don’t like wearing suits. In part, this is simply a question of personal taste — I find them uncomfortable and overpriced, and I don’t like the way they look. But it’s also a question of principle. Suits — and the other trappings of “respect” that go with them, like titles and sir’s and the rest — are the physical evidence of power distance, the entrenchment of a particular form of inequality.

As a result, when I go to events I try to avoid wearing a suit if I can. But sometimes not wearing a suit just feels really out of place. When you show up to a room of people in suits wearing a t-shirt and jeans, people don’t think you’re taking a brave stand on principle; they just think you’re unkempt.

Yet these things do change. In the 1950s, college kids went to class in suits and addressed their professors as sir. The 1960s changed all that. Today, at most colleges, wearing a suit to class would be the weird thing to do.

This seems like a traditional collective action problem. If one person doesn’t wear a suit, they seem weird, but if everyone doesn’t wear a suit, they’re all fine. But the idea of doing political organizing around not wearing a suit just seems bizarre. It’s hard to know who to organize — each event has a different group of people — and even if you could find the people and they agreed with you, asking folks to join a no-suit pact just seems weird.

So suits are emblematic of this strange kind of politico-cultural issue — a political question that’s not amenable to a political solution. And yet, from the 1960s, we know that these battles can be won. Does anyone know how?

You should follow me on twitter here.

March 16, 2010


Well the answer from the 60s is surely that if your small issue (not wanting to wear suits) gets coupled to a big issue (not wanting to go to Vietnam) in the minds of many people, then it goes along for the ride.

Of course how to arrange such a coupling is another question…

But there are other ways not to wear suits. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt is simply unkempt, but showing up in a nice kilt, or a kurta, or a Madiba shirt (according to location or genealogy) is a good start. Then it’s clear you’re not just shirking, you went to some effort. But it has the same effect of pushing the room full of people away from uniformity.

posted by improbable on March 16, 2010 #

Reminded me of Bjorn Lomborg - the author of “Cool It” and “The Skeptical Environmentalist” among others - making a remark on how he’s out of place wearing a T-shirt and jeans in the beginning of his presentation and getting a laugh from the audience:


He never seems to wear a suit, even when everyone else wears them. http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=bjorn+lomborg

Hope more people do this.

posted by Stan on March 16, 2010 #

I don’t think of the problem of suit/no-suit, but the problem of replacing something old with something new. If wearing tie-die shirts makes you look hip and popular, everyone else will start to do the same thing. Eventually, wearing suit+tie will make you look old fashioned and out of place.

In the end marketing folks and fashionistas know how to drive the fasion industry best— every quarter they replace old stuff that they need to get rid of with something newer that people think is more hip, cooler, more in-touch with others.

posted by Kevin C on March 16, 2010 #

It’s a slow change - but things like the DotCom bubble helped, because all of those new businesses were so desperate to (a) hire coders and (b) look cool that any kind of arbitrary rules went out of the window along with the common sense.

I work for a large financial company and ties became non-mandatory for us about two years ago, unless you were talking to a customer. Give us another 10 years and they’ll vanish even then, I suspect.

posted by Andrew Ducker on March 16, 2010 #

Suits are already on the way out. Clothing that signifies power distance isn’t. Even though Steve Jobs doesn’t appear in suits, his clothing shows plenty of power distance separating him from inner city kids.

posted by Lawrence on March 16, 2010 #

Sometimes getting dressed up is about respect, not about power. A wedding or a funeral come to mind. A way to visibly show people that you thought of them and went through some extra effort to make that show. This is especially true when your role at something is simply to attend.

In the Silicon Valley and in SF I might not wear a suit to an interview, but I will wear a nice jacket and slacks.

posted by KiltBear on March 16, 2010 #

Suits are a vestige from the days when people used suits (and wigs) to sort out the “elite” from the “common man”. They’ve been dying out slowly, but programmers seem to be pushing the envelope the most. I know I refused to wear as suit to my own wedding. (My wife was fine with kakis and a nice shirt.)

Paul Graham has a nice writeup on this: http://www.paulgraham.com/bubble.html

posted by Anonymouse on March 16, 2010 #

‘Business Casual’ is one way to skip around the suit issue: smart chinos, smart-ish shirt, dark brown/black trainers/skate shoes.

No tie.

Basically, don’t wear jeans when all others are in full suit: aim for 50% smart.

posted by Iain on March 16, 2010 #

Yeah, I think Iain has it. Acceptable dress is an Overton window. You move the window by changing the center, without moving so far away from it as to be dismissed. If everyone is wearing suits, jeans and t-shirt look odd. But jeans and a suit jacket maybe don’t. And once everyone is wearing jeans and suit jackets, maybe jeans and t-shirt don’t look odd anymore.

posted by Scott Reynen on March 16, 2010 #

I kind of like wearing a suit… but the suit must fit, you must enjoy wearing a suit (I don’t wear one all the time) and you gotta learn a bit about to wear one right. For example, I had always wondered how to tie a good tie knot… after much experience now, I can say there is a ton of tacit knowledge involved in tying a good tie knot. In the end, it’s just practice. Working with CS people and lawyers so often, I often feel either overdressed (where hawaiian t-shirts are “dressing up”) or underdressed (when I’m only wearing a blazer over khakis w/ no tie and my lawyer friends are snug as bugs in their suits).

Anyway, if you talk to upper management, even suit-required workplaces are starting to see lack of ties and, god forbid, the trend of untucked button-up shirts with a blazer and slacks (not sure where that one comes from).

posted by joe on March 16, 2010 #

To be slightly provoking, untucked button Dow shirts with slacks and jacket is also a really strong fashion influence. Fashion is it’s own kind of cruel master based in marketing which is based on making people think they need something they really don’t. That is another form of powertripping and whole discussion.

posted by KiltBear on March 17, 2010 #

I don’t like people who don’t like suits. To me, suits can be about dignity, mutual respect, sophistication, and beauty. How they can be about power distance in a setting where everyone wears them is beyond me. If anything, they can be a great equalizer.

posted by Puiz on March 17, 2010 #

You have given the answer yourself. On one hand you feel that suits are a bondage to a particular set of thoughts and on the other you are bothered about what ‘people’ think. If you gotta take a stance against something, the first thing you need to forget about is ‘people’. If you stand for something, you stand for it whole heartedly, otherwise you do not.

posted by M on March 17, 2010 #

As a girl, I have to strongly disagree with your perception: Men look amazing in suits and to this day I’ve never met a girl who thinks differently or a man that does not look good in a suit. So aside from all your principles, your distaste for suits might negatively influence your success with girls. In addition, society does make us do a lot of things that are uncomfortable, and don’t get me started on the things that women wear (high heels, makeup, skinny jeans) that must be a lot more uncomfortable than suits.

However, on a more serious note, I do agree with some of your points. Suits represent business. And I don’t understand why you have a problem with that. We wear things for different occasions. Sport gear when we are doing sports, national costumes when we attend embassy gatherings and punk outfits for discos. Why should T-shirts be the norm, more than anything else?

Although I very well understand the mentioned principles of elitism and let’s call it cultural peer pressure, I disagree with the whole notion,

Because I think attire just serves as a means of communication. And isn’t that what life is all about? Communication with people. Globalisation, peace, love, all try to achieve that; for people to share the same ideas, and lifestyle, to a certain degree (not that all that is good). Yes, we are diverse and all that, but to truly communicate on another level, you want people to share your opinions (just like the comments you wish to receive on your anti-suit movement post).

posted by lindie on March 17, 2010 #

You can also wear a suit and do some nasty thing to it that will only be seen when looked at it from close distance or in some other ocasion. Like to cut the last bit of it in vertical lines, sew a silly finish from another cloth or even objetcs, put some grey words saying “suit” or “I don’t like suits”, punch small holes in it.

It will give out a strong message but be unnoticed at some distance, so people will be shocked in smaller groups. Certainly you will be a possible subject to open commentary, so it is not for the standard group-shy programmer.

Or you can dress up as a waiter, a construction worker, a maid…

In the 30’s adn 40’s I read some folks in the US wore very loose “zoots” or “zoot suits”, as a way to ridicule suits and change and integrate I guess. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zoot_suit


I also like the “wear some kind of nice, taken care of, other type of clothing” as mentioned above.

And don’t agree with the last comment by “M”. You cannot forget about people when you take a stance, at least I can’t. Or maybe you mean you have to forget about people. Well I can’t.

posted by Pablo Segundo on March 17, 2010 #

It seems to me (without any real research) one of the main causes of the “de-suitification” of college campuses in the ‘60s had to do with the GI bill, and the fact that colleges across the country suddenly became a lot less elite. Then you had people who could afford college coming from families that had no history of suit-wearing. In this case, fashion followed the social change. People didn’t decide, en masse, to stop wearing suits to class, it’s just the people who did wear suits started to become outnumbered by the people that didn’t.

Going back to film and media about college from the ‘70s, ‘80s even ‘90s, it’s possible to see archetypes of “old money” college students still wearing suits, and being vanquished by the blue-collar heroes of the film (Animal House stands out, but I recall even David Spade’s character in the 1994 rip-off PCU wore suits).

What you’d need, I think, is not so much to sway the suit-wearing crowd, but to flood the place with a class of participants who don’t historically wear suits, people who are demanding that they be taken seriously. Then give it about twenty years.

That said, I have to agree with @lindie. Suits themselves are merely an arrangement of cloth, and some of them can look quite nice. They mark the wearer as “elite” only because they’re relatively expensive and hard to take care of (you can’t just throw a suit in the wash). Maybe what we need, instead, is low-cost, nice-looking suits for the masses. That way when there’s a mass protest on Capitol Hill, no one will be able to tell the Senators and Lobbyists from the protestors. Wouldn’t that be great?

posted by Christopher Michel on March 17, 2010 #

You should move to Southern California. I have been here for 2 years as an East Coast transplant and it is like everybody banded together and collectively decided that it is acceptable to wear jeans for any occasion.

It’s all about achieving a general consensus to create a new norm where people look “strange” if they are wearing a tie and/or suit. Unfortunately I don’t know how you achieve this goal.

posted by anthony on March 17, 2010 #

Until I was 29 I would have agreed with every word in your statement. Now I simply disagree with your entire notion.

It took a legion of men, women and business people, young and old, to change my perspective, and I believe there is merit in saying that your understanding of the purpose of suits is, possibly, empirically incorrect.

1) Suits are not worn by people to put themselves on a perch above you - they are worn as equalizers to put people from diverse backgrounds on the same level. You don’t wear a suit to the office or impress, you wear it communicate your sensitivity to the stations (lower and higher) others around you hold, and they do the same for you. It’s not a slash on individualism, but in support of the true professional that says “it’s not about me from 9-5, it’s about us.”

2) Suits may cost more than a pair of jeans, but they provide greater value than anything else in your wardrobe. I can wear my $1000 dollar suit twice a week for the next 5 years and not get a hole, a worn spot, a tattered cuff. Suits are built with high construction and are meant to be everyday wear that lasts. My $50 jeans can’t make the same claim.

3) Suits were uncomfortable until, gulp, my two bosses (a man and a women) who both worked in textiles, showed me how to do it. First, men often force fit themselves into an off the rack item in the same size as their jeans. Get the suit tailored to your measurements. Don’t wear a belt - it forces the pants down and causes your shirt to bunch. Instead wear braces - you’ll breath better and your shirt wont wrinkle. The other size miscue is the neck of your shirt - men commonly wear shirts that are 1/2 to 1 inches too small - when your neck is cramped, everything hurts! I can tell you the guy who looks bad and uncomfortable in the suit is wearing an ill fitted, uncomfortable suit - that’s his fault, not the suits.

I was a rock and roller - my pride was being a tshirt and jeans guy. But I’ve grown up and learned that objects only have the meaning you place on them, and they only affect you negatively if you misuse them.

posted by Mike Roberts on March 18, 2010 #

I agree with Mike Roberts in the sense that finely tailored clothes are a good thing. But the uniformity of aesthetics with suits is somewhat offensive to me, and the utility is offset by the fact that they can only be worn formally. I’m looking for a style that can be worn on every average day and on every special occasion, lasts pseudo forever, fits perfectly (I’ll need a tailor) and is within reach of my paycheck given that I’ll only buy a couple in a lifetime.

posted by Travis Wellman on March 19, 2010 #

There’s a lot of interesting stuff about the emergence of consensus in game theory. Look at Robert Axelrod’s book “The Evolution of Cooperation”, or check out the Wikipedia article on “evolutionarily stable strategy”.

Mike Roberts, thanks for your response. A lot of food for thought there from somebody who has also been resistant to suits aside from weddings and funerals. Those are also cases of “regardless of station, we are all in this together”. (I had to look it up; by “braces” you mean what we Yanks call “suspenders”. Gotcha, thanks for the tip.)

posted by Will Ware on April 13, 2010 #

I think this whole “anti-suit” campaign shows that you “sir” have more prejudice born of intellectual immaturity than you think. You’re trying to further extend your “childhood” (as though, 4 or 5 years of college wasn’t extra enough) and therefore are JUDGING people for what they choose to wear.

My father was working class BUT savored putting on suits. Because it was, the great equaliser amongst classes to him. It showed he had “class”

I sincerely doubt you can appreciate that because you’re probably living off some government grant anyway, not having really FOUGHT for or WORKED for anything tangible your entire life. My suggestion is that 1)You find a private sector job 2)Learn respect for those about you 3)Buy a suit and…Probably get a hair cut too..4)Grow up…Childhood is over….

posted by Pappy Caligula on April 26, 2010 #

Sorry to disagree with some of the pro-suit snobs here, but it’s fine to hate suits. When I see a suit, I think of people like Bernie Madoff. I work in the creative and technological industries, and whenever the suits show up, money starts disappearing. I also have lived in the ghetto/inner city. I have been robbed more times by people wearing suits than people with pants down below their butt. Lawyers, bankers, politicians, virtually everybody in finance, and crooked Christian preachers all wear suits, and they all try their hardest to take my (and your) hard-earned money. When was the last time a suit actually did something to help you? It is the uniform of the oppressor and something that I wish had never been invented.

Also, I think ties are the worst accessory ever. A tie, to me, resembles an upside-down noose. I don’t like thinks hanging off my neck, especially when they are tight and have a method of access which can pull me down and even injure me by getting stuck in the shredder.

posted by Alex Sanders on September 5, 2010 #

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