First Men in Tights and Then Men in Ties
By Bill Hall, Lewiston, Idaho Tribune, November 20, 1998
Forget the whooping crane and the spotted owl; it is the business suit
and the spotted necktie that are being threatened with extinction in
Count me among the social bums who are glad.
I have spent my life looking in the mirror, draping a necktie -- a
decoration with no practical use -- around my shirt collar and tying it
into place. And while it is true that I look like a million bucks that
way, a million must be about what I have spent by now on suits and ties.
However, it looks like many of you will be escaping that expense in your
careers. There comes a time with any fashion. Men once wore tights.
That curse passed. Maybe suits and ties are next.
After a couple of hundred years, these formal coats and pants, made from
expensive materials, are in deep decline. And the good news is that
they aren't being replaced by tights.
We knew as early as my childhood that this day would come. Look back to
any of the comic books then that depicted the 21st century. None of
them showed men wearing conventional suits and ties. It was just
assumed that by 2000 we would move into some kind of futuristic
clothing. You get a rough idea of what was expected by looking at the
science fiction movies and television series of today. Those versions
of futuristic clothing are based pretty much on the theories that gave
rise to space-age clothing in all those old comic books. The
presumption was that, by the 21st century, business and professional
people would shed these stiff, overdecorated duds for costumes of
By about now, we all would be wearing clothes made of amazingly supple
and durable synthetic material. In short, we would be wearing something
like polyester jammies.
That seemed amazing at the time because most men half a century ago
owned at least one suit and tie -- even men in blue-collar jobs.
Practically every man had something called a Sunday-go-to-meeting suit.
It was a regulation suit and tie that you used for special occasions
like weddings and funerals, even if you didn't regularly go to church.
If you went to a funeral, virtually every man in the room would be
wearing a suit and tie. Some of the suits were borrowed. Some had been
around a few decades. But the regulation get-up for special occasions
was a suit and tie.
There is a story in my family about a hired man, working on the farm for
my great-grandfather. The hired man's father died. The hired man
borrowed my great-grandfather's suit and wore it to the funeral -- and
to the Irish wake that followed.
The next day he returned the suit with the back ripped. He explained
that he was drunk and ripped the back of the suit while crawling on his
hands and knees under a barbed-wire fence. But he wore a suit to his
father's funeral. And for a few hours he looked grand.
Today, you go to a funeral or a wedding and no more than half the men in
the audience will be wearing suits and ties. In fact, the only ones so
dressed are pretty much those whose jobs require them to dress up
regularly. The rest of the members of the audience are not about to
spend the price of a new set of tires on something they wear every two
years. And I say good for them. I wouldn't want anyone coming to my
funeral wasting money on a new suit. (Actually, I wouldn't want anyone
coming to my funeral at all -- at least, not yet.)
But now we are taking the next step, moving out of the suit-and-tie era
as surely as men once left their tights behind. We probably have the
computer industry to thank for this. It was started largely by a bunch
of rumpled guys working in basements and garages. They chose the
fashion they are now imposing on the business world for comfort, not for
appearance. They began as techies talking to machines not, as in
traditional business, as young salesmen meeting the public.
So we now have the future clothing that the old science fiction comic
books predicted. But it isn't jammies made of artificial fabric. The
costume of the space age that replaces suits is plain old blue jeans and
sweaters and sweatshirts.
And somehow it is a comfort to realize that we have come all this way
into this inventive new age and we still haven't found anything better
to put on our backs than cotton from a plant and wool from a sheep.