Tuesday, May 15, 2007

On the Suit

Mark Cuban, the software gazillionaire and owner of the underachieving Dallas Mavericks basketball team, has a post on his blog ripping the suit and expressing bafflement that any man would wear one (hat tip: Wretchard, at whose site some discussion of the article follows):

Why am I such a suit hater ? I'm not a suit hater, I just could never think of any good reason for any sane person to wear a suit in the first place.

Exactly what purpose does a suit serve ? Why in the world are so many people required to wear a suit to work ? Do the clothes make the man or woman in the western world today ? Does wearing a tie make us work harder or smarter ? Is this a conspiracy by the clothing, fabric or dry cleaning industry to take our money ?

Or are we all just lemmings following a standard we all know makes zero sense, but we follow because we are afraid not to ?

I'd like to suggest that suits, and first-rate clothing generally, perform three functions that Mr. Cuban is unwise to underestimate the importance of. First, suits allow people to solve a basic asymmetric-information problem. When people are applying for a job, presenting research at a professional conference, or attempting to make a sale, the people to whom they are trying to appeal usually know little about them. This is like the classic problem of trying to sell a used car when the buyer has no way of differentiating high-from low-quality vehicles. Under reasonable economic models, only sellers of high-quality vehicles will offer such warranties, allowing the consumer to tell the high-and low-quality cars and yet not causing the manufacturers of high-quality vehicle to incur any extra expense from the offering of a warranty. The willingness to incur the cost lets the audience know that the seller can afford to offer the warranty, providing a useful single that he can also afford to offer a high-quality product.

So too the wearer of a suit is signaling his audience. For a job applicant, incurring the expense of a suit (and for an employee, incurring the returning expense of cleaning existing and buying new ones) tells the employer that the applicant is willing to invest in himself, providing some evidence that he will provide more effort on the job. That suits are somewhat uncomfortable to wear and take time to put on only adds to this effect. If they have a significant informational role, the theory would predict that those whose reputations are already known – say, a scholar at a conference who already has substantial research achievements – needn’t incur this expense. Nor, for that matter, need someone like Mr. Cuban, who has made so much money and has such a well-known reputation that he needs to signal nothing. But when he was in his 20s, I'm guessing, he wore them all the time. (The signaling role of professorial dress, which is often of intentionally low quality, is a problem I have discussed before.)

The second reason to wear a suit is to make some sort of endorsement of civilizational common ground. The great scholar Jacques Barzun, in his astonishing and magisterial From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, argues toward the end, in his evaluation of the modern individualistic revolution, that Western and especially American dress has drifted toward what he calls the “demotic,” meaning roughly the freedom of all individuals to dress more or less as they please all the time, and often in sympathy with ordinary Joes. As recently as the early postwar years the men at baseball games were invariably wearing suits, ties, and hats, as were the male customers in any decent restaurant. Such a scene is unimaginable now, with shorts and T-shirts being the order of the day not just at the ballpark but on airplanes and (in California) even in first-rate restaurants. To wear a suit nowadays is thus to sign on to the historical continuity of Western culture, in particular with the idea that standards matter -- that individualism can only be carried so far. Of course, individual freedom is a cornerstone of the very Western culture the wearing of a suit might celebrate, so this view has internal contradictions. It would be an interesting experiment to go to two political conferences, one of the hard left and one of the hard right, and document the difference in styles of dress – the conservatives in their restraining garb, and the progressives in their let-it-all-hang-out casualness. The suit nowadays is a way of saying, "Men have always worn suits (and fathered their children in wedlock and gone to church and learned about why the Romans and the Magna Carta are important), and if I have anything to say about it, will keep doing so."

But the most straightforward reason to wear a suit is, frankly, because it looks good. The human drive to beauty, which is worthy of a post in its own right, has always been with us and always will be. And, at least in terms of current aesthetic tastes, suits are the highest everyday fashion statement a man can make. Note that this does not mean that all men must look the same -- matching different colors and styles of shirts, coats and ties, wearing neck- or bow ties, employing different kinds of tie knots, and other tactics all provide immense room for individual expression even while confining your wardrobe to coat, slacks, and tie. People want to look good, and a suit is a compelling (if uncomfortable) way of doing that. As long as people value looking good merely for its own sake (and all of us, even if we define "looking good" differently, do), wearing a suit provides a compelling way to do that. Mark Cuban has enough money and fame to make a different statement without consequence, but there will always be enough suit-wearers to leave him flummoxed.


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