Even though we’re a decade in to the 21st century many companies continue to employ dress codes. Sometimes overt, sometimes explicit, they usually prescribe dark suits, black shoes and a light-coloured shirt. Such codes may sound like a good idea, especially now that the “dress down” policy of some companies has devolved from khakis and oxford shirts to cargo pants and heavily logoed t-shirts, but they are built on the false assumption that the wearing of suits equals smart and presentable workers.
The problem with dress codes is that they take away the need for men to think about whether what they are wearing actually looks smart. For example, most male office workers in Tokyo do wear dark suits and white shirts – even in the midst of summer – but they are no more presentable than office workers in London or New York who do not. This is usually for two reasons: 1) poorly-fitting suits, and 2) seasonally inappropriate colours and fabrics.
The suit-wearing culture that dominates some corporations, especially here in Japan, has spawned an entire industry dedicated to producing reasonably-priced suits. While reasonably-priced doesn’t necessarily equal badly fitting, a lot of men seem to have forgotten how a suit should fit. In fact, many men seem to believe that suits with oversized shoulders make them look more masculine. They don’t. Oversized shoulders simply serve to make the wearer look as if he has borrowed his big brother’s clothes.
As well as American-footballer shoulders, many men seem to forget about trouser length. Generally speaking, there should be a slight break in the fabric at the front of the trouser, but only very slight. While it’s acceptable for trouser hems to be short enough to show a tiny bit of sock while walking, they shouldn’t rumple up over the tops of shoes, and their hems shouldn’t be long enough to scuff the floor.
Seasonally inappropriate colours and fabrics
In the old days knowing how to dress for the seasons was pure common sense. Cold winters required wool suits and cashmere sweaters; tropical summers required cotton or linen khaki trousers, an odd jacket and perhaps a woven hat of some kind to keep the sun at bay. When air conditioning and central heating became commonplace this need to dress appropriately became less important. If it’s always 24°C in the office, why bother with changing wardrobes twice a year?
The simple answer to this is that most men will spend at least some part of their day outside, if only to walk to and from the office. This may not be a problem in cities with temperate climates, but places like Tokyo, where temperatures often exceed 30°C for three months of the year, walking outside for just a few minutes wearing a dark suit is exceedingly uncomfortable. For salesmen who have to travel between their clients’ offices all day Tokyo in summer is hell on earth: although their dark suits and shirts look pristine at the beginning of the day, by the end of it they are smelly and rimed with sweat marks. Not exactly smart.
If you need to wear a suit in very hot weather, make sure that it’s made of linen or cotton, and in a light colour. Although suits made from these fabrics do wrinkle easily, they look infinitely more appropriate – and smarter – than a sweat-soaked wool or polyester one. If you don’t need to wear a suit, don’t: you will look (and feel) much better in a pair of nicely-fitting chinos and a lightweight cotton shirt.