Reporting here from the Hot Tub Time Machine, dial set to 2010. Business analysts and those with even a passing interest in men’s wear will remember that as the year when Suit Supply became a worldwide phenomenon. It was also when, for the first time, novel technology enabled men to customize their own suits online without having to submit to pesky nuisances like tailors or the bother of going into a store.
As it happens, 2010 also coincided with certain other shifts in the evolution of fashion, and this may be the place to note a fact about men’s wear that is generally too little appreciated. As a masculine uniform, the suit has changed remarkably little in 400 years, say historians of costume. (Regarding which: Harry Styles in a dress would have been no big whoop to inhabitants of preindustrial eras, when men and women alike wore tunics and aristocratic boy children were attired in frocks until graduating to two-legged garments in a rite of passage known as “breeching.”)
In other words, while suits have always been with us, their proportions shift constantly along with tastes, and by the second decade of this century, the influence of the American designer Thom Browne had crept into every corner of an industry floundering for direction. For anyone unaware of Mr. Browne’s influence, let’s put it this way: Honey, he shrunk the suit.
Mr. Browne made jackets snugger and shorter, billboarding the male posterior. He designed skinny trousers so short suddenly men had ankles again.
Mainstream fashion may have sidestepped the more extreme manifestations of the shrunken suit, and yet it got the memo. Guys of all kinds and varied anatomical types — from “giraffes” to “short kings” — embraced tight suits, made them a business wear default and stuck with them. Then, of course, the pandemic happened, and no one needs to read another story about what that did to hard pants and blazers.
Now, of course, a great many workers are back in the office. A surprising number have already been toiling in corporate ant farms for months or even, in the case of some investment banks, as much as a year.
In terms of RTO dressing, then, it is finance bros who are leading the way. And for anyone looking to observe these people in their natural habitat, the ideal viewing platform is the atrium at Brookfield Place, a vast office-mall complex in Manhattan’s financial district. There, this men’s wear critic parked himself on three separate lunch-hour afternoons last week to grab a snapshot of what men in business are wearing to the office. If the intel gathered was in some sense random, it was also in every case surprising.
Far from dressing much differently than they had before Covid-19 sent workers scattering to the security of bedroom work spaces, finance bros, as it turns out, were dressed much as people holding those same jobs might have done when Barack Obama occupied the White House. Unlike the former president, whose sartorial tastes were often slightly passé, the men riding the escalators down from the Royal Bank of Canada, financial services companies like American Express or the Jones Day law firm, or picking up Le District jambon baguette sandwiches to brown bag it at nearby financial behemoths like Goldman Sachs, looked right up to date. That is, if the date in question were 2010.
“What am I wearing?” said David, a 30-year-old Goldman employee who, like many interviewed for this story, cited company policy in declining to provide his full name. “Who wants to know?”
It turns out that David’s manner of dress could serve as a template for every finance bro in the official, we-really-mean-it phase of RTO. (David Solomon, the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, has been a staunch opponent of the trend toward hybrid work, repeatedly stating that he views remote work as an aberration and expects employees to return to the office full time.)
Like almost every person interviewed, or even spotted, at Brookfield Place, David had on a crisp white shirt with an open spread collar. His happened to be a $99 Leeward dress shirt from Mizzen+Main. It fit his muscular torso snugly. And so, too, did his $148 slim-fit, navy side-pocket polyester and “elastomultiester” New Venture stretch pants from the Lululemon business casual line. His lace-up oxfords came from Bruno Magli, he said. They were black.
This, in context, was practically a punk rock gesture given that, for unknown reasons, many business consumers have been persuaded to buy their shoes in a light brown tone evocative of a budget spray tan. Passed off as a wardrobe-neutral tone, this color in fact goes with nothing. It helps little when shoemakers darken the toecap to look artificially aged.
“We’re a little less dressy than before,” David of Goldman said, echoing a common refrain. Less dressy in this context means no necktie except for client meetings.
It is true that some people actually sported shorts and flip-flops at the office during the tumbleweed times, when intrepid employees insisted on working at corporate headquarters so vacant they were like supersize WeWork cubicles. At banks like Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, insiders say, top-level executives continue to hang on to certain pandemic customs as signifiers of elevated status. “Unlined cashmere blazers, dark jeans and Allbirds are symbolic vectors of seniority,” an investment banker at a blue-chip firm said last week.
In a stretch, “you could wear jeans on a Friday,” Arjun Menon, 33, a Goldman Sachs employee explained. Mr. Menon quickly added that he was not permitted to talk to the press, although not before disclosing that the navy side-pocket trousers he was wearing with a crisp, white open-collar shirt and a pair of lace-up oxfords — the Michael Bublé ballad of footwear — were purchased at Suit Supply.
Based on the available evidence, Suit Supply, Lululemon, Club Monaco and Brooks Brothers (though not the revitalized, trend-conscious iteration of the venerable clothier’s offerings produced under the creative direction of Michael Bastian) remain the go-to labels for a lot of white-collar workers. This is particularly true of bankers in the bullpens, guys newly out of M.B.A. programs, still making a mark and not yet so jaded they secretly yearn to burn their corporate logo fleeces.
(Things are different, one insider explained, for tech sector specialists. Showing up in a suit for a client meeting in Silicon Valley, where the novelty sock trend never went away, “would look downright weird,” he said.).
As for shoes, the preferred brands run to mid-price offerings from labels like Johnston & Murphy, To Boot and Allen Edmonds, a Wisconsin manufacturer founded to supply soldiers in the Second World War. Although there was not much luxury footwear to be seen on men at Brookfield Place — its atrium-level shopping mall, with its sentinel palm trees, is anchored by glossy boutiques selling Bottega Veneta, Louis Vuitton, Ferragamo and Gucci — that may owe as much as anything to a bear market.
“Maybe if we get a bonus, I’ll buy some Gucci,” said Charles Li, 26, an employee at Scotiabank. Mr. Li was wearing neatly tailored basics (blue trousers, white shirt, oxfords) from Suit Supply, whose Brookfield Place store is conveniently located on the mezzanine level. A colleague of Mr. Li’s, Allan Bossard, 23, was dressed in an almost identical manner.
“Sure, I care about clothes,” Mr. Bossard said. But, he said, that is no more or less true now than it was before rolling shutdowns began in 2020. “It’s important to be presentable in the office, but also like you’re representing the firm.”
For Ryan Meiser, 31, an investment analyst at Royal Bank of Canada, the return-to-office phase signaled little real change in his morning routine. “You do want to have your own mind about dressing,” said Mr. Meiser, who wore a white Giorgio Armani shirt, a pair of gray Zegna trousers and shoes by a maker whose name he had forgotten.
But in the end, what one chooses to wear to the office may be a less relevant question than where exactly that place may be. “Three days a week in the office is mandatory, with Monday and Friday optional,” Mr. Meiser said.
“Weekends,” he added with a laugh, “we’re free to work from home.”