Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What do you call a suit without a tie?

If you're a man it doesn't really matter how you feel about ties. There are some occasions when you'd be foolish not to wear one. If I were being asked to appear before a select committee, for instance, I would wear a tie.

Matt Brittin, the CEO of Google UK, didn't feel he needed to when he turned up yesterday to talk about his company's tax arrangements. It seemed to say a lot about how seriously his company takes Parliament.

Tim Davie also went for the open-necked shirt in his first day as acting Director General of the BBC. When he gave his interview down the line to Sky News it gave an impression of informality which was at odds with the formal meetings he was having with colleagues. This can't have been what he wanted. (People who work in TV should surely know better than anyone that when you're on camera viewers are getting most of their signals from what you look like rather than what you say.)

Both these men work in companies where even the senior management go tieless nowadays. Maybe they should dress differently when representing those organisations in the outside world. The "one of the guys" look may work OK if you're squeezing into the lift in the morning, clutching a cup of coffee. When you're facing the music it can easily look disrespectful.

We seem to have a generation of  male executives who think it doesn't matter. They ought to ask their female colleagues. No woman would have dreamed of appearing in front of parliament or the media in anything other than her best armour.

When George Entwistle got the job of Director General of the BBC Alastair Campbell congratulated him and said "get yourself some decent suits". There was nothing particularly wrong with Entiwistle's suits but maybe Campbell  detected that he didn't wear them seriously enough.

The wearing of a proper suit in the so-called "creative industries" indicates many things, one of them being that you are prepared to be a hardass. The subliminal message is "I no longer care particularly whether you like me or not - I will do what I think is right."

Some managers make the mistake of thinking that the staff will like them more if they appear to be dressing like them. They don't. Particularly in the creative industries staff prefer to think that the management is not like them. They like to think they're grown-ups. They like to think somebody else is steering the ship while they're having all kinds of fun below decks. Martin Scorsese hasn't made a memorable film in years but his personal stock remains high because every time he appears in public he looks as if he's about to walk his daughter down the aisle.

When people are sent to see a male specialist they want somebody who looks like a headmaster from the 1960s and not somebody who might be running a copy shop.  Even those authority figures who don't bother with suits appreciate the important of looking as if they've thought about their uniform. Steve Jobs didn't wear a black turtle neck because it was the nearest thing to hand when he got up in the morning. It was part of his identity. With his thin and no doubt expensive sweaters Simon Cowell has proved that it's possible to make a uniform out of anything.

The suit without tie get-up looks like the wearer hasn't got the courage of his convictions. He's trying to look "smart" without looking smart. He's trying not to look like a grown-up. Paul Du Noyer says too many men today dress "like toddlers". You can see what he means in the supermarket queue. Baggy sweat shirts, hoodies, the kind of footwear that inspired Ian Dury to talk about "shoes like dead pig's noses". It's as if they want to crawl back into mother's arms and go to sleep.

The point in men's lives when they have to grow up has receded over the years. It's no longer strictly 21 or 30 or even 40. When you're a father the signal arrives in the eyes of your teenage daughter as she scans your dress and gives you the unspoken "what are you wearing?" look. Not everyone has children so they have to pick up clues elsewhere. Any man over the age of 40 who has more than one pair of trainers really should have a word with himself.

Ask yourself, what would Sinatra do? He had two modes of dress. One was immaculately suited and booted. The other was immaculately suited and booted but with tie slightly loosened. This was no accident. What this look said is "I may be slightly relaxed at this moment but don't let this deceive you because my natural state is alert and ready for battle". The look adopted by Davie and Brittin yesterday didn't say anything quite as powerful as that.


  1. I quite agree.

    The thing that really bugs me is the sight of men walking through the city with unknotted ties round their neck.

    I assume that they think that this gives out the message: rebel.

    In fact it says: I think of myself as a rebel, until someone tells me what to do, then of course I'll do it. And in the meantime I'll walk around looking as if I've forgotten how to dress myself.

    About as grown up as schoolboys following the fashions of (alternately) tying their tie right at the thick, or the thin, end.

  2. What about the over-forties in woolly hat and t-shirt combos? Or those who find it impossible NOT to wear shorts at all times?

    Kids and parents dress almost identically now. It's like that pre-teenager time when there were no teenage or children's fashions and people wore what their parents wore. Except it's now been turned on its head. Parents wear what their kids wear.

  3. "Any man over the age of 40 who has more than one pair of trainers really should have a word with himself."

    Wonderful! Done a lol!

  4. I currently own a pair of ties. A shiny bottle green one and a black one that belonged to my Grandfather. I occasionally wear the latter to funerals. My grandfather, incidentally, worked for Shell UK, which was by his accounts a Darwinian company particularly in the upper echelons.
    I don't imagine that he so much as undid his top shirt button while in the office.

    I don't own a suit and I think that's something that needs to be addressed. I was in court recently, as a witness, and frankly my choice of clothes made me resemble an off-duty secondary school art teacher.

  5. Interesting. I've always believed that if you can't see the validity of my words because all you can see is "HE'S NOT WEARING A TIE!" then your opinion is probably meaningless. Oscar Wilde may have said "Only the shallow do not judge by appearances", but even he was wrong occasionally.

  6. It's the look of dress down Fridays, exec-casual. Piers Morgan, stand up comedians.. a suggestion rather than a statement.

    T M Lewin used to do this volume for ten pounds. Well worth adding to your Gentlemen's Collection

  7. There was a great comment by Nassim Nicolas Taleb (who wrote The Black Swan) alluding to the fact that you should never trust anyone who wears a tie. The idea being that the tie signifies that the person knows what they are talking about, without any evidence whatsoever that they do. I think he's absolutely right. In all the instances you mention it makes a person look as though they have authority, without them in reality having any at all.

  8. I don't wear suits (or even shirt and tie) to work. This is for practical reasons, not for any dislike of suits. In fact I love suits, but currently only own three of them.

    And yet I have - I counted them last week funnily enough - 35 ties. What the hell do I want with 35 of the buggers? I did throw away a dozen of them last week, because they were things I bought over 20 years ago and never threw away. But the rest are all fairly recent purchases or presents. Given that I spend most of my time in casual clothes this begs the question why why why?

  9. Not only open-necked shirts, but white open-necked shirts. The blandest of the bland.

  10. I haven't owned a pair of jeans since I was 35 years old; over ten years ago.

    I think they look very scruffy indeed.

    What's happened to me...?....
    ......must warn.. the others..

  11. Is it OK to be 50 and own a pair of trainers and a pair of plimsolls (ie: canvas Converse All-Stars)?

    I do wear shoes to work but there is the weekend to think about.

  12. the significance afforded a piece of cloth tied around the neck never ceases to amaze me, since i was walloped at school for not wearing one properly, to the way it makes a sharp suit correct. Also, not for nothing, but I wouldn't characterise 'what would Sinatra do?' as a viable design for being a solid citizen, unless you've the requisite angelic tonsils.

  13. Dare one even mention the hordes who happily fill our streets clad in dun-coloured quilted duvet covers bearing the legend 'the North Face'?
    I have no need to wear a suit or tie, as I work alone.
    However, I just feel better when thus dressed. I've also just developed a strange yearning for the vintage full paisley.
    Grey ties can get you some strange looks from the ladies these days.

  14. 'Any man over the age of 40 who has more than one pair of trainers really should have a word with himself'.

    Really? Why? With age, I find trainers are actually the most comfortable footwear for my feet thanks to their cushioning. Certainly more than a pair of traditional English shoes.

    You've just drawn an arbitrary line in the sand, really, haven't you?

  15. An American friend of mine used to say "when in doubt about your clothes ask yourself, what would Steve McQueen wear?"

    I live in Brighton and notice a lot of older men (including me) tend to walk around looking like aged rock stars and only a few of us actually are. Maybe it's a Brighton Waitrose thing.

  16. Sheep in sheeps' clothing.