Toronto went through quite the heatwave this summer, with the most number of days I can remember in the 35-40 degrees Celsius range, resulting in a lot of sticky, sweaty, and uncomfortable men clinging to their full-length suit jacket, pants, and fully-buttoned shirts trudging their way up Bay Street to their heavily air conditioned offices in a pointless and senseless mission to maintain their ‘professional’ appearance.
It was a cruel and unusual summer, not because of the heat, but because of the blinding dedication to ‘the default business suit’; the one symbol of male professionalism, unchanged for decades (go watch Mad Men, they wore skinny ties too!), that keeps us men adhered to the homogeneous standard of a bygone era where men worked all day and went home to a housekeeper wife that would have dinner on the table and a fresh pair of slippers and glass of scotch for their bread-winning husband while she toiled in the kitchen and children’s bedrooms (seriously, go watch Mad Men).
These bygone days—thankfully and ruthlessly altered by trailblazing women that wanted more than just a housekeeper life for themselves—are now a thing of the past. So why haven’t men changed along with them?
There was a time when there were literal laws against women wearing pants. They were limited to dresses, normally full length, and usually paired with a constricting corset that would accentuate their silhouette. This attire was not only constricting physically, causing pain and discomfort, but it was also constricting metaphorically; it was a symbol of women’s oppression that their bodies were controlled by the whims of more powerful men that set and enforced laws and societal norms.
The irony of this former reality for women is blatantly and forcefully on display on every street corner in every ‘corporate’ downtown environment across North America. On a hot day, women now walk around emancipated from their former dress- and corset-wearing past. Shirts are sleeveless and plunging, made from light semi-see-through materials that breathe in the breeze and cool the body. Skirts, shorts, and dresses are shorter now, coming down to just around the knee. Socks and enclosed footwear are non-existent, replaced instead by wedges, pumps, and slides for a naked foot.
Men, on the other hand, are now the ones held hostage by their own doing. We wear layer (undershirt), upon layer (fully-buttoned long sleeve dress shirt), upon layer (suit jacket—maybe it’s linen!) with a piece of fabric wrapped tightly around our necks and full-length pants right to the ankle. If one is especially risqué, you might forgo the high-socks for ankle socks that disappear within your full-toed and heeled shoe, allowing for a pleasant release of heat at the upper ankle.
I recall one fine morning two summers ago, when the heat was oppressive and the streetcar I rode to work was packed. I rebelliously ditched the suit jacket and went only for a traditional dress shirt and full-length pant. Once on the streetcar though, the heat set in as I was wedged between my fellow commuters. I began to sweat…and sweat and sweat. By the time I left the streetcar some 20 minutes later, I was completely soaked through. My white dress shirt was now a sopping wet, translucent body suit. Knowing I couldn’t enter the office like this, I went to the nearest Moore’s and was forced to buy a brand new dress shirt. When I walked in, the store associate said, “oh, did you spill coffee on yourself?”. To which I replied, “no sir, this is my sweat”. As I was paper towel bathing myself in the employees’ washroom in the back before changing into a new shirt, I knew that the era of the default business suit must come to an end.
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Enter our hero, trailblazer, and emancipator: Jonathan. Van. Ness.
If you don’t know, JVN is an Emmy award-winning star of the Netflix show, Queer Eye. His specialty during each episode’s makeover is grooming—he cuts and styles each subject’s hair and beard. He’s also a self-proclaimed ‘queen’, referring to himself frequently in the feminine as his gay identity bursts forth through his engaging and endearing charismatic personality.
A side note: I’m wary of appropriating gay culture. I realize that as a straight, cis-gender white man, my idolization of the bravery and boldness of gay men can be problematic. However, also as a straight, cis-gender white man, I believe our culture needs to evolve to allow for more inclusive and heterogeneous identities, just as women have changed their default identity from housewife to a whole range of empowering and amazing identities, some of which were traditionally seen as ‘male’. Either way, I’m envious of how some gay men feel liberated to express themselves how they want to, and I want the same thing for myself.
Back to JVN—so this week on the Creative Arts Emmys, he brought his bold bravery to the red carpet. As seen in the photo above, JVN smashed through any preconceived notion of what a man should be wearing in a formal environment. He not only ditched the suit, he ditched the entire idea of any masculine attire whatsoever. The shirt is see-through; the pants are…a skirt; the legs are fully revealed; the shoes are heels; the hair is long and voluminous.
And yet, JVN is a man. He is not (to the best of my knowledge at least) engaged in any gender-transitioning process. He is a man wearing something not masculine, and he does so with a full beard, moustache, and hairy, muscular legs. The juxtaposition of his attire over his masculine physique for me was shocking, in a good way. In one fell swoop, he started the rock rolling down the hill—the default attire for men in formal settings is now altered; there may be an alternative.
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We straight businessmen have a problem: we all kinda act, look, and think alike. We view ourselves as primarily a provider for our families, committed more to the paycheck we bring in than being at home with our families that our wives are nurturing. This isn’t surprising; men like us have been playing this role for decades (see again: Mad Men). This reality isn’t innately a bad thing though; lots of families have provider husbands/fathers and nurturer wives/mothers and it works just fine. The problem is when we’re all like this. There are swathes of men that don’t really want to be the provider for the family, yet feel forced into that role. They might want the role of nurturer more, or maybe there’s something in between or multi-identitied.
Women have done a fantastic job of breaking free of their historical mono-culture identities. They aren’t just housewives anymore (if they choose); they’re powerful athletes, business moguls, ski-bums, tomboys, receptionists, venture capitalists, nurses, doctors, teachers, professors, and more. They’re all things and their attire represents that. They wear minimal clothing when it’s hot and layer up when it’s cold. They put their bodies on display like Barbie dolls when the situation calls for it or they roll in the mud when they need to get their hands dirty. They’ve fought hard for these rights, and they use them how they want.
So what’s up with men? Why haven’t we changed as well? Why the heck do our business leaders send corporate memos to our employees telling them to wear a jacket, shirt, pants, and tie around our clients everyday to boost our ‘market presence’? Is this the only way a man can look ‘professional’?
Another side note: what’s the difference between ‘formal’ attire and ‘business’ attire for a man? It’s the colour black. A black suit is formal; a navy or grey suit is business. Everything else is the same (minus some minor details you might find on a tuxedo if you’re attending a real fancy wedding or something).
It may seem trivial. So what, men wear suits? What’s the big deal? The same could be said I guess for women that couldn’t wear pants. What’s the big deal? Just wear your dresses and corsets!
The ‘big deal’ is that clothing is a person’s representation of themselves to the world. If all businessmen walk around in the same, decades-old attire from a bygone era of intense gender inequality, then how are we supposed to embrace new and different identities that our changing world demands men play? Men should demand more functional, reasonable, and flexible clothing. Clothes should reflect the broad range of identities and roles men want to play at home and in the workplace. We should turn down the AC in the summer because men are forced to wear layer upon layer upon layer and women freely show up in much more weather-appropriate attire (I wore shorts and a t-shirt to the office last week—I was freezing; turns out office temperatures are because of business suits, not because men want women to suffer).
Fortunately, one fabulous queen in a see-through shirt and high-waisted skirt forced the first chip to fall. He proved that ‘professional’ and ‘formal’ isn’t contingent upon whether or not someone’s wearing a suit; it’s contingent on whether someone takes care in their appearance and puts in the effort to display themselves to the world in a clean, well-thought out, tailored and intelligent outfit.
That’s what our corporate leaders should be telling our employees: dress how you want, but do so in a way that shows other that you care, that you put in the effort to look good, and that you’re knowledgeable about relevant trends in the fashion industry.
Care. Effort. Knowledge. Relevant. I’m sure any business person would love their colleagues, partners, and clients to have these traits. Our clothing should reflect that too, instead of an easy default to a checkered past of homogeneous adherence to outdated gender roles.