Let’s Talk About Suits and Hoodies

black silk shirtdress from aritzia paired with legging fit trousers from banana republic

A post that entered my inbox caught my eye this morning. It was an article for Hacknoon written by Erik P.M. Vermeulen, head of governance at Philips Lighting and professor at Tilburg University, titled Let’s Talk About Dress Codes and Clothes. As you can imagine, I was excited about this post; a technology publication discussing fashion! I was less pleasantly surprised to read its contents.

It unravelled the changes over the past ~50 years in menswear and deduced that the sartorial changes were marked by the shift from the men’s business suit to the men’s hoodie. At least, this was my interpretation as the stage was set early in the article that casual dress meant t-shirts and hoodies, formal dress meant suits. And these garment types are frequently discussed throughout. Vermeulen believes this change in menswear signals a change in our entire culture: a movement towards innovation. Where there are hoodies, there is innovation.

As a woman, I couldn’t help but to feel like an afterthought { at best } reading his article, which mentioned women’s dress only once and only measured by its following of men’s dress.

“And, by formal attire, I mean a dark suit, dress shirt, and necktie for men. Women were similarly expected to wear a conservative formal suit and plain blouse.” [original post]

As a woman, navigating a jungle of suits or a jungle of hoodies is the same. There really is no equivalent dress for a woman. It’s not that women don’t wear suits and hoodies, but that it’s not a given that they will. The idea of using a man’s garment as a symbol of change for an entire industry or worse, an entire culture is alienating. It also ignores a more meaningful and powerful metric of innovation: diversity. [1]

What are we doing still using these masculine symbols: the suit, the hoodie to mean anything at all?

I’m an offender of using this vernacular. The hoodie is how we (yes, myself included) describe tech-dress all the time. All the while, I work in tech but I could count on a single hand the number of times I’ve worn a hoodie to work. Think Mark Zuckerberg vs. Sheryl Sandberg. I have never seen this woman in a hoodie. In fact, she wears almost exclusively business attire and is certainly no less innovative for it. Even if we’re not talking about hoodies and suits, it’s hard to imagine how these generalizations apply to the female population of the industries called to spotlight.

The hoodie can be worn by so many different types of people: creative, technical, pragmatic, fashionable. In this context it is intended to include entrepreneurs and engineers most specifically in tech, our most innovative industry. And most frequently male.

leanne luce wearing artizia wilfred black silk shirt dress

I have worked with several different male engineers and entrepreneurs (innovative in their own rights) to improve their professional dress. After these experiences, I don’t believe the ‘hoodie’ is necessarily a conscious choice so much as it is a conformity to tech culture. This is a culture which often rejects appearance because it is deemed unnecessary or un-utilitarian.

First, conformity is not a symbol of innovation. A casual garment is only innovative in its stark contrast to a much more formal standard. Casual garments can be symbolically as constricting as any other type of garment when you don’t know how to ‘break out’ of wearing them. Second, we can’t sustain creativity or innovation in a microcosm which only embraces this utilitarian mentality and none other. For example, sometimes the high impact design choice is not a pragmatic one, but one that captivates an audience. We would have no one to consider these ‘lesser-utility’ solutions to design problems, and so much more of what is involved in developing innovative new technologies, if we staunchly and exclusively embraced utility.

The hoodie is a garment that is more likely constraining innovation and change and keeping out those who do not or cannot conform to that standard of dress… claiming a lot in common with it’s predecessor: the suit.

The discourse around suits to hoodies as a symbol of innovation in our culture is simply imprecise and lacking deeper investigation into what is driving behavior. My hope is that people can see through these, by definition, superficial expressions and embrace and encourage more productive measures of success in innovation. And help to define those measures!

The Look

P.S. I love these legging-style skinny trousers (on the right) for layering. The invisible zipper on the side is much less bulky than a traditional 5 pocket jean or trouser waistband! And while the dress I’m wearing in these photos is no longer available on Aritzia, these other two black shirt dresses are.

[1] https://library.gv.com/unconscious-bias-at-work-22e698e9b2d