When was the last time you chose to wear formal clothing? And I don’t mean to attend a wedding or other function; I mean to happily go out onto the streets in full-blown formal attire.

Most people would probably say no. It’s uncomfortable, awkward to put on, and if it’s a hot sunny day, well, good luck not getting any sweat patches.

But it wasn’t that long ago that everyone wore formal clothing. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was all the rage. Men wore top hats and suits, and women dressed in corsets and petticoats. But that was over one hundred years ago, and times have changed.

Or have they?

We may not be wearing suits in public, but many people still need to wear them in the workplace, even if they don’t interact with clients. Although this is starting to change, 50% of US companies still refuse to allow casual clothing to be worn every day.

But in a world that’s becoming increasingly digital and remote working becoming mainstream, is formal clothing really necessary in the workplace? Should businesses ditch them in favor of casual clothes?

Let’s look into some of the reasons why they’re still worn and why they no longer make sense.

1. Results Matter, Not Clothing

During the 1950s, when formal clothing began taking off, companies were driven by processes rather than results. You had to dress a certain way, talk a certain way and perform actions a certain way. It didn’t matter if others were different; the point was that you had to follow the rules, even if they didn’t always make sense.

In later decades, the rigid formal attire started becoming looser and more flexible. However, you still had to look presentable, even if you didn’t interact with clients.

By the 1970s, dress codes were still a thing, but they began to reflect everyday fashion. This trend continued in the 1980s and 1990s when women ditched dresses and blouses in favour of trousers and shirts. Eventually, Silicon Valley gave birth to the rise of casual wear, and it didn’t take long before this became mainstream.

By the 2000s, business casual became the new norm, and full-on professional looks were becoming leaner. That trend has only accelerated further into today as more and more companies switched to allowing casual wear. By the time the pandemic struck, and people began working from home, you could say it’s led to the death of formal attire altogether.

Whether you believe casual wear is the new norm or not, the point is, fashion is ever-evolving, and there’s no way to predict how it will look in the future. But with the way things are now, it’s unlikely that we’ll shift back to formal clothing anytime soon.

Most companies today care less about what you wear and more about what you do. As long as you get work done, the reality is that they couldn't care less if you’re wearing shorts or formal trousers.

2. As the World Becomes More Connected, What is Formal Clothing?

We may recognize formal clothing straight away, but that doesn’t mean wearing a suit and tie in some cultures. In the Middle East, a long white robe is considered formal, and in Japan, the kimono is traditionally worn for formal occasions.

Only in the last few decades have most countries shifted to the standard formal look of wearing a suit. But there’s no reason why that won’t change again in the future.

However, as more and more people are working from home, remote access to services will become mainstream. Thanks to challenger banks that have created an app-only service, you no longer do need to physically walk into a bank to create an account — you can simply do it from the comfort of your home.

You don’t even need to speak to an accountant anymore as you can just do a video call from your phone. If you’re wearing PJs and sitting on your bed, does it matter if the person you’re calling has a suit or not? You’d care more about whether or not they can help you than what type of clothing they’re wearing.

But these are all online services. What if we extended this to the physical spaces? Even at court, is there really any point to formal clothing?

What difference does it make if a convicted criminal wears a suit to their hearing? Should we be feeling sympathetic towards them just because they made an effort?

Alternatively, what if there’s an innocent person who can’t afford formal clothes? Should they be forced to take out a loan just to buy an outfit for one occasion? Is that not discrimination on so many levels?

3. Formal Clothing is a Sign of Authoritarianism

Who would you trust more? A man wearing a suit and telling you to buy his product, or a man wearing a t-shirt trying to connect with you?

In a UK survey of the least trusted professions, the ones scored the lowest were politicians, journalists, car salesmen, telesales, and bankers. Aside from these professions, the top ten least trusted had one thing in common. All of them demand formal clothing in the workplace.

Is it any coincidence then people see them not as a sign of professionalism and respect but as a sign of authoritarianism and tyranny?

Although there are no strict dress codes for politicians worldwide, many do wear formal clothing to appear professional. However, in my opinion, the main reason they’re worn is that it makes them look like they know what they’re doing. If a politician is giving a televised speech and wears a suit, you’re more likely to believe that they’re capable of delivering their goals.

But is that really true? Some of the most powerful people in the tech industry were famous for never wearing suits, and they didn’t come across as not being knowledgeable. Perhaps the most famous example was Steve Jobs, who always wore the same outfit no matter the occasion.

Even today, figures like Mark Zuckerberg and Tim Cook, arguably more influential than many world leaders, rarely wear suits in the workplace.

The idea that formal clothing inspires professionalism and discipline is far from the truth. Simply wearing it makes you feel powerful, and depending on who you are, that may not always be a good thing.

‘Putting on formal clothes makes us feel powerful, and that changes the basic way we see the world’ — Abraham Rutchick

In a world where the only people associated with formal clothing are politicians and bankers, some of the most untrusted individuals, do you really want to emulate them?

4. Formal Clothing Does Not Work on the Young

Younger generations have grown up seeing figures like Mark Zuckerberg wearing casual clothing, and this does influence them later in life. Older generations saw formal clothing as a necessity wherever they went. If they ever went to the post office or a bank, they’d see suited employees, and we sometimes forget the psychological effects this can have.

For them, formal clothing was a sign of respect and trustworthiness, and since this generation of baby boomers represents the high net worth clientele for many banks, it makes sense for them to cater their clothing and services to suit boomers' needs.

But there is change coming. A $68 trillion wealth transfer will forever change how these institutions operate. As time passes on, this wealth will pass onto the younger generation. A generation that is more tech-savvy wants an online experience and who don’t value the importance of formal clothing as much as their parents and grandparents.

With four in five already making use of online banking, it doesn’t matter who serves them as long as the action is delivered.

And it’s not just everyday young people but a new breed of high net worth individuals that will shake the industry by storm. Young self-made millionaires, influencers, and content creators don’t care much for formal clothing.

They wear casual clothes because that’s what’s appealing to their audience. In the future, banks and other institutions will need to shift their own work practices to cater to these people. Because if they don’t, they’ll take their wealth elsewhere.

Only time will tell whether this will really happen, but as a new generation of people enters the banking world, we mustn’t forget that they also have strong views on what should be worn.

During the 1940s and accounting for inflation, the market for suits in America was valued at $12.5 billion. People wore them to every occasion, and those that didn’t have one craved them.

‘I yearned to be one of those guys that seemed to run the world’ — Norman Tabler, a 74-year-old lawyer

However, in 2018, that figure dropped to $1.9 billion, and I do not doubt that this trend will continue as more companies evolve out of their archaic work practices.

Let’s keep formal wear where it’s needed. For functions and black tie events. Not for the workplace.