There has been a spate of articles recently about the strength of air conditioning in offices and the fact that women are often freezing in temperatures that men are barely comfortable in. Even before you take into account the differing wardrobes, women generally like the temperature slightly higher than men anyhow. But the normal business and “smart” dress for women is quite light, whereas that for men is not. The wool suit was popularized for men in the 19th century in Britain, where the summers are not usually very warm, and in the 19th century we were still in the Little Ice Age and temperatures were cooler than now; ice skating on the canals of the Netherlands, for example, was common, and now it is a risky thing to do. The summer climate of Washington DC, to take one outrageous example, is quite unsuitable [pun not intended, but gladly accepted] for the respectable business wear of the American bourgeois respectable male.
The opposite problem often pertains in the winter months. When I have to travel to a cold-winter climate, it is not so much the cold I dread as the radical temperature changes between indoors and outdoors. Often American winter thermostats are set too high!
The tie has come in for a lot of criticism as an irrational garment. Yes, it too can be a little uncomfortable in heat. But actually ties can be quite decorative! The really irrational garments are the jacket and the wool pants. If I was offered two jobs, one at a company where the dress code required ties but jackets and suits were optional, and another which did not require ties but did require jackets, I frankly would choose the company that required the ties. I am not sure how the wearing of jackets got associated with respectability, dignity, and authority. If we were to devise a more proper dignified costume for men’s business dress – and Texas, Arizona, Florida, and Hawaii may be the places to take leadership in this – we have to face the fact that cotton does not keep its shape as well as wool does, but wrinkles quite easily; I wish I knew more about seersucker, which is a non-wool costume popular in the South, but I don’t know exactly what it is made of. And we have to face up to what sorts of dress communicate dignity and authority [rather than just friendliness] to the people who work under us and to our customers. Japan has for a few years been trying out a campaign called Cool Biz with mixed success. There is also the factor that males often compete with each other to appear not too concerned with their own comfort [they are hypocrites in this matter, as the air conditioning settings prove] and being too concerned with one’s comfort is considered womanly.
One possible compromise is the vest [in British English waistcoat, not vest] instead of the jacket. There may be something to those three piece suits after all! Or, perhaps even short pants suits; though we have come to think of showing too much skin as undignified and associated with a relaxed resort atmosphere. The ancient Pharaohs, if you go to an Egyptian museum, obviously did not have this attitude!