Business Suits as a Sign of Tribal Identification

The custom of wearing business suits within the Western cultural tradition can best be understood when the primary function of business suits is recognized as being a sign of tribal identification. Due to the length of time through which the custom had endured, it can’t be considered as merely a fashion trend.

 If one were to do a survey and ask, “Is it logical to wear a jacket indoors in the summer time?”, the answer in most cases would almost certainly be “No“.  If one were to ask, “Does tying a colored piece of cloth around one’s neck indicate that a person is competent, honest, or intelligent?”, again, the answer would almost certainly be “No“. The tradition cannot be supported by an appeal to the actual value of the clothing itself.

 Most Westerners in a business setting would not be offended if an Arab came to a meeting in native garb, or if someone from India, China or Africa showed up in non-Western clothing. The reason for this is that there is no actual connection between the suit per se and respect, and because these visitors would be perceived as belonging to other tribes.  Conversely, most non-Westerners do not seem to be offended by a Westerner showing up in a business suit for a meeting in the non-Westerner’s native country. The Westerner is perceived as being a person from a different tribe, with a different pattern of tribal identification. Although non-Westerners often conform to Western tribal norms, there is usually no offense if they don’t.   Those few individuals who are offended are probably people who prefer that other tribes conform to Western standards as a sign of submission.

 However, if someone from Europe or the United States were to show up in his home country without the customary tribal regalia for a corporate function, many of the other Westerners at that meeting would take offense. It could be rationalized in many ways, but the underlying reaction seems to be offense at the rejection of tribal custom.

 If a Western businessperson showed up to a business meeting wearing a windbreaker (which takes the same amount of effort to put on as a suit jacket), and wearing a turban (which could take as much or more effort to put on as a necktie), many members of the suit-wearing tradition would resent it. The visitor would have put an equal amount of effort into dressing up, but what that person would not have done would have been to comply with the tribal custom.

 Based on photos and films from the 1920s through the 1940s, most men of that time wore three-piece suits when going out in public unless they were engaged in manual labor. Over time the custom has diminished.  Some people probably stopped conforming to the tradition because they realized the inherent illogic of the fashion; others because they embraced the custom of what they perceived (consciously or subconsciously) to be a different tribe; and others out of rejection of what the suit-wearing tradition (often associated with corporations) symbolized to them. 

In the 1920s, calling suit-wearing an aspect of the Western tribal customs would have been accurate, but today, due to its diminished status among many people, it is probably more accurately referred to as part of the Western corporate tribal customs.  Outside of corporate bodies (corporations, governments, and churches) there is very little support for the fashion.  A trip to any park or shopping center will confirm this, as will a trip to most schools in which the students are free to choose their own clothing.

 Other Western groups have also used clothing as a sign of tribal recognition as well, including modern Goths and country-western singers.

 Admittedly, the evidence for this theory is anecdotal, but the custom of wearing business suits and ties only makes sense to me when they are considered as symbols of tribal recognition. Otherwise they make no sense.


About Mark James Wooding

I was born. I was scared. I tried to get back to the warm place, but they wouldn't let me. I cried. Since that quite unexpected and traumatic event, I've been trying to make the best of things. I've written a book called Seek Wisdom, Practice Kindness, which contains a philosophy of life as well as an attempt to describe why people do the things they do. I edited a book called The Magical World of Poetry, a collection of public domain poetry that includes many of the traditional favorites and a few others I was fortunate enough to come across. Both books can be read on their respective websites, which are listed in my Links section. I also wrote a novel called Sasha and Samantha Save the World, which is available on
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