Whopper of the Week: Holman Jenkins Jr.

The Wall Street Journal disproves its own op-ed columnist’s claim that the suit and tie are back.

“President Bush wears suits and expects his staff to dress up, unlike the Clintonites, who showed up at the office on Saturdays in their bathrobes. After Sept. 11, a bracing sense of life’s seriousness has reinforced the trend. With layoffs looming, dressing up to look less expendable has struck many employees as the better part of valor, while others have been donning suit and tie to sneak out at lunch for safety-net interviews.”

—Holman Jenkins Jr., in his “Business World” column on the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page, Nov. 21, 2001. The headline was “Uptight Is Back in Style.”

“Sales of men’s tailored clothing, which includes suits and sportcoats, fell 13.3% during the first nine months of 2002, from $3.66 billion to $3.17 billion, and declined 0.8% from 2000 to 2001.”

Amy Merrick, “Apparel Group Spins a Yarn About the Return of the Suit,” in the Dec. 27 Wall Street Journal.

Discussion. Kudos to Merrick for including in her story a swipe at the Jenkins column (which, unfortunately, she misidentified as an “editorial”) and also at a news story by Teri Agins from the Aug. 16, 2002, Journal. Chatterbox let Agins off the hook because her piece was really about how the fashion industry was pushing for a return to suit and tie.

Jenkins, on the other hand, really wants to believe the suit and tie are back. Whopper veterans may quibble that Jenkins says merely that “many employees” choose to wear a suit and tie, which is impossible to disprove. (How many is “many”?) But Jenkins does himself in with his use of the word “trend.” If wearing suits is a trend, that can only mean more people are wearing suits. But Merrick demonstrates that sales declined this year and also declined the year before.

Merrick credits the Men’s Apparel Alliance with spreading the “dressing up is back” myth, for obvious reasons of economic self-interest. Last February, for instance, it got the New York Times’ “Personal Business Diary” to do a brief trend item entirely based on a survey conducted by … the Men’s Apparel Alliance! Jenkins, to his credit, avoided data ginned up by the men’s apparel industry. Instead, he used a survey conducted by Jackson Lewis, a law firm specializing in workplace issues, that attributed various forms of workplace degeneracy to casual attire—or, to be more precise, showed that a minority of human resources executives attribute various forms of workplace degeneracy to casual attire. That’s a very far cry from anything resembling evidence that the suit and tie are “back.”

It is possible, Chatterbox supposes, that people could be wearing more suits without buying more suits. They could be taking their old suits out of mothballs. But precious few salarymen can count on fitting into the same old suit year after year. (Click here for data from the U.S. surgeon general on overweight and obesity.)

[Update, Dec. 30: Holman Jenkins e-mailed the following response:

Chatterbox must be hurting for material to make a big deal out of two relatively light pieces in the Journal (separated by 13 months!) on the return (or non-return) of the business suit. Anyway, isn’t a Whopper supposed to be a falsehood?
What sparked my column was that a Wall Street CEO had told his tailor that he was trying to get his folks back into suits. I piled on a bunch of anecdotal evidence and quotes that some business people (mostly bankers) were tiring of business casual. I even cited a memo from a Xerox exec to his sales staff asking them to get back into suits and ties. Sure enough, in the following weeks, Bear, Stearns and Lehman formally reinstated a dress code. 

Anyhow, who knows how a short-term fluctuation in suit sales in a dubious economy relates to men’s dressing habits? Last week’s story says sales of suits and sportcoats fell 13.3% during the first nine months of 2002, but doesn’t mention how casual clothing performed over the same period.

But your obnoxiousness did prompt me to take a closer look at last week’s Journal story and my column of 11/01, and behold, I find this interesting contrast: 

Last week’s Journal story:

At the height of the boom in 2000, 87 percent of all businesses permitted a casual day, Mr. Riley says, compared to only 24 percent today. Even if that has fallen off somewhat, “that is a tremendous shift in terms of what is considered
acceptable,” Mr. Riley says.

My column of 13 months earlier:  

The Society for Human Resource Management, meanwhile, found for the first time in a decade a decline in the number of companies indulging casual dress. After rising from 24 percent to 94 percent between 1992 and 1999, last year the number dropped to 87%.  

Now, 94% to 87% is a drop in my book, and last week’s story suggests that business casual has “fallen off somewhat” even from 87%. So despite the artful disguise, even last week’s story relies on evidence that suggests that a trend (however limited) back to suits is underway. Mmmm. 

Chatterbox replies: Jenkins can demonstrate that more companies are trying to wrestle their employees into suits and ties, but the sales figures would seem to indicate that their efforts are failing. Conceivably, Jenkins may one day demonstrate that the sales figures mask some underlying reality (perhaps Brooks Brothers no longer sells suits to quite so many unemployed people?). Until then, he keeps his Whopper.]

Got a whopper? Send it to To be considered, an entry must be an unambiguously false statement paired with an unambiguous refutation, and both must be derived from some appropriately reliable public source. Preference will be given to newspapers and other documents that Chatterbox can link to online.

Whopper Archive:
Dec. 20, 2002: Cherie Blair
Dec. 6, 2002: Hiro Ueki
Nov. 29, 2002: Egan Acres Tree Farm
Nov. 22, 2002: Dr. Janet Travell
Nov. 16, 2002: Fox News
Nov. 15, 2002: Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y
Nov. 8, 2002: William Webster
Nov. 1, 2002: Harvey Pitt
Oct. 25, 2002: George W. Bush
Oct. 18, 2002: North Korea
Oct. 11, 2002: Michael Bloomberg
Sept. 27, 2002:
Rep. Tom Tancredo
Sept. 13, 2002:
Sept. 6, 2002:
National Republican Congressional Committee
Aug. 29, 2002:
Eddie Joe Lloyd
Aug. 22, 2002:
Larry Klayman
Aug. 2, 2002:
Al Gore
July 26, 2002: Princeton admissions dean
Stephen LeMenager
July 19, 2002:
James Traficant
July 12, 2002: Maryland Lt. Gov. candidate
Michael S. Steele
July 5, 2002:
Hesham Mohamed Hadayet
June 28, 2002:
June 21, 2002:
Terry Lynn Barton
June 14, 2002:
Tom Ridge
June 7, 2002: Former FBI Deputy Director
Weldon Kennedy
May 31, 2002:
Ari Fleischer
May 23, 2002:
Condoleezza Rice
May 17, 2002:
Robert Mueller
May 9, 2002: Karl Rove
May 3, 2002:
Gen. Richard Myers
April 25, 2002:
Donald Rumsfeld
April 18, 2002: George W. Bush
April 11, 2002: The Rev. Robert J. Banks, archdiocese of Boston
April 5, 2002:
George W. Bush
March 29, 2002: Major League Baseball
March 21, 2002:
Billy Graham
March 14, 2002: INS commissioner
James W. Ziglar
March 8, 2002:
Robert Zoellick and the U.S. steel industry
Feb. 28, 2002:
Al Sharpton
Feb. 22, 2002: Olympic skating judge
Marie-Reine Le Gougne
Feb. 14, 2002:
Kenneth Lay
Feb. 8, 2002: Enron spokeswoman
Peggy Mahoney
Jan. 31, 2002:
Jan. 24, 2002:
Linda Chavez
Jan. 17, 2002:
George W. Bush
Jan. 10, 2002:
Simon & Schuster
Jan. 4, 2002: The
Associated Press

(Click here to access the Whopper Archive for 2001.)