Tech’s ‘T-shirt or tie’ fashion: East Coast v. West Coast edition

Image Credit: The Oatmeal

I was introduced to Silicon Valley fashion when I moved to San Francisco and had a business lunch with a former eBay executive. He sat down wearing a suit and tie and immediately apologized for being overdressed. San Francisco isn’t just a place where people can wear anything they want; it’s a place where anything that looks uncomfortable is an affront to the ethos.

Web comic the Oatmeal perfectly captures how Bay Area folks feel when they see someone wearing a tie. We certainly don’t consider them a serious business person, and it’s a good tip for folks coming out here make friends in the tech industry.

Even the president took off his jacket when he sat down for an interview with hoodie enthusiast Mark Zuckerberg. “My name is Barack Obama, and I’m the guy who got Mark to wear a jacket and tie,” he quipped. (They lose their jackets around 0:20 in the video below.)

Now, the fashion trend is starting to catch on. Earlier this month I spotted Banana Republic emailing customers on how to emulate the loose “startup guy” fashion.


On the hip tech corridor of Valencia St. in the Mission District, fashion startup Betabrand opened up a shop. Among its yuppie attire, it has a pinstriped executive hoodie and yoga pants fit for work

That work-life balance so common across the rest of the country does not pervade the tech culture on the West Coast. There’s very little that goes on at home that isn’t welcome in the modern day Silicon Valley office, including dogs.

The trade-off has been that we work all the time. We answer email way past sundown. And lately it’s become quite acceptable to conduct interviews past 10 pm. Europe’s most anti-tech country, France, has attempted to regulate late night emails in the hopes of preserving the twentieth century notion of a 9-to-5 workday.

Unfortunately, innovation can’t be constrained to daytime working hours. It’s unpredictable and messy, and so is technology’s fashion culture.

I still own a tie and dust it off during my infrequent trips to the East Coast. But I suspect the suit and tie are a dying cultural artifact given that the rest of the country is beginning to embrace Silicon Valley’s way of life.

Kevin Akat
Kevin Akat

I'm citing Wikipedia here, but also did a quick check to see if the claims were verifiable and it seems as though they are. The modern-day business suit was first brought about in the 18th century as a satirical stab at traditional businessmen and politicians who dressed in elaborate, embroidered ensembles (think about how the Founding Fathers dressed). As influencers began wearing the modern day suit and tie, there was a fashion trend towards "loosening the rules" and dressing more comfortably. Thus, by the late 19th century, the modern day suit became popularized. Sound familiar? My point is that once the modern-day suit was popularized, expectations of the day (and even today) coerced people into dressing one way only. The cringe factor here is in how this exact "counter-movement" in fashion masquerades itself as a trend towards individuality and personal comfort when in reality, we're still seeing the same dress code coercion. Now, it's you *can't* wear a suit. Similarly, if individuality and comfort were really the drivers behind this startup wardrobe revolution, then I should be able to waltz into the office with my MJ 23 jersey and some sweatpants. Still unacceptable. In the start-up world, you still need to conform to a certain look every bit as much as those who wear suit and ties do. The difference here is that the startup dress code is not more relaxed, it just masquerades itself as such, thereby making it no different than the introduction of suit & ties into the workplace.