An Introduction to Casual Business Dressing

Casual Fridays are the biggest thing to happen to office attire since John Molloy wrote his best-selling book Dress for Success. But they’re hardly the best thing.

Although there’s no question that casual makes the 8- (or 10- or 12-) hour work day more bearable, it nonetheless makes the entire exercise of dressing more difficult for all. Gone are the good old days of pulling out two matching pieces, otherwise known as a suit, and choosing a shirt or blouse to go underneath. Though this system wasn’t foolproof (admit it, we’ve all failed from time to time), it was certainly less tricky than trying to look professional in a polo shirt.

The fact that this trend hasn’t been universally adopted doesn’t make dressing down any easier. Some companies remain true to their traditional, suit-and-tie ways; others permit employees to make every day a casual day. Sandwiched in between are those businesses that offer just a bit of latitude, allowing only one dress-down day a week.

All this flux has created a lot of anxiety: How do I dress casually without sabotaging future success? What if my job permits jeans, but they make my buttoned-up clients jumpy? Can I project a casual-yet-in-command image?

Just as the manner in which business is conducted has evolved over time, so has how we dress to do it. The conformity and counterculture of the ’50s and ’60s were replaced with the cookie-cutter clothes of the ’70s: the navy pinstripe suit, white shirt, and red-print tie for men; the sensible suit with a calf-length skirt and prim bow blouse for women. A decade later, in the booming ’80s, a strong-shouldered suit became the business uniform.

Fast forward to the late 1990s: In a bold break from their buttoned-up past, large and small companies across the country have given employees permission to take it easy sartorially, that is. According to a 1997 study commissioned by Levi Strauss & Co. (which, not coincidentally, sells a lot of clothing with a casual bent), a whopping 9 out of 10 workers are allowed to dress casually to work at least occasionally.

The new work uniform runs the gamut from tailored separates at conservative firms to jeans and tees at their more informal counterparts. But make no mistake; this modern dress code still requires you to dress for success only now you can be more comfortable while you’re doing it. It was the computer engineers in Silicon Valley who are credited with the introduction of relaxed business dress. Never a buttoned-up bunch to begin with, they went even more casual as microchips began to rule the world and their workdays began stretching well into the night.

The concept was so well received that it began to migrate east, eventually becoming a regular feature of the workweek at companies of all types and sizes across the country. That it corresponds with an increase in the number of hours employees are logging and the corporate rise of baby boomers who entered the work environment with a wardrobe sensibility far less stuffy than that of previous generations is no coincidence.

Even though the new code has been widely adopted, some people had concerns at first. Would relaxed clothing cause lax work habits? Would suspending a long-prescribed dress code undermine a company’s establishment ethos?

Well, as it turns out, there have been some problems, but all in all, going casual has been good for business. It eliminates the “us and them” mentality that we used to see between managers and the workers on the floor. Of the 30,000 human resource managers who participated in the Levi Strauss study, 85 percent believe that dressing casually at work improves employee morale; half say it improves productivity, and two-thirds believe it can be used as an incentive to attract new employees.

They’re not laboring under any false impressions. Surveys conducted by the Daily News Record, a fashion trade publication, show that employees prefer the new dress code. This may sound extreme it’s not as though a suit is as restrictive as a straightjacket.

If the good news is that casual dress codes foster more creativity, the bad news is that less structure can create a dressing dilemma. How do people who own just two kinds of clothes those they wear to work and those they wear at home find a work-worthy middle ground? What exactly, they wonder, is considered appropriate? And even more important, will wearing denim make them look professional? Employees have good reason to ponder this new policy. It requires certain fashion finesse. Go too far, and you may see your professional image plummet.

A better strategy is to find out what kind of apparel works at your company on casual days. Unfortunately, a lot of businesses haven’t furnished employees with a dress code for dressing down. And even when they do provide such a blueprint, it’s often filled with references to appropriate attire but fails to adequately define it.


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