Viewpoint -- Business Casual: A Crime Of Fashion

Dec. 21, 2004
To gain credibility, forgo the Levi's and loafers.

Like most of you, I work in a casual office. No, not an office with La-Z-Boy chairs and lava lamps -- though who knows what's next. Nothing, it seems, is sacrosanct anymore. Witness interleague baseball. I am referring to the oxymoron of the day: "Business casual." Translation: Anything goes. In the old politically incorrect days, men had a decided advantage over women in white-collar workplaces. Not only were they better paid for doing the same -- or, sometimes, less -- work, they also had the least expensive wardrobe requirements. A blue suit, a gray suit, a handful of ties, some white shirts, and a single pair of black shoes could be recycled for years. Meanwhile, the women in the office were expected to star in personally financed daily fashion shows. A generous wardrobe of expensive dresses, skirts, blouses, sweaters, and shoes was pretty much a requirement -- whether spoken or unspoken -- of female secretaries and executives alike. Most of the guys, of course, thought this was a pretty good deal. But like most good deals that men enjoy, we eventually blew it. "Why do we have to wear suits?" some of us whined. "We'll work better and more efficiently if we're more comfortable." Yeah, right. Thus began the era in which male executives traded in their pinstripes and wingtips for Dockers and Nikes. And for the first time we gained some insight into the fashion crises our female colleagues had suffered through for years. Men who in the past had made a trip every five years or so to Brooks Brothers now began to regularly crowd department store aisles to survey the latest colors, fabrics, and weaves of so-called "casual" clothes. Perhaps it is simple justice, payback time for women who for generations were victimized by the fashion police. In equality-conscious households, men were even forced to learn the fine art of clothing preservation. Not long ago in our office, for example, a group of guys were debating the best time of day for ironing. All right, fair enough. Let's have the same rules for men and women. But dressing down isn't the answer. If we're not going to dress up at work, let's at least dress well. It's a matter of respect -- for our associates, our customers, our clients, and ourselves. Ourselves? Sure. What self-respecting professional doesn't want to be viewed as such? Recent studies show that we risk damaging our standing with other professionals when we fail to dress the part. According to research conducted by INCOMM International, a center for trade-show research and sales training in Chicago, customer attitudes about "business casual" are changing. In 1998 the firm's research found that 86% of customers visiting a trade-show exhibit responded positively to the casual attire of the salespeople. By 2000, however, only 45% responded favorably to the casual look of salespeople staffing exhibits. INCOMM's research found that exhibitors wearing suit coats were still regarded as too formal, but the sport-shirt look was ranked as too casual. Customers felt that salespeople working an exhibit should wear business shirts, ties, dress slacks, and leather shoes. Customers also said that senior management should stay with the formal business suit. According to UniFirst Corp., a Massachusetts-based supplier of work uniforms and career apparel, increasing numbers of businesses are turning to uniforms to solve the dilemma. It is now estimated that more than 45 million people in the U.S. are wearing specified work apparel to their jobs. Clearly, then, "anything goes" has got to go -- if it hasn't already left. INCOMM's survey suggests that the preference for dressing up applies to women as well as men, but I wouldn't presume to suggest to a woman what "dressing up" means. For the guys, however, I believe there is a simple and foolproof test: If we could have gotten away with it, would we have worn it to high school? If our answer is yes, our decision has to be no. The last thing any workplace needs is middle-aged men digging into the laundry baskets of their past and emerging with pants our mothers wouldn't let us wear to school. Our 21st century wardrobe can be more adventurous than suits of blue and gray, of course, but let us agree that middle age was not made to be adorned in a tightly stretched rainbow of color. Especially when the rainbow is spread across the moon, if you catch my drift. That Brooks Brothers tailor we used to visit every five years or so would not have taken such a crime sitting down. Neither should we. Richard Osborne is IW's editor-at-large. He is based in Cleveland.

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