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OPINION: Dressing (down) for success

Greg Beato writes about pop culture for Reason magazine, where he is a contributing editor. This is from Reason.com.

 

 

When Steve Jobs appeared onstage at MacWorld in January, he was wearing the exact same sartorial interface he's been wearing for at least 15 years now: Levis 501s sans belt, a black mock turtleneck and a pair of New Balance running shoes.

Freed from the drudge work of buttoning shirts, buckling buckles and knotting ties, Jobs has been able to devote all his energies to designing new ways to put the music industry in your pocket. Call him Exhibit B in the case for business casual as one of the great transformative forces of this era. Exhibit A, of course, is Hugh Hefner, who amassed a fortune without ever getting out of his bedclothes.

The commitment both men showed toward informal apparel as a strategic business asset actually increased over the course of their careers. Hef traded in formal evening wear for silk pajamas and never looked back. Jobs started out in T-shirts and jeans, went through a brief techno Gatsby phase in the early 1980s, then settled on his current look in the mid-1990s and hasn't felt the need to upgrade since.

In 1992, Levi Strauss sensed an opportunity to formalize the new informality characterizing certain sectors of the American workplace. It created a brochure touting the virtues of "casual business wear" to 30,000 human resource managers, and in the years that followed, it continued its campaign to outfit every executive in relaxed-fit chinos via newsletters, videos and fashion shows.

"Business casual" was said to boost employee morale; increase productivity; foster a comfortable, friendly workplace atmosphere; help recruit and retain talent; and unlock the full creative power of even the most sartorially conscripted middle-management bean counter. In 1999, 95 percent of the companies polled by the Society of Human Resources Management reported that they observed a business casual dress code at least one day a week.

In 2000, even Wall Street conceded: In an effort to prove they were just as forward-thinking and dynamic as online pet food retailers and other dot-com visionaries, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Lehman Brothers and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter all formally adopted business casual dress codes within a few weeks of each other.

At almost precisely the same time, the dot-com bubble burst - and amid layoffs, Chapter 11 filings and tumbling stock prices, the alleged virtues of business casual were called into question.

Jackson Lewis, a law firm specializing in employment issues, polled human resource executives and found that substantial numbers of them believed that business casual encouraged absenteeism, tardiness and flirtatious behavior. If you weren't dressed like a serious, hardworking professional, the reasoning now went, you wouldn't act like one. In 2002, Lehman Brothers started making its employees wear suits and ties again. Over the next few years, sales of men's tailored clothing showed modest gains.

But then the recession hit, and suit sales started dropping faster than Barack Obama's approval ratings. The American Dress Furnishings Association - a trade organization that represented the tie industry - shut its doors. Business casual continues its reign.

For this, we should all be grateful. Business casual, after all, has never been just about clothes. It's a metaphor for the age we live in. As technology started getting more personal and portable, business casual helped acclimate us to the fact that work was fusing with the rest of our lives in unprecedented ways. If, thanks to cell phones, laptops, and e-mail, we could never quite escape the office anymore, well, at least the office was no longer so office-like.

It didn't really matter if our polo shirts and cotton twill action slacks increased or decreased our productivity, made us stay longer at work or sneak out early. Their true value lay in how they helped usher us into the business casual world we live in now, where our telephones double as movie theaters, where we can shop for new shoes during work meetings, and where we get more daily briefings from Ashton Kutcher than we do from our boss.

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