Business Casual May Not Mean the Same Thing to Everyone
By Liz Klebba
Business Casual dress is loved by many but despised by others. To understand casual, let’s talk a little about the history of business dress. In particular, men’s business dress, since appropriate women’s business wear derives from the men’s.
Once upon a time, anyone working in an office wore a suit, light colored shirt and a tie. No choices. Shirt cuffs and collars were separate pieces attached to a shirt. This made laundering less of a chore, as the collars and cuffs (which dirty first) could be removed for cleaning, and the shirt worn more than once before laundering. White collars and cuffs were the most likely to get dirty, and were worn by office workers, while laborers wore blue collars, as they showed the dirt less quickly.
Electric washers and dryers have made the practicality of removable collars and cuffs a moot point, but we still hold onto the white collar/blue collar divide.
Business dress has its roots in military uniforms. Imagine the three-piece suit, shirt and tie as more “armored” and therefore, more formal or businesslike. The most common business suit, the two-piece, worn with a light-colored shirt and a tie, is still the standard for conservative business environments such as law, banking, and finance. This makes sense as formal “reads” as more trustworthy or professional; I certainly don’t want to put my life or life savings into the hands of someone who looks casual or “risky.”
So where did business casual come from? You can thank the manufacturers of Hawaiian shirts looking to drum up business in the 1960s. Their marketing strategy was Aloha Fridays. The concept was to stimulate the local garment industry and showcase their unique look and product. (We could discuss the leisure suits of the 1970s, but some stones should not be overturned!)
Fast-forward to the recession of the 1990s. Businesses were looking for ways to give their employees an inexpensive (read: free) perk, and some experimented with Casual Fridays. At many workplaces too much casual, and not enough business was showing up in the office Friday mornings. At the same time, Levi’s had just acquired the Dockers brand. A brilliant marketer decided that Dockers were the answer to the What-to-Wear-on-Casual-Fridays problem, and created How-To-Dress brochures targeted to Human Resources departments. Voila! The Casual Friday uniform was born.
Through further economic and societal shifts, Casual Fridays became Business Casual, which has since morphed into the khakis and polos considered business wear in many circles. Employees are often pleased because Business Casual means less money spent on clothes only worn for the office, and fewer dry cleaner visits. On the down side, clients can wonder if they are talking to the mail clerk or the CEO.
A recent evolution in business dress is the Dress-For-Your-Day concept touted by companies who think of themselves as flexible, employee friendly, modern and team driven. Essentially, it means dressing for what you have on your schedule that day.
If you will spend the day in your cubicle writing reports, then jeans and a tee may be just fine. If you have client meetings, you could need to don a suit and tie. Internal meetings may require trousers and a polo, or sport shirt. Dress-For-Your-Day sounds like the perfect answer as a friendly dress code, but often leaves much to be desired. Plans change at the last minute, and running home to change clothes on the way to meet a client is an added stress most of us don’t need. And if the client shows up at the office unannounced? A roomful of employees in jeans and logo tees may not be the impression you wanted to make!