Tuesday, November 22, 2011

How Now Casual?

Circa 1968: office of the future, dress code of the past

The men in our lives do not have much fashion fun. All the poor fellas have to choose from are variations on a pair of pants and a top.  Civilized society expects so much from them, declaring in fact, "Clothes make the man". They can't decide to channel Rudolph Valentino one day and Steve McQueen the next. "Suit" sounds like "straitjacket" to most of them, a contraption to be tolerated or avoided.

Savvy businesses were aware of this suitophobia and began to relax daily dress codes in many industries. They are now seeing "Casual Friday" morph into "Casual Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, etc." and have begun to rethink the whole casual business as it relates to employee productivity and company image. There are new catch phrases for what to wear. In doing some research on the subject I find a lot is up to interpretation.

Because our men know how important it is for us to have them looking their best (at least beyond the confines of home), they look to us for advice or approval. Even if they don't seek it they are not surprised when we give it.    

"Business Casual" is the nomenclature for dress shirt plus dress pants. This is what your father might  have looked like in the office if he took off his suit jacket to get down to business. The shirt can have a little more style— a thin stripe or check or even a medium-intense hue— but it is not a sport shirt. The pants are flannel or gabardine but not chinos. Tie requirements depend on the business: bank, yes, insurance office, maybe no. Sports jacket or blazer coming and going optional to tidy things up. Footwear? dress loafers, brogues or oxfords.

"Casual Friday" became popular in the 1990's as workers in the tech and dot.com industries had little contact with the public and were pretty much in California anyways. Not surprisingly, the trend gained popularity. Manufacturers saw an opportunity to promote their casual offerings, and GAP stock went through the roof. Casual Friday was meant to be khaki or other cotton pants, long-sleeve cotton shirt (a bit more vibrant or patterned but not from Hawaii), a collared polo or other knit shirt, casual leather shoes (slip-ons or boat shoes), sweater optional for the fashion-forward or the chilly. Besides dress-down trickling down to other days, the concept in some cases deteriorated to include jeans, shorts, sweats and sneakers— on both male and females employees. 

At this point it would appear HR has stepped in to anoint yet another dress code: "Smart Casual". To the best of my ability as a fashion de-coder, Smart Casual is what Casual Friday was meant to be. To take it out of the office, it's pretty much what every woman would like her man to wear at an upscale bistro on a Friday night— with local variations always. Here in Houston dark-wash, perfectly pressed jeans can go anywhere as can cowboy boots. In Hawaii, it's practically disrespectful not to wear a Hawaiian shirt.  Point of interest: Aloha Fridays at Honolulu businesses in the '60s may have started the whole business casual movement.

What about the tie and the hat? Both have become fashion statements, generally with men too young to have been forced into a tie or even remember men in hats. A loosened tie a la Justin Timberlake straddles between business and casual in a very hip way. It does show a little disrespect for what the tie meant for generations of men, so should be sported carefully, ie. not for a meeting with the big boss. Fedoras and newsboy caps are really not office attire (unless the office is a hip-hop record company or something just as entertaining). And baseball caps? Just plain rude. In fact, I'm getting tired of the whole baseball cap thing. The men must be also as they are now wearing them every which way but Sunday. I saw a man wearing one inside out and upside down the other day, with the bill in the back. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. And while I'm on my high horse— please can we get our men to tuck in their button-down shirts? If they can... 

So if your man would like to be smart when he's being casual at business, he needs to read the prevailing winds at work (with your help at interpretation), have some dapper role models— Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and George Clooney (in my book)— and if in doubt... don't.
George Clooney AND Hawaiian shirt

Thanks to Anthea Christie for suggesting we get to the heart of this matter.

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