Economics

Dressed for Success

Business casual and the evolution of the American workplace

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When Steve Jobs appeared onstage at a press conference last month to unveil the iPad, 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, knotting ties, and picking up his suits at the dry cleaner, 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 not only amassed a fortune without ever getting out of his bedclothes but also works out of an "office" (aka the Playboy Mansion) that includes a zoo and the world's busiest hot tub.

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.

No doubt inspired by Jobs, and by the stylistic trailblazers at Microsoft, which had apparently adopted a Business Manson Family dress code in the late 1970s, Levi Strauss sensed an opportunity to formalize the new informality characterizing certain sectors of the American workplace. In 1992, 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, as the Dockers-and-open-collar-oxford look would come to be known, 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 the Savile Row loyalists on Wall Street conceded to the trend: 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, J.P. 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 these companies were declaring their allegiance to chinos and loafers, the dot-com bubble burst—and amidst layoffs, Chapter 11 filings, and tumbling stock prices, the alleged virtues of business casual were called into question. "As America's economy slows, business casual is proving rather too casual," the Economist declared. 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, hard-working professional, the reasoning now went, you wouldn't act like one. In 2001, a newly inaugurated President George W. Bush launched a pre-emptive strike against wearing blue jeans and t-shirts in the Oval Office. 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 the recession hit, and suit sales started dropping faster than Barack Obama's approval ratings. Along with Lehman Brothers, 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 mindset, a metaphor for the age we live in. Every time you spend the afternoon surfing porn sites when you're supposed to be developing new marketing collateral, thank your flat-front Never-Iron Dockers. 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. But if, thanks to cell phones, laptops, and email, we could never quite escape our offices anymore, well, at least our offices were no longer so office-like. They were casual, roomier, not so buttoned down.

Imagine how much more slowly the web would have developed without business casual. Waste a few hours staring at the blurry JPGs of a coffee pot in England when you're wearing a navy suit and a silk rep tie and you feel like a fraud, unprofessional deadwood. Do the same in a business casual environment and it's suddenly permissible—if there was really that much crucial work to do, would your boss be wearing shorts and an aloha shirt?

The web was an unusually open, informal, flexible medium, and to tap its full potential, we needed the clothes to match. As memos, corporate newsletters, and other traditional forms of office communications gave way to email, instant messaging, blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, we were already used to flowing into and out of work mode, combining the professional with the personal, presenting ourselves in a more expressive, casual manner.

So it didn't really matter if our polo shirts and cotton twill actions 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.

Contributing Editor Greg Beato is a writer living in San Francisco. Read his Reason archive here.

Editor's Note: This column originally misidentified the location where Steve Jobs introduced the iPad.

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  1. I’m in jeans right now.

    1. I’m in YOUR jeans right now…

      1. I just threw up on MY jeans.

        1. Eeeyyyeeeww.

          1. Khakis, scuffed shoes, and an aloha shirt with little fish printed on it.

            1. My underware. Given that I don’t even need to get out of bed to do my job, frequently it’s even less.

  2. Kudos to Beato for spelling Hefner and Hef properly. Some other Reason writers have not.

  3. This is a pretty shallow article by Reason’s standards. Is ours really the only age in which great innovation has taken place? If we went back in time into the engineering labs of HP and IBM, what would we find? A bunch of really creative, hard working people in dark suits and ties.

    1. I think this thesis of the article fits perfectly within Reason standards. It’s not a diatribe against formal business wear per se; I would wager everyone at this magazine sees a time and a place for formal/profession dress. It is a piece against the proliferation of “standards” in the context of fostering individuality, which one would theorize maximizes innovation.

      I believe you will find over the next decade or two that the companies who thrive in a hyper-competitive race for new ideas will be those who embrace anti-establishme business policies like casual dress, working from home, and flex time. These rules not only serve as talent attractors, but can and do increase productivity which will make the company more profitable.

  4. Every time you spend the afternoon surfing porn sites when you’re supposed to be developing new marketing collateral, thank your flat-front Never-Iron Dockers.

    Any company worth its salt filters its Internet content now. Surf porn at most companies, and they will know it almost immediately, and fire you.

    [I]f, thanks to cell phones, laptops, and email, we could never quite escape our offices anymore, well, at least our offices were no longer so office-like. They were casual, roomier, not so buttoned down.

    See, that was the great thing about being a Sharp Dressed Man. You went home, you took off the suit, and you were done. The bank, the firm, & the corporation rarely chased you into your evening hours. The Business Casual Man is a wage slave in a deeper sense, because he can’t take off the suit. By e-mail and smartphone, he is tethered to his job in a way the Sharp Dressed Man never was. I’m not sure comfortable shoes make up for that.

    1. Yes, the line between work and home has blurred.

      Some folks have more trouble than others differentiating the two. It is your responsibility though.

      The flip side is that the Sharp Dressed Man was chained to his desk from 8-5 every day. Now you can slip away and get other chores done during the day and if people need you they can call on the cell or you can read e-mail on your smart phone. That is freedom that the fogies never had.

      It is also nice that I can do a lot of work at my house and be credited as being a hard worker. In the old days, you had to be at your desk to get credit for working (even overtime).

      I have just learned that there are times that I shut the laptop and let calls go to voice mail.

      1. “we call those days ‘weekdays.'”

        Just kidding! Just kidding!

  5. I have little to add to Jersey Patriot.

    Well, OK, one thing.

    What the self-obsessed Baby Boomers who brought us All Casual All The Time have never realized is this:

    Its not about them. Sure, to these narcissists, everything is always about me, me, me.

    I wanna be comfortable. Waaah!

    Well, dressing was never all about you. It was about the people you encounter, the people who look at how you present yourself in public. If you dress like you don’t respect yourself or anyone else (yeah, I’m looking at you, in your shorts and flip-flops), don’t be surprised if you don’t get any respect. Why should you?

    If you dress well, you show respect for yourself (and others), and you take advantage of an opportunity to bring a little creativity and appreciation for the finer things into your life (and others).

    1. I have little to add to Jersey Patriot.

      Are you sure about that? 😉

    2. I have never understood how dressing in a suit and tie (or whatever passes for dressing up) is a reflection of the state of your self respect or the respect you have for others. Your respect for yourself is reflected by your dedication and how well you do your job. Your respect for others by how you treat them. I have no clue how wearing a tie or not can trump that.
      -K

    3. This is baloney, RC. You might have a point in certain situations, where dressing nicely is seen as respect for others there, such as for a job interview, but someone in shorts and flip flops who does a great job deserves more respect than a well-dressed slacker.

      1. Yeah, like people in your profession even have to wear clothes.

        Actually, I’ve never bought the psychology of dressing up. My most effective day of the week is Friday. In jeans. Ditto other days where we go casual. It’s a different issue if you have customer or other outside contacts, but even then I think it depends.

      2. Exactly. If you show up to someone’s wedding in a tee shirt and flip flops, without them asking that people do so, you’re being disrespectful, because it’s someone else’s moment and you aren’t willing to go along with it. If your boss insists on a suit and tie and you don’t want to, then they are at liberty to fire you. If you are interpreting someone walking down the street in a tee shirt as disrespectful, then you really need to realize that it’s not all about you.

        And all wearing a suit to work when anything else will get you fired says is that you don’t want to get fired. This is respect of power, not of the person.

    4. There is also something about dressing appropriately for the job.

      The guys who repaired our Xerox machines in the 80’s had to wear black suits and white shirts on the job. To work on Xerox machines. My feelings for those poor bastards was not one of respect but one of pity.

      … Hobbit

      1. In college I worked as a repairman for IBM. White shirts and ties were mandatory.

        Because my ties were always getting trashed I hated the requirement. Then I went to a flea market where I bought one tie for $7 and got 14 for free. You can guess as to the quality of those bad boys.

    5. cool story bro

    6. R C Dean

      Sounds like you have a little ‘boomer envy’.

  6. It has indeed eveolved hasnt it? But this is a good thing for sure.

    Jerry
    http://www.true-privacy.es.tc

    1. Is Chad Wilson “Chad”? Nah, the anon-bot makes so much more sense!

  7. The ipad was not unveiled at MacWorld – it was a seperate event – Apple actually pulled out of MacWorld this year and was not present.

  8. RC Dean nailed it.

  9. I remember working at IBM when Gerstner took over and allowed workers to wear non-white shirts. Seriously, one day the huge buzz was that our office manager wore a shirt with faint pin stripes on it!

    I also worked in downtown Minneapolis for one of the first outfits where business casual was the rule. It was sort of funny because it was common to be slighted by the coffee shop workers or other retailers in favor of the suit wearing bankers. The thought was that if you didn’t have a suit on you were one of the bottom feeders who were there to serve the masters.

  10. Why do people even give a shit about something as pointless a clothing?

    Judge a man on his values and actions, not his wardrobe.

    ..well unless he’s in a leotard at the office, that can be seen as a deliberately provoking action I guess. But if he did so he’s probably a funny man so I would end up respecting him more.

    1. Coz’ every girl’s crazy ’bout a sharp dressed man.

    2. See the girl with the red dress on
      She can do the Birdland all night long

  11. Beato misses the real point, which is that we have become far more productive over the past 20 years than we ever were before, but we also have less respect for the suits among us. We identify them with phonies, authority, a previous culture which is not so much generational as marked by an uptight mindset. The necktie, after all, is a noose, and a hanging used to be referred to as a “necktie party.”

    And chinos, by the way, flat front or pleated, are much too Ivy League for geeks and freaks, nerds and Rebels and entrepreneurs!

    Dennis Green
    Alameda, California
    Writer

    1. exactly. It’s about leveling. A tailored suit is expensive, and keeping it looking nice requires essentially no physical exertion all day long. This was something I realized in my first office jobs; it’s hard to walk a mile to the train station and not show up looking disheveled and sweaty.

      Ultimately, suits make sense as a requirement in jobs where productivity is based on willingness to sacrifice, work hard and follow the rules. They don’t make sense in jobs that require trying new things, rejecting established norms and thinking expansively and critically. Both are important, and both are going to be with us for a long time. But the gripes about a lack of respect miss the point; the lack of respect for convention is precisely what lets some people make big, valuable changes to the way we do things.

  12. I don’t get it. Dockers are no more comfortable than “dress pants”, and unless you don’t know how to size your shirts, buttoned collars with a knotted tie shouldn’t feel any more restrictive than anything else.

    (The only thing that would actually be quantifiably more comfortable would be shorts, but I sure as hell don’t want to look at my colleagues like that.)

    So suck it up and put on a tie you goddam hippies.

    1. Now if there’s one thing I fucking hate, it’s wearing a tie.

      1. Amen, brother. Amen.

        1. The Man ain’t making me put a noose around my own neck, that’s for sure.

      2. It’s my intention to never put one of the fucking things on again for the rest of my life. 13.5 years and counting.

        … Hobbit

    2. Can’t agree to the tie part, but yes, I’d wear slacks every day if they weren’t significantly more maintenance intensive.

    3. Lies and damn lies. Even if you can find a shirt that fits right, ties seriously restrict airflow and create an awkward bulge near the neck.

      Second, for those of us of more, ahem, generous proportions, it can be very difficult to find a shirt with a big enough neck hole. Honestly, I’d take a pretty significant pay cut to not have to way a tie.

      1. wear a tie.

    4. No way. no ties. Not even to my Dad’s funeral.
      The anecdotal last straw for me was when some ‘peace protester’ tried to use my dress uniform tie as a handle by which to hold me while he punched me in the face. Luckily for me, even in dress uniform I wore a clipon tie. For some reason that failure in his little plan took the ambition right out of him without further incident.

      Ties are a moronic affectation/ obedience test at best and a threat to life at worst. You can keep em.

  13. You should dress for the job you want, not the one you have.

    That’s why I show up to my staff meetings in surgical scrubs.

    1. +1

  14. What did Newton wear?

    He was so busy developing his Principia that he lived in his room and worked 22 hours per day and subsisted on bread crusts and wrote by candle light.

    Yeah, you guys only wear the geek shit because you stand on the shoulders of real giants.

    1. yeah, you’re right. also, those geeks only use computers because they’re weak. Newton didn’t use a computer.

    2. Yeah, but was Newton getting laid?

      1. No, but Leibniz took up his slack.

  15. +1

  16. That was for Ghost

    1. thank yas

  17. Uh, doesn’t Reason’s own Nick G. habitually dress casually, in a black leather jacket (sans tie) whenever a camera is rolling?

    1. The Jacket had to fight a tuxedo in a steel cage death match for that right, needless to say the Jacket won.

  18. I don’t understand what a “mock” turtle neck is. What is the difference between that and a real one?

    I notice Jobs did not remove the tan leather patch on his jeans that has the jeans’ size and the manufacturer’s logo. I consider that crass. It’s like leaving the dealer’s license plate frame on your new car.

    1. A mock turtleneck is loose shorter fabric that covers your neck slightly, as opposed to fabric that clings to your neck and is long enough to fold unto itself. I don’t take the leather patch off my jeans either but because they are sewn quite tightly and the risk of ripping the fabric is not worth it, nor is my time.

      1. There is a little tool used in sewing that will rip out the stitches without harming the fabric.

        1. It’s called a seam ripper.

          1. It’s called a job for a man and mine is already too busy with cooking and cleaning.

  19. The President and Congress wear suit and tie everday and are the least productive people I can think of.

  20. I stopped being a wage slave in 1981 and opened my own business, where my skills and ability to connect with clients was much more important than what I wore. I owned my own ad agency for more than 20 years and served 65 clients all over the San Francisco Bay Area ? in health care, real estate and insurance. None of them were startled or dismayed by the fact that I didn’t wear a necktie, and I kept several silk ones for weddings and funerals! Dressing for success isn’t a handbook or copy of GQ!

    Dennis Green

  21. I showed up to my interview for my current job in a suit and tie. The guy interviewing me was wearing a t-shirt, shorts and sandals. This is an office job but there is no dress code. All non-management are only required to dress business casual when there is a client visit. The managers will put on a shirt and tie in that case, but not a full suit. I will wear shorts in the summer, but other than that, I do dress business casual most of the time.

  22. La medida de la sobriedad.

    El sonido
    del ave alegre
    me llama, en
    la eternidad
    del cielo
    cristalino;
    siento silente
    el triste recuerdo
    que regresa
    en el sol,
    duermo feliz
    en el canto
    dichoso.

    Francesco Sinibaldi

    1. Por supuesto que no, usted es un libertario

  23. The suit and tie stopped being respectable. We saw through the camouflage.

    People realized that many types of corrupt miseryshits- sleezy lawyers, MBA wielding failure machines, and politicians- wore suits and ties as well. Being called a “suit” is nearly a cuss-word. Suits became the costume of assholes out to rip you off, steal your idea, bankrupt your bank, bring a nuisance lawsuit against you, raise your taxes every year or sentence you to prison for smoking a blunt.

    Women threw off the corset and burned the bra. Men should shred the tie forever. It’s really nothing more than a 400 year old fashion craze, anyway. Kill it. Kill it dead like punk rock mercy killed the 70s.

    1. That’s right, cast off your neckties. I’ll take ’em off your hands — especially the hand-painted silk ones. Love ’em and wear ’em every chance I get.

  24. it is fair to admit that people are judged by how they look for a first impression. in that respect, how you dress can have an impact.

    that said, if you continue judging someone by how they dress, you are a simpleton who is fixated on superficial things.

  25. Personally, it is a matter of aesthetics. To really look good in jeans and a t-shirt, or any other casual attire, one has to be built like a model. In a well cut suit, almost everyone looks decent. In a well cut tux, almost everyone looks good. And in actual formal wear (tails) most men look great.

    The reason that traditional clothing became traditional, is that it is universally flattering.

  26. Correction: Hugh Hefner might have amassed a fortune without getting out of his pajamas, but he certainly did not stay in his bedclothes. Bedclothes are what the bed wears, i.e., sheets and blankets, not what humans wear to bed.

  27. At almost precisely the same time these companies were declaring their allegiance to chino?

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