Dressed for Success

Business casual and the evolution of the American workplace


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.