Standing Tall – and Better Dressed – office dress codes and custom of “Casual Fridays” – Brief Article

Standing Tall – and Better Dressed – office dress codes and custom of “Casual Fridays” – Brief Article – Editorial

Joe Queenan

Five years ago, Chief Executive took a bold, principled stand against a trend threatening to destroy the fabric of our society. The trend, though seemingly innocuous at the time, struck at the very heart of what we as a people hold dear. Happily, be cause the clarion call was sounded so early and with such vigor, this threat now seems to be abating. But if it’s true that the price of eternal freedom is eternal vigilance, then eternally vigilant we must be.

The trend, of course, is the pernicious spread of “Casual Fridays.” When CE first addressed this issue (Jan ’96) the idea of allowing employees to dress down on the final day of the week seemed completely harmless to most observers. By encouraging workers to do their jobs while clad in jeans and sweatshirts, management hoped to create a more productive atmosphere where underlings would feel less “stressed” and “uptight.”

CE saw things differently. To us, the introduction of Casual Fridays was a surreptitious way of reducing the normal work week by 20 percent. The innovation sent employees a clear message that Friday was the one day of the week when it was acceptable–nay, advisable–to goof off, take long lunches, and get caught up on Rotisserie League baseball. Indeed, CE was so horrified that we warned readers to avoid buying stocks on Friday because that was the day the average broker came to the office wearing “a Porky Pig T-shirt and a pair of magenta-and-chartreuse Rollerblades.”

CE’s excoriation of Casual Fridays generated a firestorm of controversy. Clothing manufacturers were livid, with work shirt-makers taking particular exception to our portrayal of flannel as a “silly” fabric. Management gurus deplored our seemingly anachronistic stand, questioning the wisdom of standing in the path of what was clearly a sociological tidal wave. Productivity experts pooh-poohed our claim that Casual Fridays would lead to waning productivity, wondering “what we were smoking.”

For five years, we at CE endured the catcalls and epithets from competitors and critics. But now, in the way that only annelids can, the worms have finally turned. Forbes recently reported that the dress-down look is rapidly going out of fashion, with sales of high-end suits increasing by 30 per cent between 1999 and 2000. The American business community seems to be recognizing that people who wear corduroy also think corduroy, and those who have bargain-basement wardrobes also tend to have bargain basement intellects. Is it really a coincidence that the recent tech sector meltdown was precipitated by the collapse of the dot-coms–a bunch of dodgy, ineptly managed companies staffed by the worst-dressed employees in the history of the Republic?

For an even clearer perspective on the demise of Casual Fridays, consider recent developments in the world of trade-show haberdashery. According to the Incomm Center for Trade Show Research & Sales Training, a Chicago-based think tank, casual attire is beginning to disappear at national trade shows–and there isn’t much doubt as to why. According to Dr. Allen Konopacki, president of Incomm, the casual look simply became “too casual.”

In 1998, Konopacki found 86 percent of the customers visiting a trade show exhibit responded positively to the casual attire of the sales personnel. But two years later, the public’s attitude had shifted dramatically, with only 45 percent of those interviewed responding favorably to the laid-back look. “Exhibitors moved from golf shirts to denim work shirts with logos on the back, and even to Hawaiian shirts and football jerseys,” he says. “What was meant to be a friendlier look became so relaxed that it created a negative image.”

We find it particularly disheartening that, left unchecked, casual dress codes can lead to a work force dressed in Hawaiian shirts, the most absurd office attire ever devised. Yet our downheartedness is leavened by a measure of pride. When no one else-not Fortune, Industry Week, or even the Wall Street Journal–was willing to man the barricades, CE boldly drew its sartorial line in the sand. Now that the wider community is beginning to recognize the threat, Johnny-come-latelies, Monday Morning quarterbacks, and assorted wanna-bes may try to steal the spotlight.

But we don’t mind. We’re not here for the glory or the kudos. We’re here for the laughs. And he who laughs last laughs best.


Joe Queenan’s first CE column appeared one decade ago in the April 1991 issue.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Chief Executive Publishing

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