Printer Friendly

Casual dress at work.

Casual dressing at work may be the result of two distinct trends: a return to "elegance" as a way of conveying professionalism, and a loosening up of formal dress codes, as demonstrated by casual Fridays and dress-down days. This paper addresses the origin and consequences of casual dressing.

The Role of Clothing

Dress plays an important role in the corporate world. For example, the business suit is the quickest signal of executive status. How does the management male distinguish the female secretary from the female executive? Clothing is the easiest way to tell them apart. Dressing in the corporate uniform identifies the woman manager as one of them. Thus, clothing acts as a cue for those around us. It helps strangers identify us and reinforces the image held by acquaintances and friends. It is what people see first and remember, and you never have a second chance to make a first impression. Knowing how to use clothing to establish yourself in whatever role you want to play can help win that role more quickly. Our clothing immediately establishes us in some sort of social order, whether or not we are aware of it. If you know what role you want to play, you can use clothing to get the part.

Clothing can signify class status, political identification, and rank. As Barbara Dickstein, museum specialist and collector of twentieth century clothing for the Smithsonian Institution, argues: "Clothing, more than anything else - more than furniture, more than jewelry - clothing, represents a person. Clothing is always a symbol of who you are. It tells your status, your role in life, your social position" (Wallach, 1981). The sign of nobility in seventeenth century France was blue velvet. A century before, in Germany, during a peasant uprising, one of the demands was to be allowed to wear red, until then permissible only for the upper classes. Royal blue and purple were the colors of the court throughout much of Europe. Only the nobility could be seen in them (Wallach, 1981).

Since the beginning of the 1990s, a change has been occurring called casual dress. Managers and all other employees tend to adopt the same way of dressing. Casual dress is a trend seen in downtown financial districts, corporate conference rooms, and large and small businesses across America: employees are coming to work dressed in attractive but comfortable casual clothes. The spectrum of casual clothing is broad. Casual businesswear allows the person to feel comfortable at work yet always look neat and professional. It encompasses comfortable items such as cotton shins and sweaters, khaki pants and jeans.

According to Cheryl Hall, Saks Fifth Avenue's regional fashion director based in Troy, Michigan, "It is a new term like 'mini-skins' was in the 60s. It means you are dressed for work in a manner that formerly was not business attire, but it is not what you would wear on weekends. You are wearing a matched set of clothing like a jacket and sweater meant to be worn together" (Rothenberg, 1995).

Yet not all casual clothing is appropriate for an office. An employee who wants to dress casual needs to know that casual does not mean sloppy. You can dress casually and look professional. Levi's says: "If you are dressed like you are ready to hit the beach, the gym or even a trendy club, then your clothes are probably too casual." (Levi Strauss video). For example, employees willing to dress casual have to keep wrinkled, stained, or dirty clothing out of the workplace as well as flashy and loud clothing (including T-shirts with printed messages). They also have to avoid ripped jeans and "distressed" clothes. Sleeveless shirts and tank tops are inappropriate for most offices, just like athletic clothing, work out wear, and beach-wear. It is recommended to cover bare shoulders with a blazer or a cardigan. Women have to avoid lingerie looks or revealing outfits in the office and to check that garments are not too transparent. Bare legs can also be considered too casual.

Sales and marketing professionals are sometimes caught in the middle of professional and casual attire. Indeed, they have to travel between the offices and different dress codes of their own companies, their customers, and their prospects, often in one day.

A Growing Trend

Of 200 companies recently polled by Converse, the athletic apparel maker, 78% said they have no formal dress code and 55% allow casual gear during the course of normal business. There is an apparent rise in the number of companies allowing casual dressing, but this trend has not affected the major national accounting firms. Even if none of the top eight firms has a written dress code, a telephone survey reveals that suits and ties are still required for men, while business suits and dresses and jackets remain the standard for women (Walker). Companies prohibiting casual dressing at work argue that their clients expect employees to be dressed professionally - a suit and a tie. They are professionals, so they have to look like professionals. According to Richard Langevin, director of marketing at Ernst & Young: "People dress to meet client and market expectations" (Walker). For Marilyn De Mara, partner in charge of human resources at KPMG Peat Marwick Thorne: "The majority of our clients conduct themselves in a professional manner and display a professional appearance. They expect the same from their professional advisors" (Walker, 1993). Deloitte and Touche's Lynn Brown agrees: "A dress code reinforces a firm's professionalism and image."

Thus, "The rulers of corporate and political America wear suits - always have and always will," notes John Molloy, author of Dress for Success. He states that the move toward informal office attire is strictly an American phenomenon that shows no signs of catching on elsewhere in the world. He adds: "by and large, business people the world over, especially outside the U.S., are extremely conservative. That is not going to change" (McConville, 1994).

However, some well-known American companies do not share this point of view. After starting with one "dress-down" day per week in some facilities up to a decade ago, General Motors and Ford recently adopted casual dress policies covering the entire work-week (Rothenberg, 1995). Chrysler's headquarters staff is on a two-day dress-as-you-please schedule but it is expected to go full-tilt later. Ford is now on a five-a-day-week schedule for casual wear, which would have been unthinkable under Chairman Frederick C. Donner in the 60s and Roger Smith in the 80s (Rothenberg, 1995). Chrysler maintains mostly a Monday and Friday leisure-wear schedule at its Highland Park, Michigan, headquarters, with labor relations employees dressing casually every day. The departments of engineering, design, and purchasing dress casually every day (Rothenberg, 1995).

The most important thing is that people dress casually or professionally according to the situation. Client expectations still drive the standard. For Pat Cooper, human resources manager at Price Waterhouse: "Appropriate dress reflects good judgment and clients feel someone who has good judgment will give good advice" (Walker, 1993).

When relaxing dress codes, management has to clarify the distinction between casual and slovenly, specially in the U.S. Unlike Europeans, most Americans have never had a tradition of elegant casual dress. When not in suit and tie, the American male often adopts what etiquette authority Leitia Baldrige calls the "bathrobe attitude," defined thus: "I am comfy, and that is all that counts" (Button, 1995).

When Minneapolis-based Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America allowed employees to dress any way they pleased during summer months, people started coming to work in shorts and T-shirt, which was not what Allianz had in mind. According to Jean Keiser, an Allianz human resources official, "It looked more like a picnic than a workday" (Button, 1995). So, management had to ban T-shirts, blue jeans, jogging suits, sweatshirts, and shorts.

GM does not have a specific dress code, but there is a tacit understanding of guidelines. Taboos include shorts, sneakers, sweats, and tank tops. Men are expected to wear shirts with collars, decent shoes and slacks. Women are expected to wear appropriate hosiery and shoes; slacks are an option. Moreover, casual dressing is appropriate only when working inside the company. All companies insist employees wear business attire in dealing with people outside the company.

Diverse Origins of Casual Dress

The trend of casual dress has diverse origins. The dress-down movement is as symbolic as it is the result of indulgent management. Its roots are traceable to the egalitarian movement that began permeating industry in the early 1980s, leading to the current ideas of "teamwork" and "empowerment." The idea was to reduce or eliminate class distinction regardless of one's rank, salary, or corporate position. By lightening up business attire, managers are also willing to "engender a free-thinking culture," according to Michael F. Brand of Ameritech. Casual dress becomes a kind of free benefit.

Companies relax their dress codes in response to employee suggestions, like Navistar International in downtown Chicago. Employee surveys revealed that the company's rigid dress code was one of the top five sources of dissatisfaction (Novack, 1996). Moreover, the company's business (processing data to help direct marketers build smart mailing lists and databases) requires hiring young programmers who hold the coat and tie in no great esteem.

Some companies reluctant to allow a five-day casual dressing, like Arthur Andersen, permit casual days only to benefit a charity. At Aluminum Co. of America's Pittsburgh headquarters, dress-down freedom was tied to signing up for United Fund participation in 1991. In 1989, buttoned-up W.R. Grace & Co. in laid-back Boca Raton, Florida, adopted a similar incentive for charity (McConville, 1994).

Another factor leading to casual dressing at work was the arrival of Japanese automakers on the U.S. scene (Rothenberg, 1995). They facilitated workplace equality in many ways. All workers, referred to as "associates," dress in identical work uniforms. In the offices, formal apparel generally remains the standard.

An uncontrollable event forced Burger King executives to allow casual dress. The brute force of hurricane Andrew in 1992 left 300 of the company's 700 employees with their homes wiped out or severely damaged. As company spokesman Michael R. Evans recognized: "It is hard to enforce a dress code when people are living out of plastic bags" (McConville, 1994).

Consequences of Casual Dress

Dressing casually, when done appropriately, has positive consequences for both the employer's and the employee's attitude. According to Robert Davies, found and president of SBT Corp., employees find him more approachable because he feels more comfortable and does not look as intimidating. He thinks it makes it easier to be receptive to his employer's ideas, making his 80-employee company a "veritable idea factory" (Davies).

Michael Evans of Burger King commented after hurricane Andrews: "We learned that you don't have to wear a uniform to get the job done. It is not what you look like - it is what you can do." (McConville, 1992).

Alan Cohen, a dean at Babston College in suburban Boston, argued that companies gain by creating a workforce that feel more flexible and productive (McConville, 1992). Dressing casually also creates a feeling of freedom for employees.

Employees are not the only ones to benefit from this new trend. Indeed, major apparel makers see a new market in casual dressing. Most clothers report casual sales are booming, but have not experienced a notable decline in suits - although ties have definitively slipped (Rothenberg, 1995).

Major department stores, like Jacobson's based in Jackson, Michigan are beginning to send teams of models to auto companies to stage "casual business fashion seminars" (Rothenberg, 1995). New Neiman Marcus ads in magazines such as Esquire and Vanity Fair have an 800 number readers can call to get an instructional videotape (Button, 1995). Retail giant Dayton Hudson, which owns department store chains Dayton's, Marshall Fields, and Hudson's began offering companies free casual-dress instruction courses.

The world's largest branded-apparel maker, Levi Strauss & Co., was among the first to develop a marketing campaign in which the jeans giant influences its customers through their employers. Levi's was lucky: the casual-dress trend clearly favors its business. But it was also smart. It caught the wave early and proselytized aggressively. The campaign, which has cost Levi's only $5 million so far, has ranged from putting on fashion shows featuring the company's clothing to manning a toll-free number for employers who have questions about casual business wear, to holding seminars for human resources directors (Himelstein, 1996). Over the past three years, Levi's has visited or advised more than 22,000 corporations in the U.S., including IBM, Nynex, and Aetna Life & Casualty. Levi's now publishes a casual-wear propaganda packet, which includes a newsletter, brochures, and ideas for clothing-policy guidelines.

Not for Everyone

It is unlikely that America will ever return en masse to the blue suit and tie, but the battle to loosen up has already been lost at some businesses, like Firstar Bank Illinois: "Forget this. This isn't working at all," says Bruce Glawe, head of community banking. Moreover, the fact that people may abuse dress-down poses a potential problem for clothing companies that are riding the casual-wear trend and want to convince companies to keep relaxing their dress codes. It is difficult to predict the future of casual dressing; unless some limits are clearly written in dress codes and understood by employees, people who pushed companies to adopt casual dressing may cause its demise.


Button, G. (1995, November 6). No bathrobes, please. FORBES, 130.

Davies, R. (1992, September). Managing by listening. Nation's Business, 6.

Himelstein, L. (1996, April 1). Levi's vs. the dress code Business Week, 57.

McConville, D. (1994, June 20). The casual corporation. Industry Week.

Novack, J. (1996, March 25). Last bastion falls. FORBES, 38.

Phaneuf, A. (1995, September). Decoding dress codes. Sales and Marketing Management, 138-139.

Rothenberg, A. (1995, June). What to wear? Ward's Auto World, 32-33.

Video from Levi Strauss and Company, How to put casual businesswear to work.

Walker, T. (1993, November). No suites, no ties, no service. CA Magazine, 11.

Wallach, J. (1981). Working wardrobe. Acropolis Books Ltd.

Dr. Keaton teaches in the areas of human resource management and organizational behavior; Dr. Pollman specializes in small business and marketing management; and Ms. Biecher recently earned her MBA degree.
COPYRIGHT 1999 Society for the Advancement of Management
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1999 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Biecher, Elisa; Keaton, Paul N.; Pollman, A. William
Publication:SAM Advanced Management Journal
Date:Jan 1, 1999
Previous Article:Offshore trusts for asset protection.
Next Article:Quality implementation in small business: perspectives from the Baldrige Award winners.

Related Articles
More casual dress in the workplace.
The great suit switchback.
Business casual improves morale. (Survey Says).
Office dress: dressing for success, dressing for stress? (Spotlight).
Here come the suits: raising the style standard in the office. (Inbox).
How to dress down Look good in the office without the posh suits.
Uniform Project 08.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters