Casual business attire—also known as the "business casual" style of dress—revolutionized the American office environment in the 1990s. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, 95 percent of U.S. companies had some sort of casual day policy in place in 1999, compared to 24 percent in 1992. In fact, casual clothing manufacturer Levi Strauss claimed that 75 percent of American workers dressed casually every day in 1999, compared to 7 percent in 1992.
The trend toward casual business attire began in the high-technology companies of California's Silicon Valley, where young computer and Internet entrepreneurs refused to wear business suits and often showed up at work in denim jeans and cotton T-shirts. The trend spread across the country to various types of businesses throughout the 1990s, until it finally struck even the most buttoned-down, old-school firms. Most companies moved toward casual attire gradually, beginning with a "casual Fridays" policy, then conceding the heat of summer to casual dress, and finally allowing business casual in the office at all times. Over time, many businesses found that they had to allow casual dress in order to compete for talented employees in a shrinking labor pool.
As the fast growing economy of the 1990s cooled in 2001 the trend towards casual business attire began to change. In an article on this subject that appeared in the San Francisco Business Times, James Ammeen, president of the Men's Apparel Alliance, attributed the shift away from casual wear in the workplace to the state of the economy. "You're in a tough market, so if you want people to trust you, invest with you, you'd better look like a pretty serious person," said Ammeen. In a survey commissioned by the Men's Apparel Alliance the reversal of trend was seen clearly. Of the companies surveyed with revenues over $500 million, 19 percent had reinstated more formal dress codes during 2001 or early 2002. The threat of being the next person laid off has motivated some to return to suits before their companies even formalize a change in dress code, added Ammeen.
The majority of American workers view casual office attire as a perk that creates a less stratified work environment and puts the emphasis on employees' contributions rather than their wardrobes. "While the goals of a corporate casual dress code include improving morale, enhancing productivity, lowering status barriers, and fitting in with the corporate climate of customers, the wrong code can undermine a company's credibility," wrote Brian Anderson in an article for Wearables Business.
Although casual business attire tends to be a popular option among employees, some companies encounter problems implementing casual dress policies. Many problems arise when companies describe their dress codes using vague words like "appropriate," "professional," and "businesslike" without spelling out a specific policy. This can create confusion among workers and make people feel uncomfortable trying to interpret the right way to dress for work. "The biggest problems employers face with these policies may be how to modify them, enforce them, and adapt the corporate-dress culture to a changing workforce," Anderson noted. "A clear, definitive explanation of a corporate casual dress code is rare. What is acceptable at one mortgage broker's office may be completely unacceptable at another—even if they are different branch offices of the same company."
Unclear dress code policies can also contribute to problems with employees taking advantage of the situation by wearing sloppy rather than casual attire to the office. In fact, there were cases in California in the late 1990s dotcom boom when some employees took things to a real extreme. One in particular, a gentleman who wished to work in the nude, inspired the title for a book about Silicon Valley by Po Bronson; The Nudist on the Late Shift. Although this example is extreme, many companies have been forced to issue specific guidelines describing appropriate attire after they have adopted casual dress policies. There is, as the old saying goes, no accounting for taste. Banned items that frequently appear on corporate dress code policy amendments are halter-tops, stretch pants, jeans, shorts, sandals, and shirts without collars. In order to avoid a situation in which amendments must be added to a new dress code policy, small business owners should make their dress codes as specific as possible. In fact, it may be helpful to communicate the policies by including photos of employees wearing appropriate attire on bulletin boards, in company publications, on Web sites, and in employee manuals.
Another potential problem with casual office attire is that employees may tend to take work less seriously when they are dressed casually. A survey of managers conducted by the employment law firm Jackson Lewis and cited in Entrepreneur indicated that 44 percent noticed an increase in employee absenteeism and tardiness when casual dress policies were introduced. The managers also noted a rise in inappropriate, flirtatious behavior. "Some employers and workers say they don't like the way dress-down day has turned into leisure day, affecting not only attire but behavior," Patricia Wen explained in Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News.
Some office workers prefer traditional, "business formal" attire because they believe it provides an equalizing factor for people of different ages or levels of the corporate hierarchy. After all, if everyone is wearing a suit and tie, it can be difficult to tell the difference between a CEO and a new hire. As a result, younger people may be more likely to be taken seriously in business meetings. Formal business attire is particularly valued by some minority professionals, who feel that the corporate "uniform" helps them overcome prejudices.
Of course, some people believe wearing a suit and tie simply makes dressing for work easier. Older men, in particular, tend to have trouble making the transition to casual dress. "Men have clearly struggled more with casual day than women, who have never stuck to a corporate uniform and who have a wider selection when it comes to choosing attire," Wen wrote. "Psychologists say many men, to some degree, see casual day as yet another arena where they have to compete. Indeed the jungle of casual fashion requires a mix-and-match ability and a fashion sense that many men say they do not possess." However, some experts argue that the rapid increase in casual office environments during the 1990s forced most people to update their wardrobes. "By now, most former white-collar office workers have business casual wardrobes, which are often the same clothes they go out to dinner in, go to the mall in, or travel in," according to Anderson.
Another reason people resist the movement toward casual office attire is worry about losing their credibility. Bosses are afraid they might lose the respect of their employees by dressing casually, for example, while employees are afraid they might lose out on promotions to better dressed co-workers. In the meantime, salespeople and others involved in relationships with clients often live in fear that a client will drop by the office and find them dressed casually. "How you look goes a long way toward establishing your identity. What you wear says much about your character and credibility," said a writer for Sales and Marketing Management. "As the saying goes, you never get a second chance to make a first impression—and there's nothing casual about that."
In some industries, formal office attire has remained the standard. These industries did not embrace the trend towards casual dress. For the most part these are industries in which employees deal regularly and extensively with clients and need to project a professional, serious image. The banking and legal fields are among those industries that never fully embraced casual business attire and are leading a trend back towards more formal business attire.
As Sherry Maysonave explained in her book Casual Power, the goal in choosing casual attire for the office is to exude the same power, credibility, and authority as if you were wearing a suit. It is also important that the way you dress shows respect for your workplace and reflects your career goals. After all, Maysonave argued, dressing too sloppily can erode your self-confidence and make you appear unprofessional in the eyes of clients and employees.
Trends in clothing fashion are ever changing. This is as true for the work environment as it is generally. The lasting effect that the 1990s trend towards casual business attire seems to have had in the business world is to eliminate a single standard for business attire. Now, companies from different industries and different regions tend to establish dress code policies that suit their particular situations. Finding the right mix in the line from formal and professional to informal and comfortable is the key.
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"Hot Tips." Sales and Marketing Management. August 2000.
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