Corporate America is experiencing a crisis. It’s not about downsizing or inflated executive salaries or the impenetrability of the glass ceiling. No, this is an even more pervasive crisis, affecting nearly half of all American workers, who once a week stare forlornly into their closets and wonder, “What do I wear on casual day?”
Since “dress-down” Fridays have become the norm at such corporations as IBM, General Motors, and General Electric, buttoned-down midlevel managers and their cubicle-dwelling charges have been struggling not only with what to wear, but also with how to think about this alleged “benefit.”
Most companies originally billed casual days “as a perk for employees, a reward for working long hours, a way to save money on their business wardrobe, and a chance to let people express their diversity,” writes Lisbeth Levine in the Chicago Tribune (April 12, 1996). Yet, soon afterwards, clothing retailers began to exploit the concept, while fashion writers and social commentators noodled endlessly about the meaning of it all.
Clothing companies with an obvious interest blanketed corporate America with books, videotapes, brochures, and seminars by apparel experts to teach workers how to dress on casual day. “Levis Strauss & Co. has visited or advised more than 22,000 corporations in the United States, including IBM, Nynex, and Aetna Life & Casualty,” writes Linda Himelstein in Business Week (April 1, 1996). “The apparel maker recognized early on that, once freed from the uniform of a coat and tie, many workers had no idea how to dress for the office. . . . Levi’s has helped create momentum. As a result, 75 percent of businesses now allow workers to dress casually at least once a week. The apparel maker figures that this translates into 5 million individuals with 20 million additional uses for casual clothing. That could mean an additional 11 million articles of clothing for Levi’s to sell every year.”
In 1995 Minneapolis-based Dayton Hudson jumped into the fray by devoting an entire advertising campaign to “workday casual.” It published a 48-page hardcover coffee-table book, The Complete Guide to Dressing for Workday Casual, which explores such issues as “deciding whether the company you work for has an informal, semi-formal, or formal work environment.” In the formal workplace, for instance, “credibility is closely tied to appearance,” the guide explains. At the informal office, on the other hand, “you dress however the mood strikes you.”
The key to mastering the workday casual trend is simply striving for comfort, the copywriters at Dayton Hudson advise. “Try thinking about what you wear to work Monday through Thursday. Now, take a deep breath; let it go. And simply relax your look—a little, not a lot. (Remember, this isn’t Saturday.) Just take the edge off. Soften the lines a smidgen. Loosen the ties that bind the tightest. Lighten up the color. See if you can chill out without turning up the air-conditioning.”
Despite this excessively perky corporate campaign, naysayers abound. “Casual day is a hoax and a trap,” Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners, tells Levine. “It pretends that on this day we will suspend reading you symbolically. That’s not true.” In fact, Levine writes, “instead of simplifying lives, casual dress complicates them. Because casual dress usually applies only to workers with no client meetings or sales calls that day, people have to study their schedules in advance to figure out how to dress.”
Other observers delve even deeper. “Perhaps it’s no coincidence that business casual is sweeping the country just as white-collar job security evaporates,” writes Jay Weiser in The New Republic (Feb. 26, 1996). “As companies have gotten more monarchical, all their employees have become sans culottes. The functional and symbolic reasons for distinctive dress have diminished. College-educated workers—the former suit-wearing classes—are now nearly as likely to lose their jobs as blue-collar workers.”
Workday casual, then, is a subtle way to deprofessionalize workers and to remind them, as if they needed any more notice, that they too are expendable.