By Brian Paterson
One product of the high-tech revolution that is continuing to spread through the world at large is Casual Dress (Initial-capped to emphasize its Holy and rightful place in our lives). While I doubt I will find many critics of this trend, I think it is nonetheless interesting to look back at how it has "progressed".
Like many interesting social anomalies, its roots are in high-tech. The early high-tech pioneers were true nerds who not only gave little thought to stock options and IPOs as an end result, but also to how they dressed or combed their hair. As their companies grew into real businesses, the founders simply never changed their habits and, with corporate identity always starting at the top, it spread down through their growing ranks of employees who would previously never have considered going to work without a suit and tie or dress. In fairly short order, Casual Dress became one of the recognized hallmarks of young success, and began to take on a life of its own.
The emergence of this phenomenon also coincided with the 1970s and the coming of age of the baby-boom generation, anxious to show that we aren't about to put up with the stodgy dress standards and formalities of the WWII generation. We were cool and loose and had no time for the outdated idea of dressing out of respect for others. With what I consider to be a certain smugness, we've always been clear that our personal comfort comes first. After all, it's "what's inside the person, not how they dress, man."
Not to be left out, boomers in other, less glamorous areas of the business world introduced their own me-too baby - Casual Friday. This rather schizophrenic proposition says that it does matter how you dress, but not on Friday. It also says that while dress isn't important anymore, there is still a casual dress code, which seems to me to fly in the face of the basic premise. I mean if it doesn't matter, why not come to important meetings in swimming trunks? I think the answer to this is that, in peoplešs hearts, they know that it does matter, but being the one to call attention to the emperor's birthday suit is neither comfortable nor popular.
You would still never show up to the funeral of a close friend, dressed for house painting. But, why not? It should matter least of all if the person you're dressing for is dead. The reason you don't is out of respect. And that's what those stodgy dress standards of the WWII generation were about - respect for one's self, one's peers, one's customers and one's profession. They used to dress up for a baseball game or just to go downtown
In a twist of irony, the tradeoff our new-priorities generation has made for this sartorial show of freedom is that you now work seven days a week, 14 hours a day (and are reachable the other ten). Your dad "had to" wear a tie but he went home at 5:00 without a pager and Mom usually didn't need to work at all - I guess we showed them what's what.
Of course, this trend has not stopped at the office door. I overheard a woman telling her friend, with great indignation, of how a man she knew was seated in a "back corner" at Wolfgang Puck's Spago in Palo Alto "just because he was wearing shorts and sandals". My unvoiced opinion was that he had some nerve going to a nice place dressed like that and he was lucky to be seated at all. Not that I am particularly surprised at her reaction. I think this is in perfect accordance with our societal mania for tolerance and the fear of being oxymoronically judged judgmental for expecting something more than "whatever" from others.
If you haven't caught on by now, it is my assertion that clothes and grooming do make a difference. They matter because they send a powerful message not only to others, but to one's self. You may have noticed that when you put on a tuxedo or gown, you actually conduct yourself differently than you do in less formal attire. The same can be said for a good Italian suit that a person's bearing is different what one might call more civilized.
And, although I don't expect it to happen any time soon, I can't help but wonder what the effect of Formal Friday would be? Write and tell me - would it make us all a little more civilized or just uncomfortable?
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