[Note: This item comes from friend Mike Cheponis. DLH]
Why American Workers Now Dress So Casually
The office was, until a few decades ago, the last stronghold of fashion formality. Silicon Valley changed that.
By DEIRDRE CLEMENTE
May 22 2017
Americans began the 20th century in bustles and bowler hats and ended it in velour sweatsuits and flannel shirts—the most radical shift in dress standards in human history. At the center of this sartorial revolution was business casual, a genre of dress that broke the last bastion of formality—office attire—to redefine the American wardrobe.
Born in Silicon Valley in the early 1980s, business casual consists of khaki pants, sensible shoes, and button-down collared shirts. By the time it was mainstream, in the 1990s, it flummoxed HR managers and employees alike. “Welcome to the confusing world of business casual,” declared a fashion writer for the Chicago Tribune in 1995. With time and some coaching, people caught on. Today, though, the term “business casual” is nearly obsolete for describing the clothing of a workforce that includes many who work from home in yoga pants, put on a clean T-shirt for a Skype meeting, and don’t always go into the office.
The life and impending death of business casual demonstrates broader shifts in American culture and business: Life is less formal; the concept of “going to the office” has fundamentally changed; American companies are now more results-oriented than process-oriented. The way this particular style of fashion originated and faded demonstrates that cultural change results from a tangle of seemingly disparate and ever-evolving sources: technology, consumerism, labor, geography, demographics. Better yet, cultural change can start almost anywhere and by almost anyone—scruffy computer programmers included.
What came before business casual? Basically, people wore suits. The norm wasstarched collars, overcoats, hats, and more hats. Americans dressed up for work, and they also dressed up for restaurants, for travel, for the movies. But as those other venues began to “casualize” by the 1950s, the office (and church) retained a formal dress code, by comparison. Well into the 1970s, companies gave employees manuals to outline official dress policies, but everything depended on the management’s need or desire to enforce them. Little by little, often-ignored infractions eroded the sanctity of any top-down policy: hose-free legs when the weather permitted, a tweed blazer for a day with no client meetings, loafers instead of dress shoes. Cultural change occurs most quickly when it is led by the people, for the people.
And in Silicon Valley in the mid-1980s, the people weren’t interested in adhering to old norms. Businesses there put an emphasis on streamlining management decisions and shortening the lag time between planning and implementation. Tech firms were insular, self-regulated, and male-dominated—a fertile combination for discarding norms and celebrating rule-breaking. Restrictive clothing worn for appearances’ sake was inefficient, and Silicon Valley was all about efficiency. Sport coat? Put it on the back of the chair. Places such as Atari, Apple, and Sun Microsystems embraced the 80-hour workweek, and their clothes proved it. The cover of 1983’s humorous The Official Silicon Valley Guy Handbook showed the world what geek chic looked like: “an unkempt corduroy jacket,” “drab 100% cotton shirt,” and “econo-brand athletic sneakers.”