Dress Left, Dress Right: What We Once Wore to Work Said Who We Thought We Were, But No More
For most men in business, jackets and ties are stuffy throwbacks to an earlier era.
My first job, after grad school, was with a small company in ancient offices facing Manhattan’s Bryant Park, which before its renovation was a pretty wretched place. It was beastly hot that summer, and not every office in town had air conditioning Subways were “cooled” by slow-turning ceiling fans that did little to relieve the heat or subdue the stink of summer.
Most of us removed our jackets the moment we hit the office, but there was no loosening of ties. And, if we were summoned to meetings, we knew our jackets were only an arm’s reach from our desks. Decorum was maintained at all times.
Yes, the 70’s were times of rock-star-ready men’s clothes—sneakers (sometimes painted), shabby jeans and expensive T-shirts with holes artfully placed. But that kind of gear was mostly worn at chic ad agencies and fashion houses. You’d only have to walk the streets of midtown New York to know that, for most businessmen, daytime fashion was pretty dull and regimented.
Then something called “casual Friday” took hold. It meant that executives could ready themselves for weekends in the mountains or at the shore without having to change clothes before rushing off to late afternoon trains.
For younger guys, it was a chance to feel cool and also look cool. Individual taste came to the fore; we didn’t all look the same any more. And it wasn’t just men who took to the idea of “casual.”
I remember an early morning staff meeting in a conference room wherein a newly hired assistant arrived in a strapless sundress. A few people blinked, but I don’t believe anything was said. To my knowledge, none of my male colleagues ever came to work in shorts. There were limits.
Then, little by little “casual Friday” became “casual weekdays,” and soon those of us who were deskbound could dress any way we liked. Executives and members of the sales force had to hew to jackets and ties, of course, but the rest of us felt liberated. If we weren’t meeting the public or someone being pitched for business, why dress like pouter pigeons?
Were we as productive as before? Was there any less respect manifest between superiors and underlings? Can’t say. But I don’t think anyone took advantage of the privilege we felt we’d earned. And, of course, the new-hires in our midst were incredulous that we’d once been compelled to dress for success every day of the year. Even the youngest old-timer began feeling like a dinosaur.
My friend Tom, who tended to be a mite conservative, came to work one day wearing a gray suit and a somber necktie. His appearance struck such an odd cord that people questioned him repeatedly, “Job interview today?”
He was mortified, of course, and as a result spent most of the day in his office, leaving only when it was time to pick up his dinner date. He’d selected a pretty pricey restaurant and was eager to look the part and also make a good impression on her.
When he arrived at her apartment, she opened the door and gasped when she saw what he was wearing. “Oh my God, who died?” she asked.
Since then, I don’t believe he’s ever wrapped a necktie around a shirt collar—to which I might add, “Amen.”
Very awesome photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons