THE VANCOUVER SUN, Tuesday May 22, 2001
What's too casual?
The phenomenon of casual Friday left employees confused about the state of dress for work. We go in search of the perfect code for men and women.
The tellers in the bank looked like they'd come from a picnic. The one who cashed your paycheque was wearing overalls. The guy behind the next counter sported a Grizzlies sweatshirt. And another teller had on a fuchsia tank top -- the same colour as the bandanna on her head.
Welcome to casual day -- usually a Friday -- at work. But has this trend gone too far? And does a dress code have its place at work?
In some offices, casual Friday led to dress-down Friday, with the emphasis on the "down." Friday became let's-wear-whatever-we-like-at-work day.
"Friday is not the day to roll out of bed and put on any old thing," says Vancouver image consultant Diana Kilgour. "It's not a day to wear old clothes or painting clothes or not have a shower. Employers are often distraught at what comes through the door on workdays. It's really spooky what some people will wear to work."
Sweats, shorts, fleece, flip-flops, funny T-shirts, bra straps, baseball caps, jeans and clothes baring thighs and navels have shown up in the office, especially this time of year. Running shoes seem to have taken up permanent residence; Kilgour hears of employees wearing them with suits.
But while pants on working women became acceptable a generation ago -- with the recent exception of a telecom firm in Victoria that insisted female operators wear skirts until the outgoing B.C. government, which contracted its services, intervened -- men were slower to shed suits and ties.
Kilgour says casual days probably stemmed from the idea of getting an early start on the weekend, and dressing down at work made a quick getaway easier on Friday afternoons. And "jeans days" -- in which employees were allowed to wear denim if they contributed a sum to charity -- likely played a part.
But casual days have also tended to confuse employees. "When casual or dress-down Fridays became a movement, if threw a lot of people into a quandary," Kilgour says. "They felt they had to go out and buy a whole business-casual wardrobe."
Larry Rosen, chairman and CEO of Harry Rosen menswear, agrees: "It used to
be really easy when you got up in the morning and you put on your suit. Most
people only had their business wardrobe and their weekend wardrobe."
"People are starting to understand now that they went too far, but there's
still a casual way of dressing that can have a business atmosphere," he explains.
"Work is different than play and to be taken seriously professionally you can't
look like you were out mowing the lawn. If there is going to be casual dressing
in the workplace it has to be neat. If I'm sitting across from a lawyer and
he's billing me for $400, I don't want him to look like he's at a barbecue.
Kilgour says it's important not to take the word "business" out of business casual.
"I think there's a difference between smart casual and sloppy casual. Smart
casual means in good condition, pressed properly, accessorized. I think one's
attitude towards one's employment or employer is reflected in how one dresses.
I think the way an employee appears is as important as what a letterhead looks
like. It's a way of marketing. When I look at the price of real estate some
companies occupy and the art on the walls, and when I see employees looking
as if they work in a taxi dispatch or a dog-washing place, the look is so inconsistent with the corporate image."
Sometimes companies have had to spell out what's acceptable to wear on casual days. The British workplace-issues web site i-resign.com reports that one U.S. financial firm sent a memo to employees which amounted to a dress-down dress code: "Spandex, miniskirts, shorts, denim and shoes without socks were all blacklisted."
Rosen feels that the pendulum is swinging away from casual dressing at the office, and the economy has a lot to do with the shift to more formal business wear. This is especially in light of the recent fall in fortunes of high-technology and trendy, more laid-back dot.com companies that encouraged employees to dress like university students.
Kilgour agrees: "When the dress-for-success movement began, it was about 1980
and business was tough and people were more competitive. I think we're seeing
more of that now. It's when there's lots of money, and attitudes are playful
that people have more disregard for formality."
But casual dress throughout the week is more widespread than it once was, as some businesses take a more relaxed view of dressing.
Baby boomers who remember jacket-and-tied male teachers, and a strict no-pants policy for females in school, often see their offspring heading to class in anything they want -- and teachers dressed in a style best described as "comfy."
Some companies, such as the Vancouver office of the national law firm of Heenan, Blaikie, don't have a dress code. "People here can dress the way they want any day of the week," says office manager Leslie Green. "We find that it works pretty well. Most of the lawyers and the students keep a suit in the office or some kind of suitable clothing to change into if they meet a client."
But, observes Kilgour, "There are people who have never dressed down, for example, salespeople or those in the high-level hospitality industry never do. What's also seen as a major influence is techno fibres: Cotton with nylon or Lycra.
"Women especially are wearing T-shirts or jersey tops under their suits, hence they don't need to do anything radical on Friday."
Rosen says his nation-wide company sees a lot of businesses going back to suits. "And a lot of firms that went to all casual days will go back to one casual day. There's no doubt that that whole era was an era of not enough discipline in the workplace."
Industrial psychologist Cam Ellison of John Fleury and Associates in Vancouver, said he has heard that argument, although dress is not a major issue among employers who seek his advice.
"I think that opinion's definitely out there: If you're not dressed right, you won't work right," he explains. "That if you've gone to all the trouble of getting gussied up for work, you might be more alert. But I'm not sure that feeling would last."
And he noted that workplace dressing has gone through a change, especially when people are not meeting clients.
"I'm sitting here wearing slacks and a shirt. Something I've noticed with a number of our clients, and this goes back a couple of years, is I'd show up in a suit and tie and there's my counterpart, a vice-president, and he's in a shirt and slacks, although good ones."
Return to Press and Media Index