Saturday, March 03, 2012

Dressing Down

It's getting harder and harder to get dressed in the morning. Male or female, there used to be just two options. Work day: put on a suit. Play day: put on a pair of jeans. Sure, there were special outfits for special occasions, be it exercising or a social event or dinner out. But the reality was that most everything else was just a variation on those two basic themes.

In fact, it wasn’t long ago that a strict code of "dress for success" was the mantra instilled into all career minded individuals. Dressing down meant a shirt color other than white. Then somebody realized that people were coming to work on Fridays armed with casual clothes to change into at 4PM in order to get a jump on the weekend. So the idea was born: especially in the summer, the last day of the week became known as "casual days." Calendar creep occurred, and soon it was legal to be comfortable on any Friday during the year.

Of course, with any change in the status quo there is a need for study. So some professor got funding to examine the effect of denim on productivity. And wonder of wonders, they concluded that when people are comfortable they are better workers. The time no longer needed for straightening ties and pulling up pantyhose was going into research on nuclear fusion. Only one conclusion was possible: people should dress comfortably all the time.

Certain industries took this to heart, notably technology and advertising. It was a seismic shift from the days of IBM and its legions of blue-suited salesman, Don Draper and his Madison Avenue drinking buddies, and Gregory Peck in “The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.” It became an expression of one’s calling, so much so that it became actually hard to take certain professionals seriously if they showed up in a pinstripe suit. They just didn't look the part.

So now "business casual" is the state of the art in many companies, though not all. Especially in the financial, legal or sales worlds, suits and ties are still the default choice. That makes it important to know who you’re dealing with. When you book a meeting, you not only have to agree on the date and time, but on the attire. I've made the mistake of forgetting to inquire about the last point. The result has been walking into a room full of people who have on jeans and golf shirts, while I look like an undertaker. Kind of hard to fit in and act like part of the team.

So let's run down the permissible wardrobe selections depending on the situation. If you have a meeting with a new client, "Traditional Business Attire" is usually appropriate. That would include suits, ties and dresses. This is the organization man, and that includes women. Think Ward Cleaver, having a quiet dinner at home with June and the Beav, in a two piece, 3 button worsted flannel. The next step on the ladder (up or down, depending on your view of the state of western civilization) is what we'll call "Relaxed Business." Here we’re talking blazers and slacks as opposed to suits, or suits but without the tie. That is, tweak the purely casual, but don't escalate to full business formal. You have to look like you are trying to dress like a lawyer, but that it hurts to do so. So you imitate it, as though you just got to this planet, but the television transmissions you've been watching for years got all jumbled up along the way.

Most places these days are considered "Business Casual." This is defined as shirts with collars and no jeans. Pretend you're a golfer on the PGA tour, just without the spikes, or those stupid knickers. And finally we have “Anything Goes.” This is the province of the new media and tech firms, from Google to Zynga. Here virtually nothing here is off limits unless it has the possibility of getting you arrested. And even then there are allowances made for really cool tee shirts.  The net result of all of this is that your closet has to be 4 times larger and your chance of screwing up 4 times greater. Woe to him or her that misreads their calendar, and shows up in a sweatshirt on the day of the big presentation. At least for me, this all means that a career at UPS is starting to look a lot better and better, if only because I think I look good in brown anything.

- END -

Marc Wollin of Bedford has to better organize his closet. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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