Much of the tongue wagging prompted by the January announcement of the Time-Warner and America Online merger focused on the irony that an upstart Internet provider was acquiring a venerable publisher. Most trend spotters missed a much more confusing cultural milestone. While AOL chief Steven Case wore a staid tie to the press conference, his counterpart at Time-Warner, Gerald Levin, had none.
Had the world turned upside down? Dot-com tycoons are supposed to flout corporate dress codes. Chairmen of Fortune 500 companies (especially the one that prints the list) are supposed to show some decorum. What were they trying to tell businessmen about how to dress? Had this all been carefully orchestrated sartorial theater aimed at underscoring the changing of the guard? Was it one-upmanship on the part of either or both? Or had Levin simply forgotten the first rule of a tie fight: bring a tie.
Garnering even less attention was what was said that night on the bar car of Metro-North's 6:05 train from New York to Connecticut. Joe, a computer jock with one of the Big Six accounting firms, was grousing about dress codes. Had his free spirit been shoehorned into a suit and tie? No. Joe's lament was that just when he'd put together enough suits to make it through two-weeks without repeating an ensemble, they'd pulled the rug out from under him. The firm went business casual. What was he to do with his suits?
Chet, a PR guy who'd long since reverted to golf clothes in the office, couldn't sympathize with the dilemma. Andrew, a bemused British observer, couldn't understand why anyone would work so hard only to wear clothes bought at The Gap. Bill, an investment banker, whose company goes casual only during summer hours, remarked that he couldn't wait to get out of his suit. No one knew what to make of the guy at the end of the bar who runs his own consulting firm and had been wearing frayed jeans and tattered polos for years. Bar man Vinny, wearing the new Metro-North uniform of cardigan sweater over turtleneck, just grinned. Little wonder businessmen are running confused. While somewhat confining, it used to be easy to be "the man in the gray flannel suit": put on coat and tie that by definition match, add white shirt, make tie striped and subdued, and you almost couldn't fail.
Then along came dressed-down business attire. Well, it didn't exactly come out of nowhere. Since the 1960s the buttoned-up look of corporate America had been gradually eroding. The mod look brought back flamboyance to menswear and swept away the cobwebs of the plain-white-shirt-blue-suit uniform promoted by IBM. The '70s brought in the blown-out disco fashions that in some ways were more regrettable than the lack of a tie could ever be. Somewhere in the '80s corporate establishment decided that a dressed-down look would be acceptable on a once-a-week basis, and casual Fridays were born.
At first, this meant no suit and no tie, but certainly a collared shirt, a nice pair of trousers and probably a sport coat. But then along came summer hours and a lot of people reasoned that since they would be leaving work early for the beach or the links, they might as well dress that way. It wasn't long before all hell broke loose and men were going to work in jeans and T-shirts on Fridays.
Some style watchers cringed. Did this signal a breakdown of society as we know it? Women's fashion pundits had predicted an end of the world before--particularly when skirts shortened to outlaw levels--but never had menswear taken such a treacherous turn. The bomb landed but never detonated. The world didn't end. Businesses didn't crumble. In fact, Wall Street has never done better than in the past few years, and a lot of it had to do with the success of high-tech businesses, where employees thumbed their noses at dress codes. In light of that, many staid old businesses dropped standards throughout the week and casual Friday became casual Monday through Friday.
If one assumes that dressed-down business attire originated in Silicon Valley, it is easy to see some of the impetus behind it. First, you have a group of young Turks entering the corporate world, eager to stamp it with their own sense of fashion (not necessarily style). That's normal. Second, these particular Turks are trained in cyber science, a discipline that rewards paring things down to the purely practical--numbers and electronic impulses. To someone who lives to perform a function in as few bits and bytes as possible, neck garments that seem like nooses and jackets that hang open don't compute. So if business attire is superfluous anyway, why not ditch the tie, match sneakers with suits, or wear Hawaiian shirts to the office?
Logical on the surface, but about as shortsighted as saying that diamonds are useless because they are impractical forms of attire. It's a given that jewelry doesn't protect anyone from the elements, but it comes in pretty handy when you're trying to make up with your wife. Matters of apparel don't fit into cozy little equations. Derrill Osborn, the stylish director of men's clothing at Neiman Marcus, may say it best: "Don't kid yourself, you can still judge a book by its cover." Clothes may not make the man, but they say an awful lot about him. They serve the subtle function of sorting us out to observers. Without different sartorial strata, our clues to social position disappear. Or as Joseph Barrato, chief executive officer of Brioni USA, puts it, "You can't differentiate the executives from the stock boys." It may not sound very egalitarian, but differences in attire have a necessary social utility.
This idea, like anything else, can be reduced to absurdity. Eighteenth-century England was a place where every nuance of dress carried strict meaning. A man's station in life, his profession, even clues about his geographic background could be discerned from the clothes he wore and how they were adorned. A fashionable garment at formal affairs--indeed, the Scarlet Pimpernel sports one--was a chapeau bras, or arm hat. Pancake flat and with nary any room for one's brow, this hat was impossible to wear. That was the point. The ludicrous purpose of the chapeau bras was that the owner be seen not wearing it. Here's the logic: Court politesse naturally called for anyone in the presence of the king to remove his hat. But someone roaming the state rooms at Kensington Palace wasn't likely to be wearing a hat to begin with. Therefore, one tucked a chapeau bras under his arm in case he should come face to face with the monarch. He could then show that were he wearing a hat, which he wasn't, he would have enough manners to take it off.
In light of all that, a piece of silk tied around the neck may not seem so onerous. Nevertheless, it is inevitable that fashions change--after all, no one is wearing frock coats to the office as they did 100 years ago. Right now we are in the midst of a trend that verges decidedly toward freedom, and it's hard not to get pulled into it.
"Everyone endorses the idea of liberalism in apparel," says Osborn. "But within that freedom is the duty to distinguish between what is appropriate and what is not appropriate." That is exactly what makes this trend at once so alluring and so full of pitfalls. You're being given freedom, but being asked to exercise it within the confines of the workplace. There are ways to do that. They involve using the same attributes you would bring to more formal attire--style and elegance--and coupling them with insouciance. That involves parsing the oxymoronic concept of "studied casual."
It was Richard Nixon who remarked that "no TV performance takes such careful preparation as an off-the-cuff talk." Casual Friday is the fashion equivalent of an off-the-cuff talk. Then again, Tricky Dick was a guy who, when beseeched by aides to try to emulate the easy style of Jack Kennedy, filmed a meant-to-be-casual campaign commercial strolling down the beach in San Clemente wearing a business suit and shoes. Osborn says that business clothing is being redefined as softer and easier, but the direction is sometimes poorly handled. Indeed, mismatched attire abounds. "You see the sloppiness," he says. "It is forcing us to rethink the sensibility. Do we really want to present that image?" Osborn holds that casual and dressed up will blend and men will have to turn to their clothes consultant like a doctor to determine the appropriateness of either in differing situations.
Neither does Barrato predict the demise of the suit and the tie: "They are both viable expressions of personality. But men have different options now." Both say that casual trends have not had dire impacts on their sales of traditional attire. "I know a lot of women," Barrato says, "and I ask them what they like better. Most say a man in a suit looks more sexy." Such an endorsement should do much for conservative clothing, no matter what the boss allows.
Osborn points out that there is one place where traditional attire will very likely always hold sway: "You very rarely see a man in a coffin without a tie." Meanwhile, back on the 6:05, Andrew peers into his cup and offers some consolation. "Hold on to your suits. Someday in the future there'll be a memo allowing dress-up Thursday if you choose to be so bold."