If you parachute in to any American business district and look at the men walking around, you don’t see many in suits or ties anymore. What began as “Casual Friday” has in most offices turned in to “Casual Every Day.” You know the look: most often guys are in button down shirts and khaki slacks. We take it for granted now as the business casual “uniform,” but it wasn’t always. So how did the modern office dress code come to be?
It’s a strange history that involves guerilla marketing, flabby baby boomers, and a tropical archipelago. We’ll start with the archipelago.
It’s Aloha Friday!
In 1966, the Hawaiian garment industry was trying to sell more shirts, and they came up with the idea of “Aloha Friday.” The idea was to encourage Hawaiian businesses to let their employees wear Hawaiian shirts to the office once a week.
Mufi Hannemann, the former mayor of Honolulu and proud owner of hundreds of Aloha shirts, was a kid when Aloha Fridays first launched. He says what began as a marketing ploy quickly became a cultural statement. “Don’t take yourself too seriously and don’t get caught up in the rat race,” Hannemann says. “Relax!” It even inspired a song, which you can still hear on Hawaiian radio stations as the work-week is winding down.
Fun…But Not Too Much
Cut to the recession of the early 1990s. Aloha Fridays had by this time started to drift to the mainland in the form of Casual Fridays, and they became a perfect “no cost perk” for budget-strapped companies trying to make their employees feel more relaxed. Just not too relaxed.
“We found when guys shed their coats and ties they really didn’t know what to wear,” says Rick Miller, who was doing public relations for the Levi’s brand “Dockers” back then. “People were showing up in Hawaiian print shirts or sandals and shorts. Frankly, there were concerns on the part of management that work might become too much fun.”
What management saw as a concern, Levi’s saw as a way to save itself. Now that baby boomers were getting older and flabbier, they weren’t buying as many Levi’s jeans, and the company’s sales were starting to stagnate. Maybe Levi’s could pick up the slack with khaki slacks?
Namely, a new brand called “Dockers,” which Levi’s had recently acquired and was at the time mostly a Saturday, knock-around-the-golf-course type of pant. Miller and the Levi’s team’s plan? Move Dockers off the golf-course and in to the cubicle, making Dockers the go-to for appropriate business casual attire.
Guerilla Marketing in Khaki Slacks
In 1992, Miller and his team printed up an unassuming eight-page brochure, called “A Guide to Casual Businesswear,” and sent it to 25,000 human resource managers across the country. It showed different business casual looks.
And, surprise, a lot of them involved Dockers!
“Like how to match a button down with a pair of Dockers and a nice pair of loafers,” Miller remembers. “Or how to set the break on the leg of your pants when they came down to your heel.”
Human Resource managers would hand out the brochures to their employees, to help give them guidelines about what was appropriate and what wasn’t. Dockers also sponsored in-office fashion shows and a hotline for human resource managers with dress code emergencies. Soon, Dockers were everywhere.
From Revolutionary to Status Quo
“Dockers was considered revolutionary,” says Wall Street Journal fashion columnist Teri Agins. They helped set a tone for business casual that made it feel safe for even big, traditional companies like Ford and IBM to drop the suit and tie.
One of the earliest adopters of the business casual dress code was Alcoa. Agins writes in her book The End of Fashion about visiting an Alcoa executive at their corporate headquarters in Pittsburgh, and being shocked by his outfit. “Slacks. Cashmere V-neck sweater,” she says. “Looked like he was there like on a Saturday, but actually this was a regular work day.”
Of course now, business casual in general and Dockers in particular don’t seem quite as revolutionary. Jennifer Sey is Docker’s senior vice president for global marketing.“We’re aware that we’ve become sort of the uniform of the cubicle dweller,” Sey says. “The guy who doesn’t care.”
Dockers is aggressively combating that stigma, says Sey, with something called the Alpha Khaki.
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Krissy Clark is the senior correspondent for Marketplace’s Wealth & Poverty Desk, where she helps make sense of some of the most fundamental shifts happening in the U.S. economy, including the growth of the low-wage service sector and the shrinking of middle-wage, middle-class...