Dress code: The history of ‘business casual’

Marketplace Contributor Aug 17, 2012

Dress code: The history of ‘business casual’

Marketplace Contributor Aug 17, 2012

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.

What does “Casual Friday” look like at your office?

What should be allowed in a company dress code? What’s “Casual Friday” like where you are? Browse through your comments and send us your stories or photos.

Storified by · Thu, Aug 16 2012 17:18:01

Dress Code: Is every day ‘Casual Friday’ at your office?What should, or shouldn’t, be allowed in a company dress code? Send us your photos or stories about the crazy or questionable outfits you’ve rocked — or caught coworkers rocking — at work.
Here are some of your comments…
No dress code for us – though based on how often everyone wears company t-shirts, you’d think that was recommended attire! Hooray for software companies even outside Silicon Valley – http://www.infusionsoft.com/Brina Kaiser
Outside of some legal and banking offices, the whole “casual Friday” thing is long gone in Northern California, it’s now “casual Everyday”.Jc Dill
For casual business offices, I don’t see why the following isn’t reasonable: wear a shirt with a collar (incl. mandarin & t-neck); no shorts; shoes (or sandals, for women) with a leather upper. It’s not uncomfortable, expensive, or unattractive. T-shirts over worn jeans with running shoes fail on the last criterion.Bob McCarty
If your job depends on you creating a “good impression” solely based on what you are wearing then your job really isn’t of much value or importance. I would go so far as to say your an actual parasite on the actual buisness of the company or in a buisness that doesn’t actual produce anything in the first place, ie manegment, sales, banking, finance, mutual funds, hedge funds, etc, etc, etc. People with real skills, education, talent, etc do not have to depepend what they wear to demonstrate their value. That is just the way it is.Marc Hutton
I work from home 4 days a week so “casual friday” might not involve a shower. 😉 but my co-workers get the ‘perk’ of getting to wear jeans on friday which in Phoenix in August isn’t a perk. However, I work for a very large law firm and the Phoenix office is pretty relaxed in the summer as far as dress code goes. Men get the short end of the stick with the ties and suits without jackets, but the ladies can wear sandals, capris and skirts without hose (but then, they have the fashion crisis that occurs with staying warm with high rise A/C.)Elissa Eibes Blabac
I work from home, so…pretty much the same as every other day!Greg Allbee
Casual what?Dan Healy
Workplace??? What’s that?Mark O. Hammontree
dress codes in the office are a dying thing – I’m particularly impressed with the increasing number of employers where employees are not only dressed comfortably, but also allow visible piercings and tattoos … going forward – it’s all about performance and results on the job, not whether you are staying up-to-date with the latest fashions – welcome to the 21st century!Todd Stevens
Well I work at a tech company in the greater Seattle area, so yeah, it’s pretty casual. I’ll never understand offices that require formal/business attire, it seems so superficial and pointless… Besides, who likes ironing and dry cleaning?Dan Thompsen
looks exactly like casual Monday through Thursday only people are singing that Rebecca Black song.Christopher Patzke
no. there is NO casual day at my work place. Strict formal attire.Bhupendra Jadhav
My husband’s office allows the “casual Friday” look through out the summer as a method to reduce stress during their busiest time of the year. Flip flops and short shorts are not allowed, but other than that they’re pretty flexible. Some people look like they’re going to the gym. However, when clients are scheduled they are expected to at least dress business casual. On the other extreme I recently quit a job where business professional attire was expected at all times by all levels of the staff; and not just professional, but whacked out sexist business professional. It was strongly suggested that women wear skirts and heels. If I chose to wear a pant suit I had to keep my jacket on at all times, but the men had no such requirement. One day I was sent home to change because my skirt was too long. Seriously.Elisabet Wadsworth
I roll between a combination of sales floor, office, warehouse and field work (in customers’ homes)- frequently in the same day. Our dress code is clean casual: polos, button-downs, slacks, maybe jeans, but no cheesy T-shirts hanging out! Because I am routinely facing customers, I try to keep it a little more business-like; buttoned shirts and slacks most of the week. My shoes suffer, though. So I typically invest in a couple pairs of comfortable, thick soled cap toes. My feet thank me every evening when I peel them off. Kind of a strange mix, but it’s what the job demands.Aaron McAllister
In my job it depends on the job as to how you dress. We have sales people who dress in business attire but it is all phone sales, so I don’t get it. I’m an artist & I wear jeans & a t-shirt every day. There are probably some sales people who are jealous.Angel Dey
I am bummed by the emergence of FLIP FLOPS in the workplace (with the exception of those working at pools and beaches, of course). Call me old school, but attire can set a completely different tone, in terms of professionalism. My husband’s company just awarded the account managers with Brooks Brothers gift cards. THAT’s a statement!Colleen Ruggieri
Dress codes are for sucking the soul out of people and attempting to create Corp drones. As a scientist I only have to worry about dressing for safety and steadfastly refuse any attempt to force me to wear “buisness appropriate” clothing. That is for people that really don’t have anything to bring to the table other than to try and make an impression.Marc Hutton
People working in labs have different conditions that allow for more casual attire. However, people working in corporate and other management positions need to have professional appearances. Behavioral science proves that first impressions make a difference.Colleen Ruggieri
Fortunately, yes, I do work in a casual environment. I have worked in business formal and business casual environments in the past. The funny thing is when I was all dressed up it was supposed to be about an impression on the client. But I barely saw clients, vendors or visitors at those companies. Now (I work at an ad agency) I see clients all the time and what I wear is up to me. It is working out well. There is nothing more soul-sucking than mentally reviewing the company dress code policy when looking in your closet. Also having ‘jeans week’ for a reward….is not a reward. It is a break from being treated like children.Adam Parikh
We are “casual Friday” every day during the summer, typically Memorial Day weekend through the day after Labor day.Tim Taylor
based on my daily attire it would be naked.Graham-o Petersburg
Let’s just call it “robe optional Friday”.John Robinson
The fact that we don’t have a dress code is one of the BEST things about my job. People wear everything from sweats to cocktail dresses, and it’s glorious.Sara Marinara Miller
My office enacted “Casual August” this month. Somehow being able to wear jeans and sneakers in eighty plus heat seems like a raw deal.Weszy Rosen
Why do you think I got into radio?Dale Hoppert
It’s Casual Friday at the Marketplace office…
This could be good. RT @MarketplaceAPM What should be your company’s dress code? Send us pics and thoughts: http://mktplc.org/OV7WeBAnne Libby
SWEATER DRESSES ONLY. @MarketplaceAPM: What should be your company’s dress code? Send us your pics and thoughts: http://mktplc.org/OV7WeBalexsteed

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