Clemente Encore: History Of Business Casual For The Atlantic

Our last post looked at Dierdre Clemente’s book “Dress Casual,” which charts how college students over the course of the 20th century transformed the way the world dresses. Dr. Clemente today takes a curtain call as we share a piece she did last month for The Atlantic.

The piece is entitled “Why American Workers Now Dress So Casually.” Here’s a snippet:

What came before business casual? Basically, people wore suits. The norm was starched collars, overcoats, hats, and more hats. Americans dressed up for work, and they also dressed up for restaurants, for travel, for the movies. But as those other venues began to “casualize” by the 1950s, the office (and church) retained a formal dress code, by comparison. Well into the 1970s, companies gave employees manuals to outline official dress policies, but everything depended on the management’s need or desire to enforce them. Little by little, often-ignored infractions eroded the sanctity of any top-down policy: hose-free legs when the weather permitted, a tweed blazer for a day with no client meetings, loafers instead of dress shoes. Cultural change occurs most quickly when it is led by the people, for the people.

Sit down with a beverage for this thorough and engaging piece, which you can find right here. — CC

15 Comments on "Clemente Encore: History Of Business Casual For The Atlantic"

  1. rvpress59 | June 29, 2017 at 2:02 pm |

    For another view regarding synthesis of Business Casual take a look my e-book with Joe Cosgriff “Rebel Without A Suit.” Different strokes for different folks. Our derivation Hawaii/Dockers vs. her Silicon Valley.

  2. Caustic Man | June 29, 2017 at 2:35 pm |

    rvpress59, very curious about this. We know that Clemente is a historian and used a historical methodology in her book. Did Cosgriff and yourself come to the subject with a particular methodological framework in mind? In other words, would these two works (yours and Clemente’s) be in conversation with one another?

  3. rvpress59 | June 29, 2017 at 2:59 pm |

    She did it her way. We did it our way. My historical methodology: life experience as successful menswear retailer of the era responsible to the bottom line. Joe Cosgriff, high level corporate executive and published author. We was there.

  4. Caustic Man | June 29, 2017 at 3:06 pm |

    So more of a personal reflection on your experiences in business over the years?

    I might have to read your book next and see if there really is a conflict between the two claims. I mean, it is entirely possible that the both of you are right. The process of casualization must have been a diverse and varied process over a period of decades (or centuries).

  5. I work in an industry with a very staid, traditional image, and I have client-facing responsibilities. But there seems to be a strange, inverse, rule-of-thumb in effect lately: the more sophisticated the client, the less formal they expect me to dress, and vice-versa. I was recently in a very high-level meeting involving a transaction between two global companies, and in the room were thirty or so management, engineering, finance and legal professionals. Not one person was wearing a tie. The tech, sales and mgmt guys were wearing dark denim, and brightly-colored button-down plaids and tattersalls; you could tell legal and finance by the solid blue or white pinpoints and grey or navy trousers. But no suits on anyone. And no ties.

    On the flip side, I recently made a presentation to an association of – quite literally – ditch diggers. And it was clear their expectation was that any professional worth his salt always wears a suit and tie.

    Admittedly, these experiences seem to have less to do with whether (or why) office dress has gone too casual, and more about what people expect of others in a public setting. But I found them interesting nonetheless.

  6. Charlottesville | June 29, 2017 at 4:21 pm |

    Interesting observations, Paul. Is this is the view from Annapolis, or is it true when you travel as well? When I began working in a large law firm in Washington, D.C. at the end of 1985, lawyers were expected to wear a suit very day, and more than a few of us shopped at Brooks. As the 80s turned into the 90s, ashtrays were removed from the conference rooms, booze ceased flowing at lunch and casual dress began to creep in. Initially it took the form of sport coats and khakis on Fridays during the summer, with or without a tie. By 2000, coats and ties were no longer required in the office at any time of year and jeans were acceptable on Fridays. I no longer practice there, but when I am in town I see professionals sometimes wearing jackets in restaurants, but usually tieless, so am guessing that is the norm. I suppose court appearances and perhaps some client meetings may still merit a tie. One of the biggest changes is the quality of the shoes. We all used to wear good quality dress shoes (A-E, Alden, Books, Church’s, etc.) and have them shined regularly at the ubiquitous shoeshine stands. Now shoes tend to be soft-soled and unpolished, often downright shabby, even when the wearer is in a suit. I try to stop by Jim’s on 59th Street for a shine when I am in New York, and I think there are still a few stands in DC, although they are getting rare. I know of no shoeshine stand left in Charlottesville although there were still a couple 20 years ago. Not all of the changes have been for the worse, but I do wish people dressed better and that I could get a shine once in a while without doing it myself.

  7. @Charlottesville: perhaps it is a regional thing, since the meetings I was describing were within the DC/NoVa/Annapolis orbit. The last time I was in NYC, I didn’t see any ties or jackets on anyone, but boy they seemed to like things snug – fitted pink and purple shirts (on bodies that didn’t warrant them), and open spread collars. It was not an appealing look.

    I, too, started my professional life in a large office (of an even larger Eastern enterprise), but in the late 90s. Even then, though, it was still a suit and tie each day other than Fridays.

    To focus more on the subject of the post, my dress within the office nowadays is right in the old Trad sweet spot, I guess: poplin and wool/cotton blend khakis; pinpoints; navy blazer in Spring/Summer; grey and blue wool trousers with OCBDs and a tweed blazer in Fall/Winter; I rotate beef-roll loafers, longwing lace-ups, and tassel loafers w/o the tassel (don’t know what that style is actually called) – all black. A tie is on the back of the office door “just in case”.

  8. john carlos | June 29, 2017 at 7:20 pm |

    @Charlottesville @Paul I started practicing law in 1975 with a fairly large firm in Texas. I wore a coat and tie every day for 20 years even during our sweltering Summers. Now it’s khakis, ocbd’s, and Aldens. I probably wear a coat and tie 2 or 3 times a month unless I’m in trial.

  9. Charlottesville | June 30, 2017 at 10:52 am |

    John Carlos and Paul — I guess I am one of the holdouts. I still enjoy wearing a suit to the office most days. In the summer I have tropical weight wools, seersuckers, poplins and a pin cord that are fine in the a/c, and still not too heavy for the walk between car and office when it is 95 and humid. If I were outside in the heat for more than 15 minutes or so at a time, or lived further south, I might have to rethink that. I like linen too but, like white bucks, think it is best for weekends. I don’t wear a suit everyday (yesterday I wore a blazer and today I’m wearing a wool/linen/silk tweed sport coat), but I always wear a tie to work, with perhaps half a dozen exceptions over the course of a year when a crewneck and cords or a blazer and open-collar button down seem to suit the mood on a Friday. My shoes are similar to what Paul mentions, although my tassel loafers actually include tassels, and with more dressy suits (e.g., a navy chalk stripe) I wear black cap toe Balmorals, or in winter I may wear brown suede brogues with tweed or flannel. I like hats too, panama or coconut straw for summer and felt for winter, but don’t wear one every day. While I guess my dress is anachronistic, I think (hope?) that it falls short of costume for the present. So, no fez and velvet dressing gown in front of the fire, and while I have a boater and a walking stick, they remain at home. At least so far I get more compliments than I do people pointing a laughing.

  10. Mitchell S. | June 30, 2017 at 1:30 pm |

    It’s kind of funny that Tom Ford is upset that women no longer dress up, considering that Mr. Ford was born and raised in Texas. Texans for the most part consider a Canadian tuxedo (all denim) to be formal wear. Only the older generation and the very wealthy dress up in the Lone Star state.

  11. Charlottesville | June 30, 2017 at 1:53 pm |

    Interesting links, Thody and Christian. Ford’s observations about daywear (which used to be a discreet fashion category for moneyed or upper middle class women) seem largely focused on LA, which would naturally make up a large part of his clientele. However, they are true generally and not confined to daylight hours. The athleisure rot may have set in a bit deeper out west but it is a national malady. I wonder whether the CDC can do anything about it.

    As for the focus on women, my observations tend to find men in even worse shape. Time after time, at social functions, in theaters and in restaurants, I see couples in which the woman is wearing makeup, a dress and reasonably dressy shoes or sandals, but the man has a 4-day beard and is wearing jeans or shorts, sneakers or flip-flops, and an untucked bowling shirt, often unbuttoned over a “wife-beater” (an item of clothing that sounds as foul as it looks). You would think the unshaven-untucked-unbuttoned look would be over by now, but alas you would be wrong. At least the stingy-brim hipster hats may be on the wane, but I regret having to report a lumbersexual spotting a few weeks ago, complete with 8-inch beard, plaid shirt and paint-spattered jeans tucked into work boots at a restaurant where dinner for two can easily top $500. His date, of course, was wearing a dress. Can any of the UK commenters corroborate Ford’s vision of a dressed up London citizenry, at least as compared with the US? It certainly was the case when I was there, but that was more than 20 years ago.

  12. Caustic Man | July 6, 2017 at 8:06 am |

    After reading Rebel Without a Suit my conclusion is that these two books have a different scope and are not necessarily in conflict with one another. Clemente is tracking a decades long, multi-generational, shift in attitudes about clothing. Press and Cosgriff are tracking a generational shift as well, but in the context of a single event, the adoption of casual Fridays. Indeed, Press and Cosgriff can easily be put into the context of Clemente’s work. The tendency of Hawaiians, and then corporate America, to dress down on the last day of the work week can be interpreted as a continuation of the phenomenon that Clemente describes rather than a separate phenomena. In other words, Casual Friday may have been made possible in the first place because college students in the 1920s-1960s went casual, and because middle class Americans were wiling to follow them. That connection, of course, is not made by either Clemente or Press/Cosgriff and further research is needed to determine if it exists. However, it is my opinion that both Clemente and Press/Cosgriff are talking about the same phenomenon. The difference is the scale and emphasis that they place on their respective subjects.

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