America gives every appearance of being a nation besotted with trashiness – divorce, illegitimacy, casual Fridays. —P. J. O’Rourke
Walk into most any office today and notice how people are dressed. When one compares what is acceptable professional attire in today’s environment, it is difficult to image that less than 50 years ago there was no such thing as casual Fridays. White-collar workers actually work starched shirts with white collars. Women wore dresses or, at the very least, a well-accessorised pantsuit, and that was only acceptable when the outdoor temperatures were frigid.
My father didn’t even own a pair of jeans until the 1980s, and then it was a practical purchase, not one of comfort. He hated those jeans.
The first week I was working at a funeral home in college, I was given the task of mowing the tiny bit of grass in front of the building. I asked if I could go back to the dorm and change into more appropriate clothing. I was told, “No, we’re professional. You need to learn to do everything in a suit and tie.” So, I did.
Looking around, I see only a handful of places where strict professional dress codes are still in place: courtrooms, newscasts (only applies to the talent behind the desk), award shows, and, to this day, funeral homes. Everywhere else has gone casual, not just on Friday, but every day of the week. Even worse, a number of casual offices still observe Casual Fridays. How does one get more casual than casual?
What happened to our sense of decorum and professionalism? When did we stop taking pride in how we dress on a daily basis? Why is even Casual Friday too much of a strain for some people?
Blame the leisure suit. Blame former President Jimmy Carter. Blame that whole self-awareness movement. Blame Lululemon.
Men’s leisure suits were an attempt in the 1970s to add some style and flair to men’s wear. Lapels went wide. Ties went fat. Fabrics went synthetic. Good taste went out the fucking window. Half-way through that decade, the ties were dropped in favor of pattern-printed silk shirts that were left unbuttoned far, far, too often. Those who are old enough to remember comedians Stave Martin and Dan Akroyd’s skits as “two wild and crazy guys” know what I mean. There was still a nod toward appropriate dress as they were, technically still suits, and depending on the year, matching vests as well. Still, they classify as one of the worst mistakes fashion has ever conceived.
Jimmy Carter was one of the few presidents elected who was not a politician or lawyer by trade. Born and raised in Plains, Georgia, part of Mr. Carter’s appeal to this day is that he’s still basically a peanut farmer. He’s a down-to-earth, hard-working, no-nonsense kind of person with enough natural charm to make anyone comfortable. Being a farmer, though, he was unaccustomed to wearing a suit. He hadn’t often worn one as governor of Georgia, and during those moments when he was not meeting with other heads of state, he didn’t particularly enjoy wearing a suit at the White House. As a result, the White House dress code was relaxed. The seed for Casual Friday had been planted.
When the White House relaxed, the entire nation followed suit, so to speak. I still remember starting school in the fall of 1977 and being told that bluejeans were now acceptable attire. That move alone was shocking. It was during this period that the concept of Casual Friday was first introduced. No one actually intended to “dress down” the entire week, but since Fridays tend to have fewer client meetings and a less critical atmosphere, the move seemed reasonably safe.
Then came the whole self-awareness movement in the late 80s and early 90s. Having survived the suffocating strictness of the Reagan years and pretending to be something we weren’t, Americans began to “get in touch” with their individuality. Being off-trend became trendy. Khaki was everywhere because it was more professional than bluejeans but more comfortable than a suit. Men stopped wearing ties because the open shirt collar was “more relatable.” Women stopped wearing heels and sandals became a really big thing.
Then, some idiot invented the flip-flop. Born from the Southern California surf culture, with which we were all enamored, shoe companies took a serious hit as the nation decided it wanted to be as close to barefoot as possible. To this day, I know far too many people whose entire shoe wardrobe consists only of flip-flops. Many of you may even remember the controversy in 2005 when members of Northwestern University’s national championship women’s lacrosse team wore flip-flops to the White House. Granted, they were nicer than your every-day flip-flops, but they were still flip-flops. Casual Friday had taken over.
Now, Casual Friday is going a little further. Not content with casual button-up shirts and loose-fitting slacks from H&M, “athleisure” is beginning to leave the yoga studio and creep into the workplace. An article published yesterday by Bloomberg confirms the trend. Sales of activewear are up 15 percent while much of the higher-end fashion industry languishes in the doldrums. With celebrities like Beyoncè pushing athleisure with her Ivy Park line, more people are trying to figure out ways to go from the office to the gym or the yoga studio without having to carry a gym bag.
This new form of Casual Friday might not be quite so bothersome if people only worked out after leaving the office, but that’s not the case. More people workout in the morning or during their lunch break. They sweat. Then, for reasons I can only chalk up to oxygen deprivation during their workout, these otherwise-sane people think they can just toss a long sweater or t-shirt over their workout clothes and be fine. No, I’m sorry, you stink and your hands are sweaty. Take a fucking shower and change clothes, please.
An inconvenient turn of events left me eating lunch at The Cracker Barrel yesterday, something I had not planned on doing when I left the house wearing slacks that, in my opinion, were a little too loose. As I looked around the dining room, I noticed an interesting dichotomy. Women approximately my age or older were all dressed in a manner we might have considered casual back in the 70s, but was nonetheless quite well styled with appropriate accessories, their hair coifed, and gentle applications of makeup. Younger women, however, were all wearing jeans, or yoga pants, or shorts, all with flip-flops, no makeup, and their hair tossed in something that might have been a bun or a ponytail but somehow not quite either. The difference between the generations was startling.
Casual Friday has its place, and one should be free to wear clothes that are comfortable. Yet, I cannot help but mourn the loss of professionalism in how we dress. I feel sad when people no longer take any pride in how they dress on a daily basis, or the manner in which they present themselves in public. I’ll even admit to being biased against people I meet whose choice of clothing is grossly inappropriate. When I shake someone’s hand for the first time, a cold and sweaty palm are not what I want to encounter.
It’s Friday, and there’s no reason to not be casual about it, but good taste has a limit. Please try to not cross that line.