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Casual Friday and the ‘End of the Office Dress Code’

The day—a celebration of conformity disguised as a celebration of individuality—helped to bring about the current dominance of “business casual.”

The New York Times ran a story Wednesday announcing “The End of the Office Dress Code.” The suit and its varied strains, the article argues—corporate uniforms that celebrate, well, corporate uniformity—are giving way to more individualized interpretations of “office attire.” As the writer Vanessa Friedman puts it, “We live in a moment in which the notion of a uniform is increasingly out of fashion, at least when it comes to the implicit codes of professional and public life.” 

It’s true. We live in a time in which our moguls dress in hoodies and t-shirts, and in which more and more workers are telecommuting—working not just from home, but from PJs. It’s a time, too, when the lines between “work” and “everything else” are increasingly—and sometimes frustratingly—fluid. And so: It’s also a time when many of us are trying to figure out, together, what “work clothes” actually means, and the extent to which the term might vary across professions. As Emma McClendon, who curated a new exhibit on uniforms for the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, summed it up: “We are in a very murky period.”

You can blame at least a little of the current confusion on a concept we denizens of the 21st century inherited from the 20th: Casual Friday. The day—which is a bland office perk, and also a State of Mind—arose in the 1960s, the outcome of Hawaiian shirts and Dockers khakis and guerrilla marketing and the fact that suits can be really, really boring. (More on that in a moment.) And it ultimately laid the groundwork for today’s “end of the office dress code” by proving what today’s impulse toward casual work clothes takes for granted: that professionalism need not be contingent on attire.

In that sense, Casual Friday was something of a gateway drug, its jeans and flats and relaxed cuts asking an obvious, but also revolutionary, question: Why not be casual on other days, too?

It started in 1962, in Hawaii, when the state’s Fashion Guild began a campaign to make the Hawaiian shirt—also known as the Aloha shirt—a standard component of the state’s business attire. Hawaii being really hot, and suits there being even more impractical there than they are elsewhere, the campaign was successful. As a result of the effort the guild dubbed “Operation Liberation,” the Hawaiian government soon issued an edict recommending that “the male populace return to ‘aloha attire’ during the summer months for the sake of comfort and in support of the 50th state’s garment industry.”

But why stop at the summer months? Hawaii, after all, is always hot. In 1965, the guild began lobbying the government to allow its employees to wear Hawaiian shirts each Friday, throughout the year. The effort was met with more success: “Aloha Friday” became a weekly mini-event in Hawaii.

On the mainland, the idea for a “casual Friday” had been pioneered at Hewlett-Packard, in the 1950s. But it gained force as a cultural phenomenon in the early 1990s—a response not to a warm climate, but to a cooling economy. During the recession, businesses were looking for ways to raise employee morale—without increasing salaries or otherwise spending any money. Some of them began experimenting with a broader interpretation of Aloha Friday, one that, like its Hawaiian counterpart, allowed work to become a little more playful than it might be the rest of the week. The idea quickly spread—so quickly that it led to confusion in some offices. What does “casual” mean, in the office? How casual is too casual?

“People were showing up in Hawaiian print shirts or sandals and shorts,” Rick Miller, a clothing PR agent, recalled to Marketplace. “Frankly, there were concerns on the part of management that work might become too much fun.”

And that’s where the guerrilla marketing stepped in. As companies were adopting “casual Friday,” Levi’s was looking for a way to expand its newly acquired Dockers brand beyond its traditional weekend wear. The company decided to target its signature khakis to office workers who might be searching for a less-than-a-suit-but-more-than-jeans look. In 1992, it sent out an 8-page brochure, helpfully titled “A Guide to Casual Businesswear,” to 25,000 human resource managers across the country. The brochure showcased a series of “business casual” looks—most of them, of course, involving Dockers or Levi’s. (“Use pieces from your existing business wardrobe to mix and match with casual clothing,” the caption for one instructed. “For example, jeans can be paired with a blazer or a sweater.”)

It was the right idea, at the right time. The 1990s saw “business casual” become quickly normalized—so much so that, today, it is pretty much the new office-work uniform. (Richard Branson, a tycoon who has perfected the business-casual look, recently declared that suits and ties “no longer serve any useful purpose.”) But with uniformity can come, ironically, confusion—precisely the kind of confusion that Vanessa Friedman wrote about today. What is “casual,” actually? we still wonder. Office shorts—yea or nay? Flip-flops? Yoga pants? When Mark Zuckerberg gives his keynote presentations in a t-shirt and jeans, what does that mean for the rest of us?

It is, for the moment, unclear. Which doesn’t mean that companies won’t try to impose some semblance of sartorial order on, and for, their workers. Yesterday, the publisher Condé Nast announced a new perk for its employees: a discounted membership to the designer-dud rental service Rent the Runway. It’s yet another nudge in the guise of a perk, and a reminder that, while the office dress code may be ending, unspoken expectations for office dress are still alive and well.

(Image via Flickr user TechCrunch)