BUSINESS

A dressing down

DEIRDRE McMURDY April 3 1995
BUSINESS

A dressing down

DEIRDRE McMURDY April 3 1995

A dressing down

At one wicket is a woman with a bare midriff and a tattoo on her forearm that proclaims her undying love for some individual named Sandy. Beside her, at the same counter, is a man sporting multiple earrings and an impressive tangle of chest hair and chains nestled in the gaping collar of his tennis shirt. Contrary to every outward appearance, however, these are not the employees of a seamy nightclub. They are bank tellers. It is Casual Friday. And, yes, there is at least one national financial institution that assumes that Canadian consumers might be comfortable discussing their personal banking needs with someone who is dressed like a street urchin from the cast of Oliver.

Centuries from now, when anthropologists and sociologists sift through the debris of late-20th-century culture, the phenomenon of the corporate Casual Day is guaranteed to stop them cold. Consider the facts: after nine decades of relatively standardized business attire, things began to unravel around 1990. Suddenly, it became acceptable for white-collar employees to literally roll up their sleeves. In fact, they were encouraged to appear in the office turned out for a hike in the woods or a rustic backyard barbecue. Common wisdom decreed that “dressing down” actually improved employee morale and productivity, and encouraged the rank to mix it up with the file—at least one day a week.

Of course, it all started innocently enough. In Canada, many companies introduced a Casual Day as part of their annual fall campaigns to help the United Way charity to raise money. According to Sherri Freedman, associate campaign director for the United Way of Greater Toronto, the idea of asking office workers to pay for the privilege of dressing casually was first floated in 1990 to generate extra contributions in tight economic times and to boost public awareness of the United Way. It proved to be such a popular event that many companies decided to introduce Casual Fridays year-round.

That institutionalization of Casual Fridays coincided with—or arguably hastened—a more general slide in the standards of busi-

THE BOTTOM LINE

DEIRDRE McMURDY

ness attire. During the recession, a time when many established corporate practices were challenged and changed by dire necessity, the grip of traditional dress codes also loosened. Greater informality or “dressing down” became the external symbol of the internal process of delayering hierarchical management and restructuring the workplace along flatter lines. To prove that a company was tuned in to the New Economy and turned on to the Information Highway, senior executives were required to swap their blazers for cardigans now and then.

After all, the advent of the New Economy was supposed to usher in that golden era when skill and knowledge—rather than fashion sense—determined a person’s worth. That notion was strongly reinforced by the ascendancy of young techno-brats like Bill Gates. Dodgy personal grooming habits and awkward manners have become an integral part of the Microsoft chairman’s mystique: it is universally accepted that Bill is too busy being brilliant and boyish to trim I his hair or change his shirt—let alone wres§ tie with a Windsor I knot. And for compass nies like IBM, which ' have the disadvantage u of deep corporate roots, the traditional navy-suit-and-whiteshirt dictate became a totem for everything that it was doing wrong.

But the New Economy, despite all the jargon and fancy theory, is really not that different from the Old Economy. Sure, there are more computers about, and they do more things at a faster clip. Global trade is certainly more widespread, and international markets are more competitive. Many companies are less rigidly stratified than they were. But everyone still has a boss and a bottom line. And blurring the sartorial line between work and leisure time has absolutely nothing to do with embracing change or adapting to it successfully. Some things do not alter with time or technology: dressing up to go to work always has—and always will—reflect professional discipline and a respect for the job or the client at hand. Even on Fridays.