Remember casual Fridays? Back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the trend first came into fashion — thanks in no small part to the laid-back aesthetics of dot-com Silicon Valley companies — wearing less-than-formal clothing at the office was just an occasional reward after a long week. But over the last few years, casual Fridays have evolved into casual all-the-time, and it’s led to a growing pandemic in corporate America: Bad dressers. Most people’s idea of “business casual” is no longer as innocuous as khakis and a polo shirt. They’ve begun inserting more personality into their work attire, and their taste in fashion leads something to be desired.
Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and owner of the Protocol School of Texas, recalls teaching a workshop on business fashion in Houston several years ago, in which she encountered a businessman from Atlanta with an unorthodox approach to personal style. “He was wearing a straw paperboy hat, pulled sideways,” she says. “He also had on suspenders and those black-and-white spectator shoes. I probably wouldn’t have noticed him, but he kept talking and raising his hand. He asked me, ‘What do you think of my look?’ He was proud of it. So I said, trying to be diplomatic, ‘Maybe you should take off your hat when you’re inside.’ I thought that was a safe tip. But he said no, he can’t do that, because it helps him with his swagga. And then he got up and strutted down the aisle, with hundreds of people watching him. I literally had to bite my tongue because I wasn’t sure if he was being serious.”
According to a 2007 Gallup poll, 43 percent of office workers admit to regularly wearing casual business attire, up from 32 percent in 2002. (Just 9% wear formal business clothing.) And their ideas of how to define “business casual” has become increasingly eccentric. Ask any corporate image consultant and they’ll tell you stories that sound like the punchline to a bad joke. They’ve witnessed office workers with dyed blue hair and exposed “tramp stamp” tattoos, Hawaiian-style muumuus and Little House On the Prairie pioneer dresses, and bosses who aren’t afraid to wear a speedo at an office picnic.
“American society has become so ridiculously casual,” says Clinton Kelly, co-host of the Learning Channel’s What Not to Wear and author of the upcoming book Oh No She Didn’t: The Top 100 Style Mistakes Women Make and How to Avoid Them. It may be an inevitable result of the dearth in positive fashion role models. “People who are outrageous are the ones getting the most attention,” he says. “Kids coming out of college are watching Lady Gaga on YouTube. They don’t understand that Lady Gaga is selling albums and they’re working in accounting. A meat dress doesn’t really fly at the office.”
There are some people, however, who argue that casual dress at the workplace is just a healthy expression of individuality, and the real problem lies with those who get too easily offended. “Flamboyance in dress and behavior makes people nervous, management and rank and file workers alike,” says Jack Tuckner, a New York-based employment attorney. “The uniformity of dress serves the current American business model by pressing individuals into the service of the corporate person at the expense of the individual; a largely paramilitary model that eschews independent thinkers.” He says that companies are not so much afraid of fashion as they are afraid of signs of life, “as it threatens corporate hegemony, which is, after all, the name of the game, regardless of business size.”
Of course, it’s not surprising that Mr. Tuckner would be defending unconventional fashion, considering that in 2008 his former office manager, Lisa Brockington, accused him of (among other things) wearing a “bondage