A Casual Dress Code is a Lousy Substitute For Time Off

A blurred line between work and leisure hasn’t made made work any more fun — instead, it lets work eat into our free time.

Employers from Goldman Sachs to the Golden Arches have relaxed or abandoned dress codes. Silicon Valley tech employees are famous for their hoodie sweatshirts and grey t-shirts. Sales of neckties and business suits are at all-time lows. Hourly wage jobs that used to enforce a bland, a clean cut middle-American uniformity, now allow staff to wear piercings, beards and tattoos.

Dress codes that allow casual and idiosyncratic clothing might seem to suggest a more relaxed and playful attitude toward work. But they really reflect the expectation that employees spend their nights and weekends working. A distinctive work wardrobe doesn’t make sense if the workday never really ends.

As I point out in my book, Dress Codes, specialized professional clothing developed in the 18th century, just as the work ethic was displacing older values of nobility, display and honor. Before then, elites considered productive work beneath their dignity. Aristocrats wore elaborate, sumptuous, and often cumbersome attire suited to a life of leisure and social display. The business suit emerged from what some have called the Great Masculine Renunciation of opulence. The suit reflected the new political ideals of the Enlightenment: social equality, reason, practicality and industriousness. For the first time, elite men began to wear clothing made for work. (Women were excluded from most jobs and continued to wear cumbersome and essentially decorative attire for another 150 years.)

The suit was designed for a new set of social and economic roles. For the first time, heads of state wore essentially the same attire as merchants, bankers and clerical workers. But there was a sharp distinction between clothing for manual or “blue collar” workers and office or “white collar” workers. There was also different clothing for work and for leisure. For instance, the term “sport jacket” once referred to a jacket designed for hunting, rowing or tennis. Such attire was unacceptable in a professional environment.

Business attire was relatively uncomfortable. In the 19th century it included stiff, detachable collars and heavy, tailored jackets. Many people thought this constraining clothing contributed to rigorous work and rigorous thought. For example, one 19th century commentator insisted that, “buttons, studs, and braces…” were necessary for social order. He claimed that, “a loosening of bonds will gradually impel mankind to sag and droop bodily and spiritually. If laces are unfastened, ties loosened, and buttons banished, the whole structure of modern dress will come undone… society will fall to pieces.” The pundits of the 19th century thought distinctive work attire would safeguard the work ethic. They thought that if people got too comfortable at work they’d feel free to play around on the job.

The real problem turned out to be exactly the opposite. A blurred line between work and leisure hasn't made made work any more fun. It’s let work eat into our free time. At least the working stiff of the past got to take off the business suit and slip into something more comfortable at night and on the weekend. A change of clothes at the end of the work day signaled a change in activities, attitudes and responsibilities. Think of the stereotypical office worker of the 1960s sit-com who ditched the work shoes, suit jacket and coffee mug for a pair of slippers, sweater and martini glass at 5 p.m., sharp.

The forty hour work week was a hard won victory for mid 20th century workers. But now, the 9 to 5 office job has become a 8 am to midnight grind, weekends included. Or worse, it’s a flex time job that doesn’t pay the rent plus a non-stop hustle in the gig economy to make up the difference.

Today, all clothing is work clothing because so many people are always working. Your sportswear has to be your work wear when the boss is always as close as your iphone. After all, that surprise meeting or mandatory extra shift won’t wait for you to go home and change. A starched collar or pair of suspenders looks downright comfortable by comparison.

Professor. Lawyer. Dilettante mixologist. Amateur sartorialist. Watch geek. Author of Dress Codes: how the laws of fashion made history. www.dresscodes.org

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