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.