Tom Vitale decided to make a change this summer. He hung up the suit and tie that he's worn to work for two decades, and opted instead for a breezier ensemble: khakis and a sportcoat. At his New York law firm, Mayer Brown, Vitale is a belated arrival on the bandwagon.
Workplace dress codes have been relaxing for decades, as AOL Jobs has reported. If the countercultural currents of the 1960s couldn't beat "the Man," they could at least make him take off his tie clip. And as baby boomers became managers and CEOs, hemlines continued to unravel.
But there was something particular around the turn of the millennium, a kind of Y2K for the cufflink. According to polls conducted by the Society of Human Resource Management, the number of companies that allowed casual dress at least one day a week ballooned from 24 percent in 1992 to 95 percent in 1999, 40 percent of those businesses permitting it every workday.
At the time, some believed it was a symptom, or a cause, of the recession. A 2001 L.A. Times article observing the new trend stated that critics were linking "the laid-back look to an overall lack of professionalism and business acumen."
The Full-Body Effect
But there was a much more enduring change going on than the economic slowdown of the early 2000s. By 2000-2001, almost half of Americans were using email, over a quarter of them every day. This transformed the American workplace. Lawyers like Vitale were no longer meeting with clients so often, since so much could be negotiated remotely.
As Vitale put it: "It's not like you have to pick up your briefcase and run across town to a meeting without knowing about it."
There are also fewer meetings in-house. The law firm Holland & Knight in L.A. just moved into a smaller office space, because it no longer required so much roomy hosting quarters. "There's a lot of video conferencing," said Dee Savage, a senior administrative assistant there. "And you just get the headshot pretty much."
Without the full-body effect, the details of the ensemble became less important. Over the last 15 years, Savage has seen the dress code evolve from business professional to business casual, silk blouses to cotton shirts, pantsuits to capris, ties to no ties. They also have casual Fridays, where lawyers can sport jeans and tennis shoes. And when did that tradition start? Around the year 2000.
"If you don't deal with clients every day and wearing a suit won't change the way your workers do their jobs, why not make the workers feel the most comfortable?" said Amelia Forczak, the marketing manager of HR Solutions Inc., a Chicago-based international human-capital-management consulting firm.
On The Edge With Generation Y
Generation Y, which began entering the workforce in the 2000s, also place a higher premium on self-expression on the job. Over half of this generation has gotten a tattoo, dyed their hair a non-traditional hue or pierced a body part other than an ear lobe. Employers "are going to have to keep a long leash on Generation Y employees or risk losing them altogether," writes Rebecca Huntley in "The World According to Y."
A casual dress code "appeals to college kids more," echoes Savage. "It's to accommodate them."
No industry better accommodated Gen Y than the industry Gen Y had the greatest hand in building: technology. Mark Zuckerberg's notorious loose jeans, hooded sweatshirt, and Adidas slides epitomize the startup slacker chic of Silicon Valley. These kids changed the world from their bedrooms in sweatpants, so who do they need to impress? As Rebecca Dana wrote in The Daily Beast: "Utter disregard for personal style is the new ultimate status symbol."
Dress is still linked to success. Just a different kind of dress.
"Most of us didn't meet with those techies," explained Vitale. "It just affected the legal profession. It started in Silicon Valley and spread outward."
For companies trying to project a "casual confidence" ethos, this made sense. But for businesses working hard to sell themselves, formality remained important.
Frances Gong has witnessed a sartorial evolution over her 22 years at Everett Clay Associates, a Miami-based PR firm: dresses to pantsuits, jackets to nice sweaters, pumps and hose to pumps and no hose.
"PR is such an important industry with regards to image," she said. Everett Clay doesn't see clients in-person as much, she admits. It's more about "the mental attitude."
But even for professions with relaxing standards, old habits can die hard. For Vitale, khakis and a sportcoat were just a summer flirtation, and with the passing of Labor Day weekend, his suit is back off the hanger.
"To be honest, it's easier to dress in a suit everyday, because it's a formula and easier to follow than dressing casually," he said. "And I was never uncomfortable in a suit."
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