Dress Down Nightmare revisited

Laurie Ruettiman has written an humourous post about dress codes and casual Fridays. It’s a perennial issue which is both a source of humour and of stress in many workplaces.

I was working in the City when dress-down Fridays came in. The response was mixed. Banks, accountancy firms and insurance companies are fairly traditional environments and many people were cautious about dressing down. But once they had decided to go for it, usually after someone more senior had pitched up to the office in casual dress, all sartorial standards seemed to disappear over night.

Harry Enfield’s Tim Nice-But-Dim character, with his rugby shirt, gold-buttoned blazer, jeans and brown loafers, reflected the dress-down uniform seen on many City tube stations on a Friday.


When they initiated the policies, senior managers no-doubt had images of people coming into work dressed in the sort of designer casual clothes seen in the fashion magazines or the Sunday supplements. Instead, people took dress down literally and came in wearing what they liked.

Casual Fridays were meant to make the workplace more relaxed and creative but most managers baulked when people began to arrive at the office looking as if they had come straight off the beach. At this point, the term Business Casual was invented, as companies attempted to regain control of their corporate image by dictating just what was acceptable dress in the workplace.

Now to many people, Business Casual is a contradiction in terms. What it amounts to is yet another work uniform. I remember having to go out and buy lots of new clothes just for dress-down Fridays and corporate away days. People began to turn up in jackets and trousers that they wouldn’t wear in in the pub at the weekend, or for a normal business meeting – unless they were working in Belgium. For this reason, over time casual dress days evolved into simply wearing a suit and business shirt without a tie, which now seems to have become the new uniform in much of the City of London.

At the time, though, columnists, usually female, told us that the reason we couldn’t do dress down Fridays was because the British were useless with clothes. The French, Germans, Americans and, well, just about everybody else on Earth had more sartorial flair than the British male. I never actually saw an article comparing us unfavourably with the Iranians but I would not be surprised if there had been one. We were told that foregners dressed with panache even on their days off, which was why casual days were no problem for them. Only the British, apparently, reverted to scruffy or ill-matched attire at weekends.

But Laurie Ruettiman, female and American, blows that theory right out of the water. They have problems with dress-down days over there too. Her story shows the classic trajectory of a dress down policy from its initial anything-goes idealism, through the resulting fashion chaos to the eventual reassertion of managerial control.

I particularly liked this bit:

Week 14 – Memo No. 6

  • The Casual Day Task Force has now completed a 30-page manual entitled “Relaxing Dress Without Relaxing Company Standards.” A copy has been distributed to every employee. Please review the chapter “You Are What You Wear” and consult the “home casual” versus “business casual” checklist before leaving for work each Friday. If you have doubts about the appropriateness of an item of clothing, contact your CDTF representative before 7 a.m. on Friday.

And then the predictable end:

Week 20 – Memo No. 8

  • Due to budget cuts in the HR Department we are no longer able to effectively support or manage Casual Day. Casual Day will be discontinued, effective immediately.

Which was the fate of many dress-down schemes.

British firms seems to have declared an uneasy truce over casual dress codes. Most have gone back to suits, certainly for business meetings, although ties seem to be disappearing. Fridays are, perhaps, slightly more casual but that usually takes the form of slightly more casual trousers and business shirts, rather than jeans. These days, Tim Nice-But-Dim would probably be sent to an image consultant if he turned up to work in his rugby shirt and jeans.

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1 Response to Dress Down Nightmare revisited

  1. our policy has eroded to “undefined uncertainty” MJScles

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