Business Casual

In Making Room for Leadership, MaryKate Morse tells this story:

In the early eighties, my family and I returned to the United States after working in the Andes Mountains of Peru and Bolivia for several years. It was the end of the summer, and a recession was in full swing. My husband, Randy, applied everywhere for a job, but he couldn’t get one. . . . By December our savings was nearly gone, and we were getting anxious. Randy decided to do something out of character for him–he went out and bought a new, contemporary suit, shelling out a couple hundred dollars in the process. At his next job interview, dressed in his new suit, he was offered the job. We do not think that was coincidental. (p. 103)

Before the age of gender-inclusive language, the saying was, “Clothes make the man.” I used to understand this to mean that the impression people have of you is significantly based on what you wear. That is Morse’s point, and there is a good measure of truth to that.

But when I was in high school I noticed another dimension to this contemporary proverb. I discovered that when I wore a suit, others didn’t just treat me differently. I acted differently. I carried myself more erect (which my mother, who always complained about my slouching, would appreciate). I walked differently–with more purpose. I gestured differently–with more confidence. I talked differently–with a more formal vocabulary. In fact, everything about me seemed to be more formal, as if I’d aged several years just by putting on a coat and tie.

When I mentioned this recently to one friend my age, he thought that sealed the case against casual dress at work. I wasn’t so sure. Yes, professional dress can help us conduct ourselves more professionally. Sloppy dress could possibly induce sloppy work. But perhaps casual is not the same as sloppy. Perhaps neat and casual dress can help us be at once careful in our work and more relational with our coworkers.

I don’t believe how I dress at work has much effect on me now. Probably being a high school nerd, I had a much greater sense of sophistication in a suit than I do now as an adult nerd in a suit. As with most of my colleagues, my Casual Friday has turned into Casual Monday through Friday, as I rarely don a coat and tie in the office.

In tough economic times, dress tends to become more conservative. So we may see that shift in the near future as we saw in the eighties. In any case, in how we dress we will all still be balancing the value of taking ourselves (and being taken) more seriously, with the value of being approachable and relational.