SAVAN: The Selling of Casual Day

The recent 100-man march on Wall Street was loud and angry, and, considering the surroundings, the anticorporate chants were brave -- at first blush. "Don't be just a corporate lackey!" the men shouted in unison. "Drop the pants and wear more khakis!" Dressed in dark business suits and whooping up a storm, the uniformly good-looking young men then bent over at the foot of the statue of George Washington at Federal Hall in NYC and stripped to their boxer shorts, hurling their suits into a pile and replacing them with Dockers. "Change the world! Change your pants!" they cried, smirking ever so slightly. "Change the World! Change your pants!" Perhaps this looks like an insidious parody of the '60s, of the very urge to protest and rebel -- for every sign the guys carried that read "Defy Convention!" another gave out Dockers' 800 number -- but it is also a throwback to one of the most successful public relations stunts in history. In 1929, the American Tobacco Company paid a contingent of young beauties to march down Fifth Avenue in the Easter Parade and smoke cigarettes, each wearing a banner labeled "torch of freedom." Up until then, the belief was that the only females who lit up in public were prostitutes -- but from that day on, it became okay for real ladies to get lung cancer with the best of them. To be sure, the Dockers demonstration won't have as dramatic an effect, if only because Dockers is already closing in on its goal: getting companies across the world to relax their dress codes so that employees will buy more "business casual wear," i.e., khakis and other Dockers gear. "Dress-down Fridays" and "Casual Fridays" have infiltrated the office towers of America, while even blue-suited clone enforcers like IBM have relented and allow every day to be a "casual day." (Have you prepared for June 14, National Casual Day?) But what would seem a perfectly natural inclination -- it's uncomfortable wearing suits and pantyhose, especially when you're working longer hours to make up for all your downsized brethren -- can't be left to develop by chance. And so Dockers parent Levi Strauss & Co. spent $8 million for the one-day, worldwide publicity blitz: mock demos similar to Wall Street's took place at stock exchanges in 11 cities in Europe and Asia, while in the U.S., 14.5 million copies of "The Mission," a 16-page, tabloid-sized ad insert, came with the March 22 Wall Street Journal and USA Today. The Mission was stitched with thick threads of the requisite irony. Coy notes pointed out that Dockers "come cuffed and un-cuffed. Depending on how kinky you are." To vilify the old corporate lockstep, fat grumpy men in black suits were photograhed carrying signs that read "I like rules." The insert, the marches, the hipper-than-them attitude are all part of a larger corporate casual wear movement that Levi Strauss has led since the early '90s, with manufacturers like Banana Republic and Eddie Bauer now eager to cash in too. Levi's doesn't claim to have invented the trend, but the world's largest apparel company tracks and exploits it most assiduously. "This industry hasn't had this dramatic a change in decades," says Dan Chew, Levi Strauss & Co. consumer marketing director. "Nine out of 10 U.S. companies now allow casual dress at least occasionally, up 43 percent from three years ago, and one-third allow it every day." The vast majority of human resources managers -- the kind of people who noodle over such things -- believe casual dress improves morale, according to Levi's research. But contrary to myth in some HR circles, no proof exists that dressing down actually increases productivity. No matter -- major bucks are stashed in those pants. Levi's figures that there are "20 million more usages for casual clothing each week than there were three years ago," says Chew. That could translate to about $440 million more that Levi's and its competitors now stand to make from the sale of khakis. And that doesn't even include shirts, dress slacks, and other garments that conform to the new corporate code. (Women office workers have always been able to dress with more variety than men, but they too are contributing to Levi's coffers as they doff their power suits for softer "profiles.") In 1995, Levi Strauss earnings soared 32 percent over the year before, while many traditional tailored clothing makers have seen their sales dive. Even so, Dockers isn't leaving a mere trend to chance. It's advising more than 22,000 corporations -- including half of the Fortune 500, such as Citibank, GE, Pepsico, and Kodak -- on how to dress down; it sends out brochures and videos, stages fashion shows, and makes "casual counselors" available by an 800 number. What kind of casual are the worker bees permitted? Levi's how-to-dress video features minty cool yuppies in muted colors and soft lines -- no boho black dourness or loud ethnic displays here -- while a relaxed but firm female voice-over explains that "casual doesn't mean sloppy." As a dos-and-don'ts list begins to emerge, some bees may feel the tyranny they experienced in junior high. "If you look like you're ready for the beach or a trendy club, you're not ready for the office," the narrator says. Jeans are a sign of freedom! -- as long as they're "not too distressed or washed down. And definitely without holes or frays." (Which should assure a load of new purchases.) "Stay away from novelty finishes as well as tight-fitting jeans." Everything, in fact, should be "spotless and wrinkle-free." Still, Levi's wants us to know that "conservative policies have given way to an atmosphere where individualism is recognized as an integral part of the new corporate structure. It's the new professionalism -- innovative, practical, empowering." Whenever those in power utter words like "individualism" and "empowering," check for your wallet. In fact, the very phrases "Dress Down Friday" or "Casual Day" sound like some German locution stumbling into English. Which in a way the whole thing is: an uptight dress code translated into a looser one, but code nevertheless. Maybe I'm not appreciating the freedom felt by those who can suddenly take off the ties, if even for a day. Those few of us who work at corporations where you can wear plastic bags if you want (though no one does) are living in a fantasy. And even a Martha Stewart-office look is better than the evil '80s push to dress in power pumps and Armani jackets. But be it suit or sackcloth, you're still dressed by the company. And if dressing casual is so clearly an expression of individualism, why does one corporation need another one to draw up its guidelines in the first place? Why not just announce that no one has to wear suits anymore? It works -- in 1991 Office Depot went informal. "All we did was put up a notice on the bulletin board and say, 'Come casual,"' a spokesman says. But Levi Strauss says that most companies are too nervous about people showing up in big shorts or sweats. Maybe they also need a sense of permission. When these companies receive Levi's brochure, with its list of newly casualized players like Allstate and Clorox, it allows them to feel part of the acceptable crowd that touts individualism. As for the origins of "corporate casual," Chew says, "It started in Silicon Valley, we think, in the early 1980s. Baby boomers who grew up in jeans and are now in management drove it further as they asked, 'Why can't we be comfortable?' And as this reengineering and downsizing mania hit corporate America, the benefit became more obvious as something companies could offer their employees that doesn't cost a cent." Business casual is clearly a painless way to make the troops happy; it's a nod, empty though it may be, to entrepreneurship -- we trust you to design your own personal space and carve out your own future, etc., etc. It tries to put over corporate-sponsored freedom as the real thing, and emits vaguely pro-worker sounds, while never acknowledging the risky concept of unions. It's all enough to make you say, A pox on both their fashion houses -- and demand uniforms not only in schools but in offices. Whether dictated by Dockers or Details, all publicwear is a uniform anyway, going through some approval process by institution or a colleague's sneer. Imagine the relief from fashion fascism and cruel wardrobe expenses. If only President Clinton and Hillary were to start appearing in the new workaday uniform, wouldn't we all feel a freedom that corporate America is now only teasing us with? SIDEBAR: A Casual Look at Casualization The real casualization of America began independently of corporate pharaohs. Sweat clothes and workout suits have been the preferred suburban uniform since at least the mid '70s, when mall-shopping housewives and Sunday lawn-mowing dads began their appointed rounds in roomy, unisex leisure wear that hid a multitude of sins. When I first saw middle-aged couples wearing pajama-like outfits on airplanes -- a place you used to get dressed up for -- I actually thought, "What is this country coming to?" I thought that again when, in the late '80s, I noticed my own father, who once believed blue jeans meant juvenile delinquency, wear them to teach college classes. Then more men, hyper regular guys like George Bush and George Steinbrenner, started showing up on TV in windbreakers and big, bold getups with lightning bolt-like lines. The look indicated something between stadium and mall, athlete and Reagan Democrat. Cheery and beery, this '80s masswear has become the all-American Maoist outfit. Later came the rise of the wild, colorful men's tie, worn not only by ponytailed Silicon Alley types, but by Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich -- anyone could find "freedom" in playful ties. It was disgusting. And it is only made worse by the current demonization of "the suits" -- often by guys making "suits" income. Then at some point I noticed myself wearing only sweatpants and T-shirts within a one-mile radius of my home -- I wanted to wear them to the office too. And though I surely may, I dare not. I need a program, I need permission, reinforced by guidelines and video role models, to help me find the courage. It's all part of the culture's inexorable fall into infantilism: We want to wear toddler clothes not just because they're more comfortable, but because they comfort us. I'm sure there's a deeper sociohistorical exegesis to be pulled from all this, but I'm feelin' too casual for that now. -- Leslie Savan


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