The Reign of Terror
Something must be done. It has spread like poison ivy at summer camp, engulfing our culture and taking all prisoner. Someone must halt the spread of business-casual attire.You don't see a problem? You feel more like yourself in "relaxed" biz-caz duds? Peek outside your cubicle. Tell me what you see. Besides blurring the crucial barrier between work and personal life, besides plunging the dry-cleaning and hosiery industries into jeopardy, the move to business casual does other damage: It legitimizes and endorses a fatally unimaginative aesthetic. Call it frat reunion. Call it "clothes my wife bought me." Give it any bastard moniker you want, but don't call it style, and don't think it signifies workwear democracy. A polo shirt is no more "neutral" than George W. is "a regular guy."Say what you will about the now near-extinct business suit -- at least it lent dignity to the proceedings. The sartorial line between work and life was respectfully observed. It was assumed that you probably did not wear your suit at home or on weekends. Your unique identity glimmered mysteriously in the small details (a Masonic ring, a daring hairdo, a flash of crimson slip), and you could savor the ceremony of loosening a tie or sliding off stockings at the end of each workday. Since you spend the lion's share of your alert adult hours at work, and you pass those hours in work clothes, your best opportunity to express your personal style is not at Paley's Place, not at Panorama, but, like it or not, at the office.But the supplanting of traditional dress codes with the pernicious biz-caz approach has set adrift any style-minded worker seeking to navigate the sea of twill and spandex. It's enough to make even the hoariest corporate whore cower and cringe. Bare midriffs and shower sandals swim before the eyes in a phantasmagoria of fashion indeterminacy. Business casual is supposed to be the gleaming beacon, a unifying aesthetic everyone can appreciate and share. In other words, it is the new uniform. Me, I'd prefer the suit.The origin of business casual is murky, but it may have started at a 1990 Canadian United Way fundraiser that prompted employees to "pay" (i.e., donate) to dress casually at work. Wherever biz-caz came from, both company management and clothiers have gobbled the concept like a chicken does a junebug (according to a survey conducted by the Levi Strauss Company, nearly 90 percent of employers allow relaxed attire at least one day a week).Biz-caz is designed to embrace professionalism and comfort, to increase productivity and loyalty while putting employees at ease. It is designed to be basic, universal and as neutral as a cube of tofu. But the biz-caz look is little better than a preppie pastiche of pro-shop wear with heavily branded "basics" like Dockers. It isn't you. It isn't anybody really. At least with a suit, your accessories told a whole story. But biz-caz routes us to a predictable clique of mega-retailers who are armed and ready with their natural-fiber response to this soi-disant revolution in work attire.It's also a big scam. In many cases, a biz-caz ensemble costs significantly more than a decent suit (have you priced a pair of khakis at Banana Republic lately?). And if you choose to cut costs by making biz-caz your off-duty apparel as well, you pay to lose the opportunity to draw a line between your work-self and yourself-self. Either way, the company wins. Think about it: This business-casual routine is all a ploy to make employees feel as though the company is giving them something. But unlike raises, promotions, time off or bright, roomy offices, letting employees wear Dockers is free. Considering the feast of fat benefits that employers could offer their hardworking minions, biz-caz is a water biscuit and a cup of decaf.There is hope. My exhortation to the young and employed: Be subversive in your dress. We're not talking patent offense or pornography; let's not lose our daily bread over this one. Just do your bit to create an atmosphere of subtle unease, a single mutinous layer in the strata of sameness. Let 'em know that whatever managerial mumbo-jumbo the boss sprinkles over the biz-caz offering, you won't swallow it wholesale. Some examples I've beheld on our very streets in Portland: a shrieking pink cape over the innocuous Long Dress; an immaculate seersucker suit (on a man well under 70) with gumsoles. Too batty? Then take the preppie uniform to its inevitable Nth degree, and make the same blue polo shirt and khakis your daily raiment, Einstein-style. Resist the imposed skim-milk dilution of your idiosyncrasies, your self, your soul. Wear that dress-code violation as the badge of honor it is. I dare you. I salute you.