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Obliterating the Dress Code: Redefining Business Casual

I came across an article about some entrepreneur who was looking to disrupt what it means to dress “business casual.” My first thought was: Why does everyone have to disrupt, whatever happened to change or improve? Isn’t Apple’s success — beyond their design aesthetic and savvy promotion — basically a result of making a three-step process a two-step process? The success of the iPod, for instance, was about several little things becoming one big thing: the incremental improvements that can make all the difference.

The staff at WorldatWork scoffs at the mere mention of a "dress code." 

My second thought was: What exactly is business casual these days?

There was a time, very long ago, in a far off… actually, it wasn’t that long ago that business casual meant you were allowed to loosen your tie. Business casual — initially dubbed “Casual Friday” — came to mean fellas in khakis or polo shirts and women in blazers and slacks, rocking a comfortable pair of (not always) sensible shoes.

Years ago, I was involved with a technology trade association on Long Island that wanted to raise the area’s profile as a tech hub. I remember leading a public relations/marketing meeting, looking at all the dark suits around the table, and suggesting we start looking the part. Several years later, I moved to South Florida and, within several weeks of moving, took my first meeting… in a black suit. As I pulled up to the building, I heard live Latin-tinged music; three people from the company greeted me, and mentioned that Gloria Estefan and her band were rehearsing in the studio next door. “We’d be happy to introduce you after our meeting,” they said. I’m thinking: Perfect, I’m here for less than a month, can I possibly meet anyone more South Florida than Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine?

Unfortunately, by the time the meeting ended, Gloria had gone for lunch. “But we can introduce you to her husband and manager, Emilio, a great guy!” Emilio walks out to greet me — beret, sunglasses, shirt opened to his sternum, lots of hardware. We shake hands and he sizes me up and down. “Man, I don’t remember the last time I saw a dude in a suit!” We all laughed — it was funny. And it was the last time I wore a suit in South Florida (other than for formal occasions).

Today, business casual is indistinguishable from what you’d see at a sushi bar, hockey game or, in some extreme cases, a beach club. When people come to work in jerseys, shorts, sandals, tattoos and an assortment of exotic piercings, business casual no longer has any meaning. It is come as you are… or were three hours ago when you washed up from a night out on the town. What is there to disrupt? It’s the equivalent of kicking at an open door.

On one of our “Work in Progress” podcasts, WorldatWork CEO Scott Cawood talked about wanting to create and encourage a work environment where people are free to be themselves. Known for his unconventional fashion choices, Scott mentioned that he dresses as he does to send this very message.

Business casual doesn’t need to be disrupted like razor blades or untucked shirts. It’s not about swapping wing tips for running shoes, but simply wearing what expresses who you are — within reason, of course. I mean, there are days I just want to lounge around in my bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, but if I — or anyone — showed up to the office dressed like that, they should pay the ultimate fashion penalty: coming to work the next day dressed as Karl Lagerfeld.

Charles Epstein Bio Image

Charles Epstein is president and founder of BackBone Inc. Follow him on Twitter. 

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