Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Keeping It Casual?

When I entered the workforce at the turn of this century, my first job was at a major book publishing house. Jeans weren't permitted during the week, but we could wear them on what was known as Casual Friday. A couple of years later I landed a spot at an advertising agency with a relatively conservative dress code. A code, by the way, that was strictly enforced. Forget Fridays, jeans weren't tolerated on any day of the week; much less t-shirts, open-toed shoes, flip flops, or sneakers. Casual Friday wasn't in the company lexicon and violators would be sent home to change-whether you lived in Park Slope or Parsippany.

I'd attended a prep school from grade six through senior year, so I was used to regulated dressing. If a girl's skirt wasn't grazing her knees, she was called into the guidance counselor's office. She would then be given an embarrassingly long skirt from a collection kept in the administrator's office. While we wore ghastly navy uniforms in polyester, we still knew ugly when we saw it. These loaner skirts were akin to something the wife (or wives) of a religious cult leader might wear today. They had been worn so often that the color had faded, clashing with the matching polyester navy vests we also had to wear. It would have behooved the offending girl to have worn the proper skirt to begin with.

With the exception of four years of sartorial freedom at university, most of my life, up to the point of the advertising job, included some by-the-book standard of dress. While the agency was a more creative atmosphere than a law firm or financial institution, it was still very much corporate.

Then came the town hall meeting. When the head of our company retired, the new boss held an assembly where the direction of the company was announced. When the floor was opened for questions, a young man asked (at the top of his lungs) if we'd be allowed to wear jeans. Our new chief said, "I don't see why not."

The flood gates opened wide. Anything that was forbidden before appeared overnight. Grey New Balance trainers seemed to have grown on everyone's feet like moss. And jeans accompanied them beautifully; in particular, the ones of the feline variety with whiskers. Oddly enough, it was the men who favored distressed denim the most. And for those who weren't fond of sneakers, the jeans would inevitably be paired with latter-day Jeromey Rome style dress shoes.

The women were no angels. One art director took the mullet principle of "business on top, party on the bottom" and applied it to her work uniform. The term uniform is used deliberately. She never deviated from her quite tight button down oxford, black mini skirt, and towering black patent stilettos.

With the lax rules in dressing came a Romper Room atmosphere. Scooters became the mode of transport for some, and with that zipping and zooming came louder chatter and outrageous chotckes on desks (myself included). A stock photo house sent us enormous posters of their latest offerings. A coworker took one of Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal and had it lamenated and mounted. I kept it on my desk until I left.

A couple of years later, when I worked in the design department of a contemporary clothing firm, I'd often buy new pieces from our line. While walking to work one morning, I saw a young woman wearing a shirt I'd purchased not too long before. It was definitely a shirt because it was merchandised with the other tops in the flagship store. On this particular day, the coworker, who I had never met before, was wearing it as a dress! It barely covered her cheeks. I'm assuming she stood on the subway ride on the way over.

She accessorized with a chain-link belt in gold and patent heels. I've already got prudish, granny tendencies, but for me, that was over the top. Not too long after that, a twenty-something female stopped by for a job interview. She was wearing what would have been a flesh-colored suit had she not OD'd on the spray tan. The young candidate also wore matching, nude patent platform heels. Her hemline, too, also barely covered her cheeks. The top button of her blazer was unfastened, allowing for a generous amount of cleavage.

When I started Stanton + Williams Style Therapy, I had no intention of consulting corporate clients. I wanted to keep it private; but it was instances like those two that made me reconsider. Nowadays a lot of companies don't have dress codes on the books. And if they do, they're not enforced. It's hard to reprimand someone for dressing inappropriately if they've never been taught. These two young ladies were on the younger side and had probably never worked for companies with a conservative corporate culture.

My message to the employees and the companies isn't, "Don't wear this, wear that." I want people to understand the power of clothing. We form judgments of each other within seconds, solely based on what we're wearing. It's imperative that we know what message we may be sending when we leave our apartments either looking like a hot mess, a fashion victim, or a paid escort. It was Chanel herself who said, "Dress shabbily and they remember the dress. Dress impeccably and they remember the woman."

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