Casual Friday – How Smart Is It Really?

Casual Friday – How Smart Is It Really?

 Walk around any business district and you don’t see many men in suits and ties anymore – it’s certainly not like “Mad Men” out there. What began as “Casual Friday” has become the workweek norm, with button-down shirts and khaki slacks the closest thing to a work uniform. If you take causal work attire for granted, chances are you’re relatively young. But as rigid dress codes continue receding into the past, we might ask how the trend started and if it’s necessarily a smart move.

The history of “Causal Friday” is a distinctly American phenomenon. In 1966 the Hawaiian garment industry conceived “Aloha Friday” as a marketing campaign that encouraged Hawaiian businesses to allow employees to wear Hawaiian shirts to work one day of the week. The marketing ploy took off and soon became a cultural statement about Hawaiian lifestyle. However, it really wasn’t until the early 90s that mainland America would adapt casual attire in the workplace. Being a period of economic recession, many budget-strapped companies started Casual Fridays as a perk to help equally strapped employees feel more at ease. In 1992 the Alcoa aluminum company held a two-week casual-wear policy as a fundraising effort for the United Way. The drive broke all fundraising records and Alcoa never returned to formal office wear. Three years later, IBM also moved to everyday casual work attire.

Because many men weren’t sure what to replace suits and ties with, in 1992 a new Levi’s brand called “Dockers” printed an eight-page brochure called “A Guide to Casual Businesswear,” sending it to 25,000 human resource managers across the country. The Guide’s suggested attire included button-down shirts, loafers and – surprise - Dockers! A new workday casual uniform was born, and granted, it was a welcomed safeguard against Hawaiian shirts. Believe it or not, the Dockers movement was considered revolutionary. It helped traditional companies like Ford and IBM make a move to casual attire that was still safe. It also helped save the Levi’s brand by moving jean-wearing baby boomers into khakis. All across the work landscape, there’s been no going back since. Even many law firms, once a bastion of formal business attire, have become relatively casual. And business tycoon Richard Branson has gone so far as to say that suits and ties “no longer serve any useful purpose.”

Today, baby boomers (who actually lived through the “Mad Men” years) are still most likely to view suit and tie as serious work attire. Is this just residual conditioning from the pre-Docker years? Or is there perhaps something more to the notion? Recent studies in social psychology and personality science found that people actually tend to think more creatively when they are more formally dressed. This is not entirely new. Famed 19th-century Harvard psychologist William James believed that, next to your physical body and your family relations, the clothes you wear are the biggest influence on your self-concept. Indeed modern research shows that clothes influence our self-perception, and notably, that people who feel dressed up are more likely to think of themselves as competent and rational. Those who dress casually, meanwhile, think of themselves as, well, more casual. Further, researchers from Columbia University and California State University, Northridge, have conducted experiments suggesting that clothes don’t simply influence the way we think about ourselves, but also the way we think. Specifically, people who feel more formally dressed are more prone to abstract thinking. This could have to do with the sense of being taken out of the familiar – the “casual” – and put into a kind of heightened state. Put that in your casual pipe and smoke it.  

So when Friday comes around, think again before reaching for those khakis. Think “Smart Friday.” Especially if you’re in a management position, dress a step above up above the casual policy - even during summer. If you’re in a position where it’s acceptable to wear jeans, choose dark colored ones that look good with a jacket and/or shirt and tie. If you’re serious about your career, try dispelling with the casual default altogether. Not only will people notice that you look smart; they are more likely to notice that you are smart.