For our new BMOC column (page 28), I interviewed Susan Kaiser, a clothing psychologist at the University of California. Actually, she pointed out to me that she's a sociologist not a psychologist, but the important thing is that she has really good advice about what not to wear to work.
Of course engineers have always been fashion leaders-of a sort. After all, you are the ones who pioneered casual Fridays, which quickly extended to everyday casual for almost every company on the planet. Dressing down, says Susan, makes people feel comfortable and is a welcome relief from the stuffy suits of the past (I mean the clothes, not the people in them). As for women, I'm just glad I don't have to wear those floppy things around my neck anymore. The person who lost his clip-on tie, which was turned in at the guard desk at 3M, is probably thankful, too.
Mail order companies like Territory Ahead and L.L. Bean understand this, and have rushed to fill the demand with a range of comfortable, good-looking slacks and shirts. Haggar and GAP are having a field day. Plus, there's less dry cleaning!
But the conversion to business casual has not been all a rosy-colored world of Polo shirts and Dockers. Just ask the suit and tie makers! Seriously, though, according to Susan, many people, and in particular men, haven't really quite figured out what it means to mix and match casual separates in a business context. No kidding.
I don't care what anyone says, reindeer-pattern sweaters just aren't appropriate for any setting outside of a ski lodge in the Alps.
One of the problems with casual, says Susan, is that while something like khakis have simplified the bottom half of the male wardrobe, they have actually forced a steady revision of the top. At least three-piece suits were easy to match. And many workers (let's be honest, many of you), says Susan, "do not always have the experience or the expertise—based on deeply embedded orientations to style and fashion in our culture—to select a casual wardrobe that works." Translation: Women like to shop more.
Today, there are more colors, textures, and styles to choose from—sometimes combined with disastrous consequences.
Particularly when more than two of the above are featured on the same piece of apparel! What to do to avoid fashion-victim status? Here's my advice: Bring someone with an extra X chromosome along the next time you hit the mall.