True, those first few dress-down days were intoxicating. Freed from our wretched noose-ties and pin-striped armor, we became blithe spirits in the boardroom, congenial colleagues at the office.
We could stand for hours at the copier in flat loafers, free from the nagging desire to slip out of our absolutely correct but absolutely uncomfortable high heels. We could experience an entire day emancipated from the chafing shirt collar. Our jackets didn't pull, our arms were no longer pinned to our sides like insect specimens in someone's collection. We could spread our toes in our Tevas, express our individuality with batik vests, dispense, neatly, with elaborate wardrobe planning and strange maneuverings at the dry cleaners. We could wear whatever was clean and unwrinkled, with nary another worry. We had been liberated.
But now the marketplace has discovered dress-down Fridays, and the concept hasn't been the same since.
Suddenly, sadly perhaps, dressing casual has become a burden, not a joy, no longer as simple as pulling something presentable and comfortable out of the closet.
If we are to believe the catalogs stuffed in our mailboxes, the perfectly dressed casual employee has got to be relaxed yet professional, professional yet stylish, stylish yet not too trend-conscious.
Brooks Brothers would have us don its "Friday" shirts and the loose unconstructed suits that are part of its new "Soft Classics" line, devoted to the dress-down concept. Eddie Bauer would have us slip on the linen banded collar shirts and silk tweed jackets offered at its new AKA Eddie Bauer stores geared toward casual office wear. The Gap, J. Crew and Banana Republic might have us wiggle out of our jeans and into the khaki and linen pants they are pushing in an effort to lure the dress-down consumer.
Kathy Hazzard, manager of work and family programs at John Hancock in Boston, prizes dress-down day as her weekly vacation from suits, sheer stockings and heels. On a recent Friday, she was resplendent in her blue blazer, drapey blue-and-white striped pants and flats. But still, she admits, "initially, a number of us didn't feel like we had the appropriate wardrobes. One of us said we'd have to go over to the second floor of Talbots!"
Dressing up for dress-down day? What happened to the day's original sweet simplicity?
Some will tell you that the complications would not exist if Americans had a better sense of style, expanding their idea of casual wear beyond denim and into a "European" approach to dressing. Others have less philosophical explanations for the muddle that dress-down day has become.
"There's a lot of money to be made there," says Peter Swadell, president of Bagir International, a menswear company that has just introduced a new line of clothing called "Easy Friday." "A man has to buy a suit," he explains. "He won't give it up. But now you can talk him into khakis, a nice jacket to go with it, a nice shirt with a new-banded collar. Before, he only bought the suit."
Now that retailers have discovered dress-down day's money-making potential, a whole new classification of clothing has arisen called "business casual." Such companies as Bagir, Haggar Clothing Co., Eddie Bauer and Brooks Brothers developed new business casual lines, and department stores such as Bloomingdale's have started ad campaigns geared to the consumer looking to buy something special for Friday.
Sportswear stores such as J. Crew, The Gap and Banana Republic have been dressing their clothes up, offering crisp linen jackets and more unstructured blazers that would look just fine behind a desk. Wolverine Worldwide Inc., maker of Hush Puppies shoes, has produced an instructive video on casual dress for confused office workers.
To be sure, there are few retailers or manufacturers being left out of the dress-down trend.
With their rush to exploit the national relaxed mood, retailers seem to have changed the very concept of casual wear, insistent that dress-down day should have a dress code with rules and standards all its own.
* Rule No. 1: According to retailers, casual business dress is not casual sportswear or casual weekend wear.
"We're not talking about people coming into the office as if they're going on a picnic," says Skip Cuddy, wardrobe consultant at Louis, Boston. "Those are play clothes, not work clothes."
* Rule No. 2: There is no one solution to dressing casually. Casual business wear falls along a continuum depending on whether you work in a crusty and very formal law firm or a breezy and very informal computer software company. Eddie Bauer has gone so far as to classify casual looks into "four degrees" of casual, based on the business environment, including more relaxed "business dress," "informal dress," "relaxed casual" and "Saturday casual."
* Rule No. 3: Casual dress changes depending on whether you're a vice president or a secretary. The difference, let's say, between casual classic and casual funky.