Long gone are the days when men had fashion rules and followed them faithfully

DRESSING DOWN

February 20, 1997|By Kevin Cowherd

You got to know the rules before you break 'em. Otherwise it's no fun.

-- "Sonny" Crockett in "Miami Vice" Once upon a time, men with class knew the rules about how to dress.

You wore a gray or dark blue suit to the office. You wore a gray suit to weddings. You wore a dark blue suit to funerals.

If you were just hacking around the house, you wore a sweater and khaki pants, unless you were Ward Cleaver, in which case you wore a white shirt and dark tie even if you were digging up a sewer line, or unless you were Ricky Ricardo, who always seemed to be lounging in a silk bathrobe, even if his next move was bringing snow tires up from the basement.

But now the rules have changed.

More specifically, there are no rules. An incredible sense of anarchy seems to pervade the world of men's clothing these days, with the result that many men are feeling lost, unsettled, faced with a bewildering array of choices when, dammit, they don't want so many choices.

Quick, what does a man wear to jury duty today?

To a teacher friend's retirement party?

To an awards banquet at a country club, a function billed as semiformal? (Years ago, formal meant white tie and tails or a tuxedo, semiformal meant a suit and tie. Now, to some, formal means a suit and tie, semiformal means a sport coat and tie, informal means ... aw, hell, who knows?)

The point is, if you're a guy, good luck finding any guidelines.

Been on an airplane lately? Thirty years ago, traveling by air was considered a big deal.

People wore their Sunday best, had their hair done, shined their shoes until you could angle them to the sun and flash Morse code.

Now people routinely board flights dressed in Bud Light T-shirts, running shorts and sandals.

The only thing missing is a volleyball net strung between the aisles.

The term Sunday best has no relevance anymore, because people no longer wear their best clothes on Sundays.

Sometimes they don't even wear their second- or third-best clothes, as a glimpse into almost any church service would confirm.

John Cheever, in his 1969 novel "Bullet Park," sensed the demise of Sunday-best dressing when he wrote:

"He changed out of the business suit he wore to church into work clothes. He had once suggested to the vestry that early communicants be encouraged to attend church in the sports and work clothing most of them wore on Sunday, but Father Ransome had countered by asking if he would be expected to serve the sacraments in tennis shorts."

These days, Father Ransome would probably still be found in his vestments at the altar.

But his parishioners might be lining up for Communion in Speedos, never mind tennis shorts.

Nowhere is the confusion in menswear more pronounced than in the world of business, where the buzzwords now are "casual dress."

On the face of it, casual dressing sounds like just the ticket for a big, faceless corporation whose stressed-out employees sit day after 12-hour-day in their silent gray cubicles, tip-tapping their keyboards and answering the quiet chirp of their phones while working on their duodenal ulcers and worrying when the next round of layoffs will hit.

In their book "Work Clothes: Casual Dress for Serious Work," authors Kim Johnson Gross and Jeff Stone write: "It may have taken many years, but workplace policy setters have finally realized that feeling at ease (in one's clothes) boosts the morale of an overburdened staff. It frees us to think more clearly ... we're infinitely more amenable to laboring into the wee hours.

"Beyond comfort, the eased-up mode of dress is less hierarchical. A cashmere sweater not only feels good, but it also feels a bit friendlier than flannel pinstripes."

Fine, fine, we'd all agree with that. But like everything else, when it comes to casual dress in the workplace, the devil is in the details.

Most big corporations (where uptight is the preferred state of mind in the rarefied atmosphere of the boardroom) seem comfortable with a policy that allows casual dressing only on Fridays -- and sometimes only on Fridays during the summer.

Other businesses have reluctantly implemented a casual dress-policy five days per week, and are now keeping their fingers crossed that half the sales force does not show up for work looking like the roadies for Guns N' Roses.

Something like that happened with the people who work for the city of Newark, N.J., according to "Work Clothes."

Their boss rolled back the relaxed dress policy when too many employees thought casual meant ragged shorts and revealing halter tops.

Which brings us to the real dilemma men face in the casual-dress workplace: Just how casual is casual?

Here is the nightmare of every guy who's ever drawn a paycheck in corporate America:

A notice on the office bulletin board cheerfully announces the implementation of "Casual Dress Fridays" at your company.

"I'm on board with that," says your boss, whom you have never, ever seen without a somber pin-striped suit, muted pattern tie and black wingtips. "It's time we loosen up a little around here."

Cool, you think.

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