When dress-down Fridays take over the week

September 21, 1999|By David Boldt

FURTHER evidence that American taste may have deteriorated beyond repair comes from two recent articles in the Wall Street Journal on declining standards of dress in the workplace: "Tight T-shirts, stretch sweaters, bare legs," the Journal reported in a fashion article, "and that's the men."

The larger problem, that story and another suggest, is women. They are now headed for work in clingy sweaters with plunging V-necks, tight shirts, micro-miniskirts and stiletto heels.

The opening example was of a woman making a formal presentation in a tube top. All of which requires further contemplation of that most ponderable of questions facing modern man: What would they wear if they wanted to be regarded as sex objects?

There are any number of possible reasons for this new phase. The Journal article suggests that a year of standing around the office coffee maker discussing what Monica Lewinsky was doing to President Clinton may have created a greater sense of intimacy in the workplace. And, of course, "casual Friday" put the nation on a slippery slope leading to "dress-down summer" and, now, "anything goes."

Stock market swings

Surprisingly, for a financial newspaper, it doesn't note that boom times are often reflected in racy fashions. Hemlines have historically moved up and down with the Dow Jones average.

With the advent of the micro-miniskirt, of course, things had gone about as far as they could go from the bottom up, so there was little choice but to start lowering from the top.

Probably fitting somewhere in the mix is the theory, promulgated in Time magazine last year, that Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan have been replaced as icons for American females by Ally McBeal, the ditsy situation comedy character famous for her scanty attire.

Spice Girls' attire

Technology is also playing a role. Clothing makers have long had Spandex available as a possible weapon, and it was probably only a matter of time before they began using it in clothes for the office -- pants, shirts and tube tops, which Victoria's Secret is pushing as office wear. This is a major change.

After years of careful inspection of catalogs, this writer had discovered that the clothes (other than lingerie) in the Victoria's Secret catalog were basically no different from those in, say, the L.L. Bean catalog. They were probably made in the same Hong Kong factories.

The distinction had been simply that the Victoria's Secret models had more buttons undone. Again, this is not simply a case of women behaving badly. Men are part of the problem, too, and they are being egged on by none other than Brooks Brothers, a store whose motto once could have been, "Shop here and you'll never be dressed like an idiot."

For example, throughout the '60s, Brooks Brothers never had a pair of bell bottoms on its shelves. But it's unclear whether they still deserve that same level of trust.

And a stroll past the Brooks Brothers store discloses, disquietingly enough, a window with a male mannequin whose tie is loosened, another with sleeves slightly rolled up, and a third with two shirt buttons undone. This habit of unbuttoning two buttons has historically been something that women do, and real men do not.

Indeed, this feminine habit has always intrigued me, and I have never been able to get a straightforward admission from a woman that they do it for its obvious seductive appeal. "It's a style," they say, apparently oblivious to the impression created that there must be a tremendous amount of heat being generated down there that simply must be vented. (Not to mention the suggestion that if one extra button is undone, why not more?)

It remains to be seen what effect, if any, this trend toward lewd and lascivious dress will have on the republic. Will it mean, for example, more office-based dalliances, further undermining the already beleaguered institution of marriage? Maybe -- and maybe not.

A husband's lament

P.J. O'Rourke, writing in his recent book "Modern Manners: An Etiquette Book For Rude People," observes that it has long been a rule for women to "look sexy at work or any other time when it is impossible to have sex . . . [and] look unsexy right before bed" when the top priority is "getting your hair ready so you can look sexy at work again tomorrow."

Where will it all end? My guess is that eventually the economy will cool, and that people will at least put their jackets back on.

David Boldt is a Philadelphia Inquirer columnist.

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