The Origins of Business Casual

Deirdre Clemente’s recent article in The Atlantic argues that business casual originated in Silicon Valley as a bottom-up phenomenon (as opposed to a bottoms-up phenomenon, a very different sort of thing). She writes: 

Cultural change occurs most quickly when it is led by the people, for the people. And in Silicon Valley in the mid-1980s, the people weren’t interested in adhering to old norms.

This is a story that both Silicon Valley and business casual would love to tell. Both claim to be too busy for stuffiness and hierarchy, and instead free their adherents to innovate disruptive game-changing synergies and other buzzwords. The reality of business casual’s invasion of the modern office-place is not so simple.

Let’s start with another article in...The Atlantic (office dress codes have been shifting from suits to biz cas for long enough that a single publication has spent decades covering the same process)This article, by Megan Garber, describes business casual as beginning with Casual Friday, which was very much a top-down affair: 

It started in 1962, in Hawaii, when the state’s Fashion Guild began a campaign to make the Hawaiian shirt—also known as the Aloha shirt—a standard component of the state’s business attire. Hawaii being really hot, and suits there being even more impractical there than they are elsewhere, the campaign was successful. As a result of the effort the guild dubbed “Operation Liberation,” the Hawaiian government soon issued an edict recommending that “the male populace return to ‘aloha attire’ during the summer months for the sake of comfort and in support of the 50th state’s garment industry.”

The idea apparently lay somewhat dormant until the early 1990s, when businesses decided to relax dress codes in order to deliver some low-cost serotonin to their employees:

During the recession, businesses were looking for ways to raise employee morale—without increasing salaries or otherwise spending any money. Some of them began experimenting with a broader interpretation of Aloha Friday, one that, like its Hawaiian counterpart, allowed work to become a little more playful than it might be the rest of the week. The idea quickly spread—so quickly that it led to confusion in some offices.

This confusion was resolved not by emergent process, as the Silicon Valley story would have it, but by corporate marketing:

As companies were adopting “casual Friday,” Levi’s was looking for a way to expand its newly acquired Dockers brand beyond its traditional weekend wear. The company decided to target its signature khakis to office workers who might be searching for a less-than-a-suit-but-more-than-jeans look. In 1992, it sent out an 8-page brochure, helpfully titled “A Guide to Casual Businesswear,” to 25,000 human resource managers across the country. The brochure showcased a series of “business casual” looks—most of them, of course, involving Dockers or Levi’s. 

Clemente seems to be correct that Silicon Valley had given up suits long before the Dockers revolution. But both the timing and the nature of biz casual’s development suggest that it did not spread from Silicon Valley naturally, but rather needed the Levi’s imprimatur. First, there’s the years-long gap between the dressing down of Silicon Valley and the widespread adoption of more casual office dress codes, which both Clemente and Garber date to the mid-90s. Second, Clemente’s article includes a picture of Apple employees in 1988 - they don’t look like what we’d think of today as “business casual.” It’s more jeans, t-shirts, and sneakers than polo and khakis. Something intervened here, and the Levi’s desire to sell more khakis is a plausible culprit. 

Clemente finishes her article with the suggestion that soon enough everyone will wear hoodies to work, perhaps inspired by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. That’s certainly possible. But the only people who know for sure are probably in the Levi’s C-suite.

Quality content, like quality clothing, ages well. This article first appeared on the No Man blog in May 2017.

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