Sunday, 14 June 2015

The Quasi-Academic Debate: Comfortable Casual or Business Attire at Work

Closet Content Analysis: Casual or Business


The summer inspires us to be more casual in all that we do and most transparently in what we choose to wear. This can create conflict for employees and employers especially when the business calls for a certain degree of formality. I think of banking, insurance, government agencies, medicine/pharmacy and any corporate enterprise that deals with either my well-being or my financial situation. In other words if you are selling me health insurance, you had better not be in flip flops and shorts, even on "casual Friday". I could say, "but that's just me"; however, if I am saying it, there must be others who feel the same way.

In debate protocol, we must start with defining or at least having a basic understanding of what it is we are debating - that is comfortable casual vrs. business attire.

Business is easier to define and so I shall start there. Business for men and women suggests the "suit" although a broader perspective includes blazers and trousers or skirts. Ties for men might be optional but then that crosses the line to "business casual" in the same way as a t-shirt with a blazer rather than a button down shirt would be considered "business casual" but still there remains, the blazer or jacket. Shoes then range from Oxfords to loafers for men and a variety of heel-heights for women. Flats for women are always considered more casual but one's height and activity at work usually determine a woman's choice of footwear.

Comfortable casual is less than business casual. In some cases very much less. It is all relative. In fact an anthropological term, cultural relativism might fit this analysis. In this case, basically what you wear is determined by the values of the culture in which you are wearing it. Therefore if it is normally worn and accepted within a particular culture then it is what it is and should not be considered good or bad by those outside of the particular culture. Sigh. This can get complicated because we are not talking about a particular ethnic or national group but rather sub-cultures/sub-groups within a "business" culture that transcends nationality. 

We need a different analytical term. What comes to mind immediately is appropriateness so therefore "cultural appropriateness" sounds like it might work in analysis. How about, "sub-cultural dress appropriateness in an economic setting"? This then indicates that we are concerned about the acceptability, that which will not offend either administration, co-workers or clients, of clothing worn by members of a particular sub-culture; and sub-culture indicates the group within a larger culture that is specifically economically driven. Another sigh.

Now that the term covers what we want to study, we can get back to debating what is appropriate. "Appropriate" is defined by Merriam-Webster as "right or suited for some purpose or situation". Now, what is "right" and there is where "cultural relativism" comes to bite us again. If it is considered "right" within the group, it may not be considered "right" by those outside the group. So if bank employees all vote, thereby considering it "right" within the group, to wear short shorts, flip flops and bikini tops or muscle shirts on Wednesdays, then our opinion as clients doesn't matter. Ah, but this is where economics comes in. If I choose not to bank at that particular institution then it does affect the economic drive of the company. It is a conundrum but there are social scientists and anthropologists out there who have spent more time studying such things. 

From this blogger's point of view, the best strategy is to look at what the administration is wearing and follow "suit". As an employee you can probably tone it down to more casual attire if the head person is wearing formal business wear; but only a tad. So now, I should define "tad" - never mind. This advice means nothing if the boss comes in blue jeans and a t-shirt but because his or her employees are on the front line, he/she expects more business attire from the staff.

Follow your heart and if all else fails, just ask your boss what the summer standard for sub-cultural dress appropriateness in your particular economic setting is. That'll do it!

Check out what I have written before on this topic:
Summer Office Wear - What is Too Casual?
What is "Comfortable Casual"?
Knee-Length Shorts at Work and Play
Defining Casual Clothing
What Kind of Comfortable?

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