You are what you wear

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When I was a kid, my dad always wore a suit to the office. As did every other man working in the Treasury Department offices at Toronto City Hall in the 1950’s.

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Male schoolteachers wore suits or a sports jacket – and never, ever, without a tie. If you look at movies and TV shows of that era, what you will see is the preferred businessman look; the ubiquitous grey flannel suit. And that’s the way it was. Whether headed to church on a Sunday or taking in a Leafs’ game at Maple Leaf Gardens on a Saturday night, most men wore a suit and tie, and almost all men wore a hat. Conformity and conservatism was the order of the day.

But times change. And styles, most notably in the workplace, have changed dramatically. Nevertheless when I reached high school in the early-sixties, that strict dress code was still very much in effect and was brought sharply into focus when I landed a part-time job at Simpson’s department store in downtown Toronto. Just one hour into my three-day training period, I was handed the official “Simpson’s Employee Rules & Regulations” handbook. And right there, on page one, was Rule Number One: “All salesmen, while on the sales floor, are expected to wear a suit or sports jacket with dress pants and a clean, freshly laundered, white shirt and tie. No exceptions.”

I was thrilled to have such a well-paying, part-time job – even though my first three months salary would be spent on new clothes. But following the rules to play the game was, quite simply, what all employees had to do.

Nowadays, sales people (when you can find one of these endangered species) are known as “sales associates” – and if they were not sporting their little ID badges they could be easily mistaken for customers. Yes, business casual is the norm these days. Yet it still seems a bit odd to see office staff or salesmen at work in jeans and a polo shirt.

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We have witnessed a gradual evolution of acceptable outfits for the workplace and it has been IT based companies leading the way by saying it’s okay to don your casual gear as your everyday office attire. The thinking seems to be; if you dress up too much, you run the risk of not being taken seriously. It has become almost an unspoken rule in the entrepreneurial culture that your look should appear to be very laid back. And this trend seems to be spreading to the more conservative businesses as well as banks and upscale retail shops are scaling back standards of formality. In fact some dress codes have disappeared altogether.

On a personal note, I like the fact that employees have the option and the freedom in many industries to dress down. But does this mean that dressing up is a thing of the past? And is the gentleman’s suit on the way out? No, not entirely. These changes simply make the suit a little more meaningful since it is now worn only for very special occasions – or if you happen to be an NHL hockey coach.

As we look back a century or so, we realize that fashion is on a never-ending cycle of change. And change (we hope) is most often for the better.

In this case, it suits me just fine.

Terry serves up a little food-for-thought each and every week and welcomes your comments:


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