Cargo Pants or Sweats?

Gender at Work, Modern Work

I recently met up with a former colleague for coffee on a weekday afternoon. We both showed up in olive green cargo pants. He said his meetings are divided up into those that require cargo pants and those where he can wear sweats.

I was never a fan of business casual, if for no other reason than the fact I had a lot of money invested in suits. But it’s more than that. Men can always revert to an oxford button down shirt and khakis. However, there is no go-to business casual uniform for women, just a potential minefield of bad judgment.

Most people probably don’t remember when they first heard of this sartorial revolution, but I remember it vividly. I was working on the national PR team at Ernst & Young in New York. I volunteered to work through the holiday lull that comes between Christmas and New Years: no breaking news, a good chance to clean out the files, and a few long lunches scattered along the way.

I got a call that week from a reporter at the Associated Press. She said she heard from a friend back home in California that an accountant showed up at a holiday party bragging that he had just thrown out all of his ties. He said the firm had abolished business attire.

Since we had heard no such thing at the mother ship, I assumed her friend had gotten the story sideways. But I said I’d look into it. I called the managing partner in California, who was based in the Silicon Valley, and he said, that for his offices they had indeed gone to business casual.

Doing corporate PR you learn quickly that the most important audience is not your customers, it is your fellow-employees. An AP story would mean that many of the partners and staff would first learn about the new regime from their local media rather than through internal channels. Good news or bad, accountants don’t like to be caught off-guard. The story ran, and I spent the rest of the week fielding calls from irritable partners from around the country.

Flash forward, and I’m a Silicon Valley veteran with one closet full of suits for the three or four times a year I go to conferences frequented by investment bankers and another full of Gap T-shirts and jeans and khakis (not to mention the cargo pants).

But dressing down has not brought with it an egalitarian utopia. Every culture develops non-verbal cues that denote status or rank. In New York both men and women were very fashion conscious even when dressed down. In California no one knows ‘who’ you are wearing, but they all know what kind of car you drive.

Since the Millennials are eschewing luxury cars for plug-in hybrids, electronic gadgets have become the totem used to identify your tribe mates in the Valley. The Tesla provides a throw-back opportunity for my car-oriented generation to appear both relevant and high-status.

But for those of us a bit farther down the food chain, for now I know that my tribe is wearing olive cargo pants.


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