Art & Commerce: Consumer Republic

‘Dressing down’ is just the new form of moving up
It is easy to be cynical about the decision of Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft, the old-line international Wall Street law firm, to change its dress code to year-round casual. A lot of traditional service businesses are going casual, afraid of appearing like old fogeys in an age of dressed-down baby entrepreneurs.
But the clever lawyers at Cadwalader, whose very name raises clouds of Victorian fustiness, managed to turn this act of reverse conformity into a rebranding stunt. Having struck a “groundbreaking alliance” with Polo Ralph Lauren, Esquire, Career Gear and Dress for Success New York in late March, the firm staged a giveaway of “gently worn suits” and accessories to the less fortunate. No sense letting that fine English wool and exquisite Italian tailoring molder in a California Closet.
As Marie Antoinette might say, let them wear three-pieces! Apparently, none of the seven-figure partners at Cadwalader grasped the irony of suggesting the upwardly mobile hopeful should wear the monkey suits and silk nooses they just cast off as stuffy and unproductive.
I am sure Career Gear and Dress for Success, which are distributing this haul of pricey threads to the deserving poor, are well-meaning. But the bottom line of this act of charity is to turn formal business attire into a hazing ritual, an initiation rite that low-income aspirants have to endure to earn a crack at power, money and dress khakis.
A suit used to say you were a member of the white-collar, professional elite. Now it shows you’re not. The moral of the “Casual-walader Day,” as the press release unfortunately dubbed it, is that the real suits are the guys who don’t have to wear them.
Rest assured, it’s all for the good of the business. “Dressing down,” avers Cadwalader managing partner Robert Link, “is more comfortable, more friendly, even more efficient.” A lot of people agree with him. A recent Zogby poll reports that a healthy
61 percent of people queried think casual attire has a positive effect on productivity. A cashmere sweater and loafers shall not only set you free, they contribute to the bottom line.
But the odd thing about casual dressing is there is nothing particularly casual about it. Doing it right requires more thought, and it puts a higher premium on taste than buying a four-figure suit, which only requires money. “There’s a level of sophistication that you still need,” says Scott Omelianuk, executive editor of Esquire. Attaining it involves far more complicated decisions than choosing between the pin stripe and the three-piece gray.
You can almost see Omelianuk and his colleagues rubbing their hands together in glee as they point to the many pitfalls and gaffes awaiting the inexperienced, uninformed slobs who don’t read their magazines–yet. Nor is it lost on retailers that the fashion wheel of casual clothing spins much faster than the tradition-bound suit business, introducing legions of men to the feminine joys of built-in wardrobe obsolescence.
My husband, for example, always bought his own suits. Now that his job not only allows but requires that he dress casually, this once-confident suit shopper regularly appears in the morning to ask doubtfully, “Does this look OK together?”
That’s the great thing about a suit: It always goes together. This is just one of the virtues of the suit-and-tie uniform, which deserves a farewell salute as it goes the way of the fedora, company loyalty and the 9-to-5 job. To use a currently fashionable term, uniforms are simplifiers. Except for the tie, I’ve often envied men this simple choice as I struggled to decide what to wear.
And while Cadwalader lawyers say casual dressing breaks down the barriers between the firm’s partners and associates, this seems counter-intuitive. Unless you leave the price tag on the sleeve, a suit is a suit is a suit–no matter who wears it. It is a social leveler.
Maybe sitting around the conference table in Brooks Brothers pullovers fools these guys into thinking they’re attending a barbecue rather than working in a highly hierarchical corporation. Casual dress codes join faxes, computers, cell phones and wireless Palm Pilots as another way to blur the line between work and leisure. Even napping, the delight of weekend afternoons, is now sanctioned in some workplaces, with companies providing special rooms for workers to take a productivity-enhancing snooze.
Once getting home from work meant an ambitious guy could take off his tie and relaxed. Today, he doesn’t have a tie. But he doesn’t get the evening off, either. K