Friday, January 15, 2010

Three Decades of Workplace Fashion

While everyone else is still reminiscing about the good and the bad of the past decade, I thought it would be fun to talk about three (yes, three) decades of fashion in Corporate America.

I’ll go first, starting with the 80’s.

I know what you’re thinking; the 80’s were so boring. Well, yeah, they were. I remember getting memos about what (and wasn’t) appropriate to wear to work that suggested the only appropriate attire for men was white shirts and ties, and women needed to wear skirts. I tried to find a photo of what would become my work ‘uniform’ for the majority of this decade, but alas, I seem to have shredded any evidence that I ever dressed like this, so you will have to bear with me as I describe it to you.

I wore what every aspiring female manager wore – a suit. A boxy-cut, shoulder-padded, totally unflattering, matching skirt suit. Never pants – only skirts, with nude stockings and pumps. I wore these suits with a button down shirt, usually white or pinstripe. Sound awful? The crowning accessory for this glorious outfit was the tie. I had quite a collection of those colorful (so I could express my creativity) silk items that I would tie into a beautiful bow at the neck. Sadly, I wore this every day.

I kept those bow ties for many years in the cedar closet. At first I thought they may come back in style (thank goodness they didn’t), then I thought they might be useful for a craft project (never had time for that). Eventually they made their way to the Salvation Army (so someone else could make a pillow out of them).

When my company started allowing ‘casual Fridays’ later in that decade, I had a big problem. I owned absolutely nothing appropriate for a non-suit workday. I didn’t own a skirt without a suit jacket and I wouldn’t be caught dead in pants at work.

But I got over that very quickly in the 90’s.

I ditched the suits and vowed never to wear stockings and pumps to work again. My ‘uniform’ for the 90’s was uber-casual – khakis and a top in the summer, corduroys and sweaters in the winter. I even wore sandals (with no socks) to work. This was partly because my unit had moved into an area that was previously occupied by a manufacturing division, and there were no carpets on the floor (leather soled shoes were dangerous here), partly because I was a working Mom and had no time to think about what to wear, and partly because no one cared. The memo to managers about dress in that era read something like, “Please remind your employees that cut off shorts and low cut tops are not appropriate.”

And now we move to the 2000’s (have we decided the appropriate term to summarize that era?).

In this decade we were bombarded by fashion advice. Stacey and Clinton from TLC’s What Not to Wear taught us that we can think of suits as separates. The good news was that we learned we could wear black with brown because they are both neutrals. The bad news was that we had to actually think about what to wear.

I reintroduced the suit to my closet again for this era. But this time it was pant suits, with jackets cut shorter and more fitted. I wore wool pants with twinsets, and leather and suede jackets. This was a decade of variety, but I still stayed away from stockings and skirts.

Your turn. What was your least favorite, or most favorite workplace attire in the last three decades? C’mon, I know I’m not the only one who wore those awful bowties…


KarenG said...

Absolute worst for me was the heavy-duty shoulder pads. Being a short woman, they were ridiculous, but I wore them in all my clothes. Because they were there and it never occurred to me to cut the dang things out. I wasn't in corporate America so didn't have to dress like this every day, thankfully.

What struck me about this post was the HUGE difference in required dress in the 80's compared to the 90's. Who would have thought that casual Fridays would have turned into two decades of overly casual, dressing down for work?

Colette said...

Karen - how could I forget about those awful shoulder pads? Yeah, they made those boxy suit jackets even worse!

Janet said...

When I started working in the late 70's, mid-thigh length skirt suits with slits in front and back of the skirt were in style. That sounds conservative until you realize the slits showed your legs every step you took. That was also the days before the term, "sexual harassment", but I quickly learned not to wear those skirts any more from the comments I got from the men!

Janet said...

Sorry, I meant mid-calf length skirts!

Colette said...

Janet, I remember those skirts. I'm guessing it was a man who cam up with that design!

Jo said...

My three decades of work clothes included most of the 70's. I was teaching in the early-mid 70's, and I do remember wearing pants and sweater sets to school most of the time.

When I moved to the corporate world in 1975, I started wearing skirts and sweaters or blouses.. (Yep, I do remember those split skirts.) Corporate work clothes for women were becoming more formal as the decade progressed. I think that pants were still perfectly acceptable in my department.

By the late 70's, I'd moved to a job downtown and suits were becoming de rigeur for women. I did have some of those fairly plain blue/black/grey suits with white shirts and those little bow ties, but I remember wearing dresses as well, and blouses with collars that tied.. Also skirts and sweaters. (This was also the time when women in suits donned running shoes to make the trek to the train after work.)

Then I moved into consulting, and I couldn't imagine not wearing a suit. Actually, I liked wearing suits. It was easy.. I didn't have to think about what skirt might match what top or which jacket. Now, we didn't wear boring shirts in our consulting firm, and we prided ourselves on dressing with more voom than the big 8 consultants with whom we often shared clients.

I remember having a wardrobe of silk blouses of every color of the rainbow. I also had a wardrobe of pumps of every color of the rainbow. I can still remember one of my favorite outfits: A grey suit with a kind of herringbone pattern with a wine silk blouse.. and black heels with some kind of wine leather pattern on them. (Hard to describe those shoes, but they were a lot cuter than my description.) I often wore a silver and pearl pin at the neck of that wine blouse. It's true that all of the suits (and many of the blouses) had those shoulder pads, but I do remember pulling out the big shoulder pads and replacing them with smaller pads. I actually loved wearing those suits with those brightly colored blouses in the 80's.

I was teaching again in the 90's, this time in a small private school, and we wore pants or longer skirts, usually with tights, in the winter, and low heeled shoes. It was purely utiitarian, as whatever we wore was going to get dirty at sometime during the day.

I actually liked the 80's... Big glasses, perms, and boxy suits. Or maybe I just liked being a lot thinner and cuter than I am now.

Thanks for the stroll down memory lane, Colette!

Colette said...

Jo, thanks for sharing your story! Oh yes, perms and big glasses -- how could I forget about those? I agree that it was so much easier to get dressed when the rules were clear!

Anonymous said...

Well as a Male, I suppose I had it easier. Starting my professional career at the very end of the 80's. Dress pants, dress shirt (White suggested, but not mandatory), and tie. The tie was mandatory when entering and leaving the building....and for client visits.

We were off site but often had customers coming into our building. There was a special coded announcement made over the loud speakers to warn us of client visits - where we had time to put our ties back on, and put away our walkmans/portable stereos and such.

I'm glad those days are far behind us.

Colette said...

Anonymous, thanks for sharing! This is the first time I've heard of a rule for wearing a tie for entering and leaving a building. That's a good one!

Anonymous said...

Two vignettes from the '60's:
My first day, having just been discharged from the Navy, my civy wardrobe was a bit skimpy. I showed up with a subtly blue stripped shirt. A new colleague introduced himself and in a whisper suggested that only white shirts were to be worn. When I asked my new manager, he said it was ok, BUT it was clear that although there was no "dress code", what I was wearing was not what was expected. Message received.
About 1969 or 1970, I was in a Regional System Center, an amalgam of market and tech support and eduction center folk. I remember the day that a woman colleague first showed up in a pants suit. Up to this time, this had NEVER been seen. Well there was a lot of murmuring but mostly about the how daring this person had been and speculation on how it might affect her career. Well it didn't at all and within months, pants suits on our women colleagues were quite common.