The title of this article, Cutting Edge Office Wear, is intentional word play. It ties in with the fact that thirty-five years ago, I predicted that there would be a fashion trend of clipped, torn or ripped clothing in the future. Having lived in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1960s and ‘70s, it was not hard for me to imagine an unstoppable, outward radiation from the San Francisco Haight-Ashbury district across the U.S. of hippy lifestyle habits as well as clothing styles. Here in grey are original drawings from 1975 showing future office employees wearing patched and ragged businesswear. Colored drawings are from 1983.
Of course, everyday clothing has been marketed looking faded, pre-worn, and pre-torn for quite a while now. But ripped dresses, sports coats and trousers as office wear, as I predicted decades ago, have not yet shown up on the racks of Macy’s or The Emporium. While office wear has not succumbed to the “torn” trend I feel it is close to succumbing to it. For example, expensive business and evening jackets for young women are now sold with rough edges and fringes.
There are conflicting factors now that affect office wear style trends. The adoption of Casual Friday policies in many companies tended to relax office clothing standards in general, and some high tech companies in Silicon Valley during the High Tech Boom even went so far as to endorse an office apparel policy that could be described as Wear Whatever Is Comfortable. You could basically wear at work what you would wear at home, above and beyond underwear or pajamas.
Yet fear of job loss, which has accelerated rapidly as the ranks of the unemployed has continued to swell, has undercut any feeling of being relaxed at work! Many employees, as described in Barbara Ehrenreich’s excellent book, This Land Is Their Land: Reports from a Divided Nation (2008), remain at jobs that they dislike, in fear of being fired and losing what increasingly matters most in their life – their health benefits.
Thus, some of my old predictions of ever-increasing laxity and casualness in work wear standards may have been halted in their tracks! A new office outfit that morphs sweatpants with formal office wear seems less likely to happen now than it did a few decades ago.
Nonetheless, I still stand by my prediction of the eventual adoption of the office jumpsuit (1983), because of the idea’s extraordinary practicality.
Ideally, the spectrum of acceptable office wear should expand, not contract. Clothing that tends to feel cool and fresh during hot summer weather like cutoffs, short pants, and miniskirts could in theory offer style cues to designers looking for ideas for sophisticated office wear.
It would be nice to think that nothing should prevent the design of imaginative, bold office wear statements by top fashion designers. A frankly whimsical clothing line, As Above-So Below, could be a big seller. Or perhaps not.
Maybe I need to acknowledge that in 2010, American office workers are more often than not hunched down, cowering in fear inside their cubicles, not wishing to stand out. They do not want to even think of making a single mistake on the job, and prefer to toil quietly without upsetting their boss. A frank and bold office clothing style – one that earlier seemed possible at least in my imagination – cannot as easily be pictured today. Plus, since the early 1980s when I designed my As Above-So Below clothing line, numerous humorless and puritanical laws have been passed – for good and understandable reasons -- to deal with sexual harassment problems at the office. An employee would not wish to show up in court to defend him or herself against sexual harassment charges, wearing one of my suits!
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