Denim, the evil fabric

Beware the Evil Denim

I often find myself in a daydream, pondering the absurdities of life. The power of curse words is a favorite. The banning of books another. Today I’m thinking about denim and why it has long been considered an evil fabric capable of ruining sales, toppling corporations, and bringing economic collapse to a nation.

First, a disclaimer. I love denim. Love it. It can be dressed up, down, all around. It comes in different colors and cuts. It’s comfortable. You put on a pair of jeans and forget about it. There’s no fussing and fixing and adjusting. It’s easy and leaves you free to concentrate on the important stuff in life.

Unfortunately, someone long ago decided denim was not an acceptable fabric for the workplace. The suit would be the standard business attire. Pin stripes, single breasted, double breasted…the styles have changed, but the suit remains in wool, silk, and blends. Men would be taken seriously only if they wore a strip of material from their necks that flapped in the wind and smacked them in the face or dipped into their soup at power lunches. Don’t tell me the inventor of the tie wasn’t a man with a hang-up about his extreme “outie” belly button that showed through a thin dress shirt and needed covering up.

One of my early employers was an oddball on many levels, but the height of his eccentricity was his insistence on a stringent dress code at work. On my first day, I was handed the book “Dress for Success” by my immediate supervisor who rolled her eyes and nodded in the direction of the head honcho’s office. Never mind that it was 1990 and the copyright date of that edition was 1977. I flipped through it and felt a shiver crawl up my spine. Skirted suits that fell below the knee with front kick pleats and polyester shirts with long strands of fabric at the neck to be tied in foofy bows. Sensible pumps. Calgon, take me away.

At least my supervisor was in her 50s and probably had some of that stuff in the back of her closet. But I was 12 in 1977. For me, it would require a trip to a vintage store. When I arrived home that first day, I immediately called Mom, who is a conjurer of department store finds and she set me up with a bunch of ugly stuff my grandmother wouldn’t wear but would please the wretched retro police.

Future jobs were similar in their insistence on no denim, but at least allowed you to wear suits that were fashionable at the time. I could never understand the tunnel vision on this issue. It seemed to be oddly focused on fabric and not about the resulting image. So you ended up many times with employees who wore suits but looked like hell. Like the guy in the suit that fit him 50 pounds ago, the pants worn low-rise by necessity, right around his groin, with a barrel of a belly tumbling over. Yellow rings around his collar and splashes of something, yesterday’s lunch maybe, on his greying white shirt. Buttons popped and not replaced. Is someone dressed in crisp, clean denim worse than this guy?

I understand the need for restrictions in work attire, even if just for the mental health of the people in the vicinity of the offending employee. I once worked for a company that had a summer casual dress policy until one of the guys went and ruined it for the rest of us. He was reprimanded for the shortness of his shorts. I’ll admit it was scary. I think it was just such an occasion that the expression “waiting for the ball to drop” was invented. Productivity decreased as employees took to gambling on the outcome. Cards with L or R were cast and bets were taken. At around the same time, there was a squirrel infestation at the office. They’d scurry around his feet waiting for…Yeah, I know, ewwwww. But it’s a true story. Well, except for the squirrels…and the gambling.

Some companies have begun to relax, especially as denim has become more sophisticated in dark washes and trouser cuts. But there are still some that forbid the evil fabric. Just another one of life’s absurdities.

[Special thanks to Carl D’Agostino for providing the following cartoon. You can check out his other work at I Know I Made You Smile.]

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40 Comments

  1. Blockader said,

    January 15, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    If I showed to work in skirted suits that fell below the knee with front kick pleats and polyester shirts with long strands of fabric at the neck to be tied in foofy bows, they would quickly institute a dress code to ensure that could never happen again.

  2. January 15, 2011 at 2:53 pm

    Thanks for the smile! Loved the squirrels! :)

  3. Roberto said,

    January 15, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    I have several thoughts –
    a) When did you EVER see me in a suit??? You describe me perfectly “Like the guy in the suit that fit him 50 pounds ago, the pants worn low-rise by necessity, right around his groin, with a barrel of a belly tumbling over.” Did we ever work together???
    b) What was so wrong with the 1977 styles?? Polyester was my life!!! I hope it comes back real soon!
    c) And this, more an inquiry than a thought: Which one did eventually fall first???
    c) As a nudist, I find this whole discussion of clothing irrelevant, really. As long as a company has a good heating system, nudity should be the rule.

    • January 15, 2011 at 3:07 pm

      As I was writing this blog I became curious about the biodegradability of polyester and did a google search: Is polyester biodegradable? Some joker on wiki.answers had already posted an answer to this question: “yes it is but interestingly only when added to urine.”

      When it comes back, don’t buy it. Visit your local landfill.

      • Roberto said,

        January 15, 2011 at 3:11 pm

        Well – it WAS the ’70’s – things happened, you know!!

  4. huffygirl said,

    January 15, 2011 at 3:13 pm

    Margaret, I love the part about “Men would be taken seriously only if they wore a strip of material from their necks that flapped in the wind and smacked them in the face or dipped into their soup at power lunches” – something I’ve often thought but have never been able to put so succinctly into words. Thanks for the laugh!

    • January 15, 2011 at 3:19 pm

      You’re welcome, Huffygirl. I worked at another company where the boss didn’t like a guy’s tie and took scissors out of his drawer in the middle of a meeting and snipped it off. Hmmmm, I’m starting to see a pattern here in my past employment.

  5. January 15, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    Levis. The pants that conquered the American West and the choice of Rodeo Champions everywhere.

    • January 15, 2011 at 3:43 pm

      Carl, you came to mind after I finished writing and was looking for a graphic. Could have used one of your cartoons.

      • January 15, 2011 at 4:23 pm

        Gimme a topic and a few days and I send one anytime! Thanks for the compliment.

  6. Richard said,

    January 15, 2011 at 4:03 pm

    I hate ties. They are the single most pointless item of clothing devised by man, and a ridiculous holdover from more conservative times, invented to hide the buttons on your shirt. They get in the way, just as you describe, and piss me off no end. Which is why I don’t wear one unless I absolutely have to.

    As for denim, I love it. But only in black. I’m proud to say that I have attended several interviews in black denim and got the job almost every time. I’m not saying there’s a connection, but I either bring up this point or start talking about my balls. :-)

    Great post!

    • January 15, 2011 at 5:42 pm

      Hmmm, I’m thinking the glare from the shaved head blinded them to the denim. And here I always imagined the English going to work with cravats and pocket watches.

  7. January 15, 2011 at 4:36 pm

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Celluloid Zombie, M Reyes Dempsey. M Reyes Dempsey said: Denim, the evil fabric: http://wp.me/pS05e-6p […]

  8. fordeville said,

    January 15, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    My office is still firmly in the anti-denim camp. But a girl can dream.
    And someone *always* ruins summer Friday casual — usually the trampy intern who shows up in not much more than a beach cover-up.

  9. jesswords10 said,

    January 15, 2011 at 11:21 pm

    I loved the part about the outie belly button tie cover up conspiracy. Nice.

    We rarely have days that deviate out of dress code, but I LOVE when it’s a jeans day! Jeans are the bees knees!

  10. JJ said,

    January 16, 2011 at 4:57 am

    Dress Code. flip flops, T-shirt, and jeans. standard for me, unless we have 12 inches of snow on the ground, then I wear sneakers.
    And lets not forget dress sweats and a polo shirt,

  11. suzicate said,

    January 16, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Don’t tell me the inventor of the tie wasn’t a man with a hang-up about his extreme “outie” belly button that showed through a thin dress shirt and needed covering up. – this cracked me up. The idea of denim being kept out of the work place is similar to the idea that it must be kept out of the church. I remember when my boys were teenagers and the “older” generation of the church who should have been happy to have youth in attendance were outraged that the majority of the youth group wore jeans, tshirts, and flipflops!

    • January 16, 2011 at 1:21 pm

      :-D Glad you liked it.

      I agree with you on church attire. It seems many people who attend church services ignore the fact that Jesus welcomed all kinds of people, many of whom committed worse sins than wearing denim. I think we send the wrong message when we demand a dress code.

      God is accessible to all who seek and not just those in pin stripes. What about people around the world who dress differently due to culture or weather. And what about people who can’t afford clothes that have been deemed “acceptable” for worship. Should they be excluded?

      Blood pressure rising. Time to put my soap box away. Thanks for stopping by Suzicate. ;-)

  12. January 16, 2011 at 1:46 pm

    Hi-five!

  13. girlboxing said,

    January 16, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Ahhh, the “ladies” corporate suit. Huge shoulder pads, they made your neck disappear into your ears, not to mention the shoulder pads on the blouses! Oh, and my favorite, the pencil skirt that was too tight to walk in even *with* the kick-pleat. Thanks for the memories! ;)

  14. Val Erde said,

    January 27, 2011 at 6:52 am

    Ooh, this brought back some memories… (I was 12 in 1964, so I’ve experienced worse than you…) I hate dress-codes and have always done my own thing, though the denims that I wore were always the more comfortable brushed denims that were around in the 70s and 80s (are they still, I wonder? I’ve not seen any in ages). Anyway… while my working life wasn’t long thanks to illness, I do recall a time when I dressed up for a job interview. I was in such a state about what to wear and settled on a dress I’d had for years and hated. It was green with a white collar and a green satin (probably polyester satin) tie… yes, tie…. When i went along to the job interview I was mortified to discover all three interviewers wearing… jeans! Suffice to say, I didn’t get the job!

    • January 27, 2011 at 10:21 am

      Which brings up the old question “would you rather be overdressed or underdressed for an event?” Fashion has never been my strong suit. I wonder if they sell cloaks of invisibility in carry-along pouches like those plastic rain ponchos. ;-)

      • Val Erde said,

        January 27, 2011 at 4:34 pm

        Underdressed, but not like Roberto, one of your commenters above!
        Oh yes, a cloak of invisibility in a carry along pouch… great idea! :)

  15. bronxboy55 said,

    January 27, 2011 at 9:02 am

    This post reminded me of the movie My Cousin Vinny, which I’ve watched way too many times. The film features several discussions about what is and isn’t proper attire for a lawyer in a courtroom, and one about whether a dead deer would care what kind of pants the hunter was wearing. As you said, there’s very little logic behind these conventions; in fact, they seem to be arbitrary. (I work at home, so I get to wear jeans every day.)

    Great blog, Margaret. I’ll definitely be back to read more.

    • January 27, 2011 at 10:25 am

      One of my favorite movies! I can’t sit quietly when I watch it. I have to repeat every line in the exaggerated accent. (My friends would probably say they didn’t notice that I was speaking in an exaggerated accent. ;-) )

      Thanks for stopping by, Bronxboy.

      [Oh yeah, you blend.] :-D

      • bronxboy55 said,

        January 27, 2011 at 10:45 am

        That’s one of my favorite lines. I used it in an email to my daughter recently. She and her boyfriend are teaching in China, and they sent me pictures of the two of them wearing huge dark sunglasses and standing in front of Tiananmen Square.

        [Did you say yoot?]

  16. January 27, 2011 at 10:59 am

    ROFL. That’s great!

    Of course I said yoot. That’s the best part.

  17. January 27, 2011 at 8:43 pm

    I. Love. Denim. I think it should be allowed anywhere and everywhere. Ok, maybe we can make a rule that black or a really dark wash is a must for court. I have to admit, though, I’ve seen some pretty ratty looking jeans out there. Perhaps there should be some fashion education mandated for elementary school kids. We can wipe outbid taste and ill fitting suits and fabrics in one generation.

  18. March 28, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    […] Moi? Well, if you’re planning on hiring me sometime in the future, please don’t read Denim, the evil fabric until we’ve finalized all the […]

  19. Huffygirl said,

    March 29, 2012 at 10:23 am

    Margaret, this is just as good as the last time I read it. But I’m wondering what kind of stuffy places you were working in that required you to dress in1970’s polyester?

    • March 29, 2012 at 10:55 am

      It was a start-up software company headed by an older, ex-military guy and every minute of it felt like boot camp. :-)

  20. April 30, 2012 at 4:29 pm

    Ha! Great fun. Controversial? Hmmm. But I have as hard a time thinking of you picking a fight as Jerry Seinfeld.

    • April 30, 2012 at 7:30 pm

      Ah, well there’s still more of me to learn, then, Rebecca. I’m the master of heated debates. (That’s what I call them. Others might disagree.) ;-)


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