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.]