Mirror, Mirror: Casual Friday for men now means business

For Alex King, business-casual days used to mean a pair of jeans and a button-down. Sometimes it was khakis and a golf shirt. And why not? The look was clean, pressed, and most important, easy to wear.

But recently, the 31-year-old design and technology executive decided to step up his dressed-down days. Today his relaxed look is a pair of slacks, a crisp shirt - top button open, of course - and a jacket. Ties? They are still optional.

"I think I am definitely becoming more conscious about looking the part," King said. "Even when I'm more 'casual,' I'm wearing tailored pants, a tailored jacket, hard-bottomed shoes - no more sneakers."

It seems business casual is far less casual this fall as men, and women, realize a sharper look is not just a passing trend but a way to get ahead in a tight job market.

That means, come Fridays, tailored separates - dressy slacks and a jacket - are replacing jeans and khakis (even bold printed shirts and cardigans are frowned upon) in a return to the classic Y-chromosome uniform. You never know when you're going to close a deal and need to command respect.

"I want to distinguish myself from the guy that's fixing the computers to the guy that's running the company," King said.

Jeff Onofrio, director of renovation lending at AnnieMac Home Mortgage in Mount Laurel, recently became a big fan of the jacket.

"It's a little bit more dressy, and if I'm dealing with other banks and peers in the industry, it's important that I look the part."

This kind of thinking used to be the professional man's sartorial rule of thumb, from after the Industrial Revolution all the way through the 1990s. The work wardrobe was unequivocally simple - a dark suit, a white shirt, a tie.

On the eve of the millennium, GenXers started making lots of money in technology, and the rules started to shift. Part of it was driven by the fashion industry - think grunge, hip-hop, oversized - but it had a lot to do with their environment: This new technology was about brainstorming on beanbag chairs, breaking barriers, being creative, thinking outside the box - a very different workplace from their fathers' and especially their fathers' fathers'. As a generation, they were more laid-back.

Certainly suits were there to help you make the deal, but on days when deals weren't being made, khakis or jeans and a golf shirt were just fine.

Within a few years, it became clear that men weren't that good at deciphering what was appropriate dress-down office wear.

Things got bad: ratty shorts, Hawaiian shirts - even flip-flops.

"No less than a few years ago, business casual was indistinguishable with weekend wear," said Roseanne Morrison, fashion director at the Doneger Group. "There is a major shift away from that now."

It started in the early 2000s when the popular mall store Express introduced a newer, slimmer European look for men. Some ignored it, but younger guys - those who would turn Axe grooming products into a household name - liked the look. They also experimented with bold printed shirts, but it still wasn't passing for professional.

"There were too many extremes going on," said Craig Arthur von Schroeder, owner of the Center City-based custom haberdashery Commonwealth Proper. "These guys were dressed up, but they still looked slick."

Last year even mainstream guys started wearing patterned socks and cowl-neck sweaters.

This season men are focusing on their wardrobe's building blocks: dark pants, a shirt, a jacket. It's a return to a minimalist wardrobe: When you can't buy a lot of clothes, what you do buy needs to be classy.

"When people are out of work, they want to look their best," Doneger's Morrison said.

The good news about this shift is that rules are simple. If you get stuck, check out pictures of your grandfather.

Tailoring, of course, is a must. When it comes to slacks, you can't lose with gray, blue, or brown in solids or very small patterns - khaki is just too cazh for business casual.

Keep the shirt a light color. White or light blue is best, but a soft gray can also work.

And if choosing between wearing a sweater or a jacket, von Schroeder says, go for the jacket. Patches on the sleeves? Nope. That may sound a bit extreme, but von Schroeder says men's fashion went so far off course, it has to do a total turnaround to get back on track.

Is there any room for individuality in this brave new world of business casual? Men can express themselves through subtle prints and pocket squares, von Schroeder says. (Keep in mind, nobody is making you wear a suit and tie.)

"The more conservative the better," he says.

This all sounds good in theory, but even without the strangling tie, how long will men be able to follow these rules? I predict 20 years from now, we might be staring at ratty khakis again.


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Contact fashion writer Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ewellingtonphl.