ASEE Prism Magazine - October 2002
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All The RIght Moves
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Losing the Tie

- BY Henry Petroski

My wife and I recently stayed at the New York Athletic Club, which, like many traditional clubs, has a dress code. Gentlemen must wear jackets to come in through the front entrance. It used to be that a tie was also required, but according to a brochure given out to overnight guests, “in keeping with the ‘business casual' policy that is presently in effect in many companies,” the NYAC now has a “relaxed dress code.” Business casual is defined as “slacks, sports jacket, and collared shirt” for gentlemen. For ladies, it means “a dress, skirt, pants, and blouse,” though presumably not all at the same time.

Perhaps the current dominance of less traditional business attire in traditional settings can be traced back to the late 1970s, when leisure and pant suits were in fashion, at least among non-traditionalists. These suits, usually made of light colored, artificial fabrics, not only blurred the distinction between dressing for work and play but also between how men and women dressed. Leisure suits fell out of fashion, of course, but the pant suit has become a staple of women's business dress. Though some women have come to wear ties, either as a fashion or political statement, even with the most formal of pant suits it remains unusual.

From my youth, I had wondered why men and boys had to wear ties when women and girls could enjoy the unfettered feeling of an open collar. In parochial school, boys had to wear white shirts and ties, while girls could get away with a simple blouse. I went to an all-boys high school, where the dress code was a jacket and tie at all times, as it was at my all-male college.

I went to graduate school at a large state university, where there was no dress code, but those of us who were teaching assistants were expected to wear a jacket and tie whenever we taught a class. Given my background, this was no big deal, and as I pursued an academic career, I continued to wear the uniform that distinguished a teacher from a student. When I joined my present institution in 1980, I felt comfortable in class and in faculty meetings, where just about everyone was dressed the same as I.

Gradually things began to change. Increasingly, new faculty members were not only tieless but also sometimes collarless. At first, it appeared that it was mostly faculty in the sciences who eschewed even business casual. As the 1980s morphed into the 1990s, fewer and fewer younger faculty members dressed differently on campus than they did on the soccer field. Furthermore, middle-aged faculty members also began to dress less formally, and soon it seemed that it was only those nearing retirement and administrators who wore jackets and ties to the faculty club. The increasing number of women on the faculty created some sense of balance, in gender and in dress, for they generally tended to maintain the sense of decorum that the men were losing.

Nevertheless, men continued to dominate most faculties, and so receptions seemed to become less formal affairs, and invitations to previously formal dinners came with the notation “black-tie optional.” This is not to say that only male faculty members have relaxed their dress code. Some alumni returning to campus for weekend reunions seemed to come in the same clothes that they wear to work on “casual Fridays.” And students, of course, began to come to class dressed for the beach.

Some faculty members stood firm, continuing to wear business dress to class, but they could only dream of imposing a dress code on students. Business clothes continue to be expected for design project presentations, and students continue to don business dress for interviews, but are conspicuous around campus when they do. But those rare occasions on which students do dress for business serve as a reminder that they appreciate that dressing up signals a seriousness and, well, a getting down to business.

I did not think much about dress codes during my recent year-long sabbatical. I worked in my study at home in shorts and a sweatshirt, but when I traveled to lecture, I wore the usual tie and jacket, if not a business suit. Returning to campus after the long hiatus, I found so few ties in the halls and around the conference table that I began to leave mine at home or on the hook behind my office door. At first I felt self-conscious, but soon I welcomed the unfettered feeling. No one mentioned the absence of my tie, and no one blocked my entrance through the front door. As the New York Athletic Club has, and in keeping with the “campus casual” policy that is presently in effect at so many institutions of higher learning, I have adopted the dress code of the new millennium.


Henry Petroski is A. S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering
and a professor of history at Duke University.
His latest book is Paperboy: Confessions of a Future Engineer.