How casual is too casual in the office in August?Simon, by email
Well, this depends on several factors, Simon: what kind of office you work in, how hot it is and what you consider "casual". I have some male friends who think simply taking off one's tie is tantamount to raving it up. I have other friends who consider wearing a T-shirt with one's swimming shorts as basically black tie. There is, as your question intimates, a world of sartorial possibilities between a suit and swimming shorts, hence the frequent confusion about what "casual" actually means, and nowhere is this more confusing than in the world of work. For some people, "work clothes" means a smart Zara suit; for others (me) it means sitting about all day at home in one's bathrobe (at most.) So how to define "casual" in a way that encompasses all kinds of people? I find that when faced with a question like this, the easiest way to resolve it is to treat it like one of those questionnaire puzzles you often get in American magazines. So let's begin.
1. Is it …
(a) Only just a little warm.
(c) Unbearably disgustingly hot and walking outside is like walking into a wall of filthy, sweaty heat?
2. What kind of office do you work in?
(a) A terrifying investment bank.
(b) A half-heartedly trendy media / advertising / design business.
(c) Alternating between your home and the beach.
3. How does your boss dress?
(a) In an £850 suit.
(b) Jeans and T-shirt.
(c) A swimsuit.
4. What does your day consist of?
(a) Big, important meetings.
(b) Dicking about on the internet.
(c) Hanging out on the beach.
What are you most comfortable wearing?
(a) A suit, or maybe some chinos for down time.
(b) Jeans and T-shirt.
(c) Nothing on my upper half.
For every (a) you answered, add one point, for every (b) add two points and for every (c) add three. If you scored 5-9 points, "casual" means to you just a gentle loosening of the tie. If you scored 9-14, "casual" is jeans and a T-shirt, or cotton dress equivalent thereof. If you scored 15, you are David Hasselhoff on Baywatch and you should just stay in your red swimming shorts. Don't hassle the Hoff!
But there is another element to the casual debate which that quiz could not quite touch on: the generational debate. There is no question that the younger someone is, the more of their skin they like to show off. This is because the skin on young people is still developing so is very sensitive to the touch, which is why they hate to have too much material covering their bodies. Thus, babies and toddlers loathe getting dressed as a rule and would far prefer to run around in their nappies, throwing off the onesie you just forced them into. Once this young pupa reaches teenagehood and early 20s, if they are a boy they will wear their jeans as low as possible, flaunting their bottoms, like young baboons, as part of their 24-hour desperate mating dance, which is generally in vain. If they are young women, they are likely to wear very short skirts and dresses, jeans so tight and low-slung they appear to be half-finished leggings or shorts so small they are little more than denim knickers. And this is all well and fine but it can cause problems in the office. The 26-year-old woman who comes to work in a cropped T-shirt bedecked with a slogan about how much she likes to party all night will likely cause some consternation to the boss in his three-piece suit. But to the young woman, the term "casual" is essentially shorthand for "cropped T-shirt". There is little point in trying to legislate against what young people wear, though – heaven knows – many have tried.
Rather, it is easier to make them and anyone else who favours such items of clothing to look at this from an alternative perspective. When you see your loved one on their way into the office and you feel they are dressed possibly a little inappropriately, stop them, stand them in front of a full-length mirror and say: "Picture your boss. Picture them good and hard. Would you be happy if they saw you dressed like this?" If they say yes, simply shrug your shoulders and leave them to their fate. If there is one thing I have learned in my years as a fashion columnist (and that is not an exaggeration – I have literally learned just one thing) it's that you can't stop people wearing what they want to. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't stop them wearing knitted animal hats.
Ultimately, the issue with casual comes down to one's good judgment. Most people know that skirts in the office should end just on the knee and that jeans bedecked with hardware and rips are not ideal. But some don't – young people, mainly. And if the only way they learn is by their boss having a firm word with them, that's fine. Either they'll head off to Zara or Jaeger and buy a suit, or they'll start working from home in their pants. And let me tell you, that latter option is by no means an unstylish one.
Post your questions to Hadley Freeman, Ask Hadley, The Guardian, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London N1 9GU. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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