Saunders: Dressing up better than dressing too far down

bsaunders@newsobserver.comFebruary 10, 2013 

Sure, Kathy Gruer came off sounding like a school-marmish micro-manager when she sent out a memo telling grown people how to dress, but goshdarnit, somebody had to do it.

Gruer, director of Human Resources for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, also had to follow up her clothing memo to DHHS employees with one saying “Nevermind.”

Why? Because the new DHHS head hadn’t approved it. It’s unlikely, though, that Secretary Aldona Wos is going to rescind the guidelines laid out by the over-eager Gruer, since the new Republican administration has shown no disinclination to get involved in people’s lives.

Last week, for instance, we reported on the efforts of some legislators to outlaw the showing of female nipples in public – which wasn’t a problem anyway. By a show of hands, how many of you are less offended by an occasional areola peeking through than you are by, say, the dude in the cubicle next to yours wearing the same North Face fleece jacket and dirty blue jeans to the office three days in a row?

Many people were understandably offended that Gruer would spell out in black and white that “daily grooming and bathing are required.”

They should be more offended that Gruer deemed it necessary to spell that out, along with spelling out that T-shirts, mini-skirts, tube tops, beachwear, underwear worn as outerwear and flip flops, among other things, are inappropriate for most workplaces. That probably means that someone, at some time, committed those social and fashion faux pas.

There is, of course, a difference between coming to work inappropriately attired and unimaginatively so. From my reading of it, Gruer’s memo wasn’t seeking to turn DHHS’s 17,000 employees into fashion plates, but that goal wouldn’t be frowned upon.

A couple of years ago, after GQ magazine had ranked Raleigh’s men among the worst-dressed in the nation – and lamented the prevalence of pleated khakis – I sat outside my favorite Hargett Street gin mill and noted the number of men who’d unthinkingly donned the unofficial go-to uniform of a polo shirt, khaki-colored cotton twill britches and tennis shoes.

While that’s offensive to anyone with a style sense, it’s not what Gruer seeks to eradicate from the workplace.

“Dress-down Fridays” may have started with good intentions, although some people think it was part of a communist plot to destroy American from within. Before long, people – as people are wont to do — began abusing the slackening of standards and began dressing down every day. Before long, “dress-down” or “casual Friday” became “Freddy the Freeloader Friday,” in honor of Red Skelton’s famous, Depression-era hobo.

Here’s an assignment. The next time a documentary on the Great Depression comes on TV, note how the men standing in soup lines dressed. Most wore hats and suits and ties, perhaps to convey that just because they were broke they weren’t broken.

Contrast that with what you see among employed, often professional, people walking around downtown. That’s what makes so inexplicable Gruer’s memo mention forbidding employees to come to work in evening wear.

Why, for goodness’s sake? There isn’t an office anywhere in the Triangle that couldn’t be classied up by fashion-forward worker sauntering to the copier in a shawl-collared tux or a lacy evening gown.

That surely beats the heck out of a North Face fleece jacket.

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