By Judith Rasband
© 2000 Conselle L. C.
In the world of high fashion, the old-fashioned T-shirt is now called a “tee.” What a word for a guy’s T-shirt. “Tee” has a distinctly feminine, diminutive look and sound to it. “Tee, hee, hee.” Sounds silly to me.
Granted, in addressing the current business casual confusion, Nordstrom explains that it’s supposed to be a “layering tee.” But not everybody knows that. The majority of people throw on jeans and any tee and think they’ve got “style.” Yeah, right!
People keep asking, “What’s this look of a suit with a tee all about anyway?” It’s a self-expressive blend of tailored and untailored design with a mixed message. A tailored suit shouts authority, with its straight lines and angles in firm fabric. The tee softens the look and the message with its rounded neckline and soft knit fabric. The whole look appears more relaxed, casual, friendly, and approachable.
But not everyone likes the look. Many men are put off by the look of a man wearing a suit with a tee. There’s even a logic behind their discomfort, whether they consciously know it or not. It’s those symbolically feminine, soft rounded lines and shape of the tee—and the way a T-shirt reveals the body silhouette.
Traditionally, it has been the female body outlined and exposed by her clothes. Women have taken flack for centuries about their bodies because they wear a dress which reveals the body silhouette. That’s the main reason why women have become so paranoid about their bodies.
Now that men are taking off their jackets to be more comfortable, we’re seeing more bellies and bottoms than we ever knew existed. In their newfound casual dress, it’s the male body that’s experiencing increased exposure, and is consequently assuming what was the traditionally feminine role.
This whole trend toward casual dress or dressing down works to expose the male body. By taking off the tie—that long-standing symbol of male corporate power—unbuttoning the shirt, and opening the collar, men expose their neck and throat. Increased exposure more nearly matches feminine rather than masculine stereotypes in our culture.
Conversely, business casual translates to pants for women. More fully covered and wearing the pants, she assumes the traditionally masculine appearance while he, less covered, is thus more feminine. Taken together, this appears to reflect changing gender roles in our society.
We hear that men are demanding casual clothes for business to better express themselves. As a result, we’re seeing a more complex and confusing dress code evolve. These, too, have been traditionally feminine traits and further signal changing gender roles. Accompanying this change is the underlying fear of feminization in the workplace.
R. Goldberg, calls casual dress, “playclothes” in his 1995 Wall Street Journal article, “This Fad Deserves A Dressing Down.” Yup, that’s exactly what T-shirts used to be—playclothes with family and friends on the weekend.
In a 1996 article entitled, “Fixing Mr. Gates” appearing in the fashion publication W, J. Belcove questions Bill Gate’s little boy look in T-shirts—a look Goldberg links to uncontrolled, childish behavior. And, of course, what did Billy do when he later went to court? He put on a suit, with a shirt with a collar and tie, looking traditionally like the big boys do.
Then we have our Harley boys in tees and jeans and nobody questions whether they are real men or not. And yet, we see these guys stuffed into a tee, and they do look pretty silly—even those corporate heads now hopping on a Harley. Looking like boys dressed up in playclothes, here we are again, treading in traditionally feminine territory.
Add to that, Nordstrom comes out with advice for wearing a “tee” in 2000. Do I really want to make the wearing of a tee a gender issue? I don’t think so. But hey, guys, there’s some truth mixed in here. Now, I’m all for a casual mix in appropriate settings and to a degree, but you’re smart to leave your tees at home and stick to a shirt with a collar—even a knit shirt with a collar—for work and leadership roles.