Mourning Nate’s — and the hoary concept of looking sharp

Nate’s Clothing, a Twin Cities icon and clothier since 1916, began to go out of business 20 years ago — even though the company only recently threw in the ascot. 
It was in about 1990 that the “Casual Friday” signs started showing up in the workplace, warning visitors that they’d encounter folks in jeans and casual shirts and, even, sneakers.   
And, it seems, “Casual Friday” was somehow considered liberating and an employee “benefit.”  Guys could stuff the stuffy coat and tie, and along with gals could stuff themselves into jeans.  Dress down was in, and the purveyors of denim and sweatshirts could smile.

But Nate’s was in the business of making guys look sharp — as the gravelly voiced hypester for The Men’s Wearhouse would say: “You’re going to like the way you look — I guarantee it.”
Nate’s was into making guys look good long before the Men’s Wearhouse was guaranteeing anything.   
Men were into casual
The problem was that folks weren’t into looking good — they were into casual (too many skipped that level and went straight to sloppy).  And less and less they relied on Nate’s to make an impression or show respect for fellow employees and customers.  Looking good was secondary.   
It may have been OK had casual been confined to Friday. But soon, “Casual Friday” became Casual Everyday and Friday’s idea of casual morphed into shorts and, in some cases, tank tops.  
Walk through Butler Square on First Avenue in Minneapolis sometime and notice the old photos of folks waiting for a streetcar. Men were in suits, white shirts and ties, women in skirts and flourishes; most wore spiffy hats. 
Walk through skyways today and you’d think the hip downtown crowd was on its way to a rodeo. 
You can’t sell suits to guys who are ready to throw a steer. 
You want to scream ‘Get a closet!’
Go to the theater and, for the most part, people look pretty good — a few coats and ties, but mostly fine sweaters and dark slacks.  But the grunge crowd is there as well, and you want to scream: “Get a closet!”  
Most folks, including children, dressed up pretty well for the Rockettes at Target Center recently, but too many were there in jeans and sneakers and sweatshirts … perhaps on their way home from the rodeo.
In places of worship, there are few coats and ties and too many jeans and, even, Vikings’ jerseys.  Some guys look as though they’re only marking time before the benediction so they can head for the first tee or a softball game. 
Roots in Silicon Valley
According to historians on esoteric things like this, the casual movement had its roots in Silicon Valley, where in the 1980s the high-tech companies and the dot.comers sought to attract the brainy slide-rule set.  The concession was to let them to dress as they wished — Bill Gates did, after all — as long as they could develop a program that could make lots of money. 
Grunge set in, spreading to the IT offices and departments throughout the land and, from there, the virus spread to the rest of the office.  One company president of an expanding start-up, on his way to a mass hiring session, stopped and wondered if he should skip a coat a tie to greet the prospective new hires: “I don’t want to leave the wrong impression that we actually dress up at this company.”
Nate’s probably saw it coming, and could only hang on through the degeneration of the new generation. 
A consultant may have said it best:  “The business casual trend isn’t about fashion,” said image consultant Judith Rasband.  “It’s about the whole casualization of America. …it’s about the general decline of civility.” 
And along with it the decline of Nate’s.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

Comments (4)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 12/18/2008 - 02:33 pm.

    Ron, you can’t possibly mean what you’ve written here.

    The new generation represents a “degeneration?” Really? Casual Friday means you don’t want to “show respect” to your fellow humans? Honestly?

    Judging by the outfit in your illustration, you’ve been contributing to the “decline of civility” yourself. Where’s the suit? Where’s the respect?

    I like dressing up sometimes, am saddened by the news about Nate’s, and sincerely don’t want to denigrate those who make different sartorial choices than I do. Hence, I’ll refrain from the obvious lines about staying off your lawn, an onion on your belt, etc. etc. I won’t even make the argument that allowing casual dress privileges substance over style, which I actually happen to believe.

    I will point out, however, that this “general decline of civility” is an absolute myth based on nostalgia for an age that never existed. Even if we were to equate dress with manners — which is a deeply, deeply ignorant practice for reasons far too numerous to list — one could make a very compelling case that Americans have gotten far more considerate of their fellow citizens since the nation was founded.

    Take it from me: today I’m sporting a cashmere sweater over a tailored shirt and bedecked with a silk tie. Good day, sir.

  2. Submitted by Ed Kohler on 12/18/2008 - 03:47 pm.

    I’m glad that we’ve moved past the bigotry of clothing and can now judge employees on the content of their skills and productivity.

    FWIW*, I’m currently working from the shotgun seat of a rental car where I can focus on getting things done rather than impressing people with my ascot.

    * Looking forward to a follow-up column about how acronyms are killing corporate culture.

  3. Submitted by Rod Loper on 12/20/2008 - 10:18 am.

    It’s not just casual Fridays folks. Check out a church on Sunday.

Leave a Reply