It was only a matter of time before a perfectly sensible notion turned into a social and marketing phenomenon, complete with its own set of rules and expectations.
That workers ought to feel free on occasion to replace high heels with sneakers seems as much a matter of choice as the cherished American right to pick your own dentist.
But when this trend becomes codified, when people who don't want to conform with informality are made to feel uncomfortable, when it creeps into the latest Wanamaker's catalogue - that's the Friday when I consider seeing if my old wool suit still fits.
Are we just exchanging one uniform for another?
This Friday phenomenon is but one manifestation of the dressing-down trend skipping across the nation. Newsweek wonders if we have become "a nation of slobs" - and as evidence presents heartthrob Brad Pitt in a grungy gray sweater, President Clinton in too-short shorts and Elizabeth Taylor in the kind of T-shirt that sports a lot of words and is impossible to read.
It's not just a movie-star question. When IBM drops its by now famous dress code - gray suit, button-down shirt, standard tie, wingtip shoes - in favor of more casual attire, you know something's happening in the business world.
And when men in America are buying casual slacks instead of three-piece suits, and women lose interest in buying clothes altogether, the market is going to scramble to respond. (A recent survey by a New York marketing firm of 1,000 women executives in the apparel industry showed that 63 percent spent less on clothing and fashion accessories in 1994 than in 1993.)
No wonder that in department stores last December, only 20 percent of all women's clothes was sold at full price.
No wonder, too, that retailers are pushing "Friday wear" clothing as the must-have wardrobe this spring. After a few shiny pages of photographs depicting women in pink and white suits conferring in impossibly neat offices, a recent Wanamakers' catalogue launches its newest sales pitch: "It's Friday at the office, but how casual should you go? We'll show you how to dress down and still mean business!"
Indeed, in some offices, such guidance is mandatory. The Wall Street Journal recently reported that one corporation put on a "fashion show" with employees modeling what is - and isn't - OK to wear on dress-down day and then compiled a two-inch thick binder packed with full-color catalogue clippings, each pasted into sections marked "appropriate" and "inappropriate."
Pressed blue jeans and a loose-fitting jacket? Appropriate. Exercise shorts and a tight-fitting tank top? Nope.
With all the talk of empowering workers, I suppose some still aren't empowered enough to get dressed on their own. Even when they loosen up, some corporations just can't help cracking down.
Fashion shows aside, many business leaders - even those not in the apparel industry - love this trend. By now, most U.S. companies have dress-down days on Friday, and not for altruistic reasons, but because they say it results in higher morale, better communication and improved productivity.
All of which is heartening, but begs the question: If dressing casually produces such sought-after gains, why confine it only to Fridays? True, it's the end of the traditional working week, the oasis we stumble toward, but it is only one day. Why not the others?
I'll tell you why. It's why the men I work with - intelligent all, but mostly fashion schlumps - thought to wear a tie and jacket when the Vice President came to call last month.
It's why people still put on what passes for contemporary formal clothing when attending a wedding or a funeral. It's why I insist that my girls wear dresses, party shoes and their fancy wool coats to synagogue.
It's why even those who dress down on Fridays will switch to a suit for a business meeting with a stranger.
It's called respect, and separation.
How we dress expresses how we view society and, in particular, the situation we are about to enter. Many who wear jeans and sneakers to church say that the Lord doesn't care what you look like; they are right, but they miss the point. Taking time to tie the necktie or don the dress reflects the specialness of the occasion, and the sense we have about ourselves as we approach it.
It also reflects the separation we make between one part of our lives and another. Clothes help maintain the distinction between work and everything else we do. Clearly, those distinctions are rapidly shifting, as the telecommunications revolution alters how and where we work - but that's all the more reason to develop strategies to keep work work, if only for our mental health.
Clothes can create a sense of purpose, of shared mission; why else do soldiers dress alike? And clothes signal to the greater public an individual's role; why else do police officers wear uniforms?
I don't seek a return to the starched-shirt, button-down days. (I am wearing trousers as I write this. On a Friday. In the office.)
But I worry about this: If we as a society lose the ability to distinguish between boardroom and beach, between church and fitness center, then we may be throwing away something more precious than the right to wear running shoes to work.