IBM - Its Dress Code

Computer History Vignettes

By Bob Bemer

From the earliest times of IBM, a severe dress code was imposed upon its employees. Here are a few results that I saw or heard of.

Blue Shirts

I was the first IBM employee to be on TV. Not a big station, just an educational one run by Fairleigh-Dickinson University. I told the story of computer development, aided by display of some really fine artifacts that IBM had accumulated. A set of original Napier's bones, for example.

A limitation of early TV was that white shirts blinded the cameras. One had to wear blue -- a definite blue. But IBM employees were required to wear white shirts only, at least in public. We programmers in back rooms, or hotels like the Langdon, could fudge a little, and did. But I had to get special dispensation to wear a blue shirt.

Sports Shirts

The 12th annual ACM meeting was held in Houston on 1957 Jun 18-22, at the Shamrock Hotel, since disappeared. We started with good intentions. I wore an Irish tweed-type sports coat, and we picnicked on the huge hotel lawn. Unfortunately Houston mosquitos are huge and plentiful. My tweed coat was no protection.

And Houston's humidity is usually close to 100. I switched to a red short-sleeved sports shirt, with no tie. I received a summons from Dr. Cuthbert Hurd to come to his room. There he asked why I was wearing that sports shirt. Most IBMers of the time would have cringed, but I was feeling a little cocky. ACM elections had just been held, and I was elected as the New York Region representative, whereas Hurd had lost his seat. So I said "Because it's so damn hot". No lightning struck.

The Shamrock had a huge outdoor pool. I remember it well because John Backus and I went skinnydipping there at 5 in the morning.

The Subtle Ways of Watson Jr.

The management style of Tom Watson, Jr., was often antithetic to his father's (fortunately for the growth of IBM). At a big management meeting, in an offsite location (probably Williamsburg), Watson Jr. pulled a trick. He deliberately had Y. P. Dawkins (V.P. Eastern Region Marketing) arrive at the cocktail hour in a sports jacket, while he remained away. Naturally the Dawk was shunned, almost a leper. Then Tom arrived, went directly to Dawkins, and greeted him effusively. Sport jackets were in style the next night! (Source - Dawkins' secretary, Joan Rinaldi, a best friend of my wife the secretary to the head of Customer Engineering).

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