Perfect Fit: the ‘80s and Dress Codes

Times Staff Writer

Today’s office fashion tip: Conformity is in, iconoclasm is out.

Workplace dress and grooming codes, written and unwritten, are growing more stringent. Businesses--from Domino’s Pizza to New York taxi fleets to, most recently, the Disneyland Hotel--have cracked down on sartorial freedom, in hopes that a sharper image will translate into profits.

Some workers are rebelling. In Washington, black women have organized protests and filed complaints against two hotel chains that barred them from wearing their hair in cornrows. Air traffic controllers in Palmdale forced managers last year to retract rules that told them what kinds of jeans were classy enough to wear to work.

Yet overall, it seems, dressing for success increasingly means dressing by the rules.

“There has been a tightening process going on, and with very good reason,” said consultant and author John T. Molloy, whose “Dress for Success” books have been the fashion bible of a generation of workers aspiring to professional power and prestige.


The good reason? Employers--urged on by experts like Molloy--have become convinced that their public image rides heavily on the appearance of their employees. And they’ve learned that their employees will work better as a team if they dress as a team.

“Overwhelming statistical evidence indicates that the way employees dress affects a lot of things,” Molloy said. “If any company doesn’t control it, their executives are not doing an adequate job.”

Molloy estimates that about 20% of all American corporations have written dress and grooming codes. Unwritten codes are more pervasive. By using role models, subtle hints and sharp directives, all but the smallest companies delineate the limits of appropriate appearance on the job.

“There is a standard look in every company and every profession,” Molloy said. “What you wear identifies you as a member of a group. If I say Hell’s Angels, IBM executives or newspaper people, you have a look.”

Even without a written dress code, most workers can figure out that their companies would rather they shun the Hell’s Angels look. But many organizations want their workers to have clear guidance.

When Disney Co. took over the Disneyland Hotel early this year, for instance, hotel employees fell under the same strict appearance guidelines that contribute to the clean-scrubbed image of the company’s theme parks. In a far different setting--but with a similar goal--the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission told cab drivers last summer to get rid of their torn T-shirts, tube tops and flip-flop sandals.


At Domino’s headquarters in Ann Arbor, Mich.--a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed farmhouse that is a popular tourist attraction--workers were told Jan. 1 to don conservative suits and modest dresses to look good for visitors.

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Team-mindedness also figured in the imposition of the rules, said Ronald Hingst, a Domino’s spokesman. Executives wanted office workers to demonstrate solidarity with pizza makers in the field--and not just on the few occasions each year when managers wear Domino’s uniforms as a morale-building gesture.

“It symbolizes our support for the people in our pizza stores, who are asked to adhere to a dress code,” Hingst said. “If the people in the stores can do it, the people in headquarters can, too.”

In St. Cloud, Minn., Security Financial Banking & Savings gave each of its employees $100 cash and a $250 interest-free line of credit in September to bring their wardrobes up to the strict standards dictated by an employee-written dress code.

“Literally overnight you saw people start dressing differently,” said Elizabeth Bennett, a senior vice president. “People looked so good. And they said they felt so much better.”

Workers are not always so willing to kowtow to bosses’ fashion directives.

In the Washington, D.C., area, four black women have filed race-discrimination complaints with federal and local civil rights agencies because their employers--Hyatt hotels in Washington and Virginia and the J. W. Marriott Hotel in Washington--told them they could not wear their hair in the cornrow style.


The tight braids--popularized by actress Bo Derek in the motion picture “10” but worn by African women for 4,000 years--are an expression of black heritage, according to Washington attorney Eric Steele, who represents Cheryl R. Tatum, Cheryl Parahoo, Sydney Boone and Pamela Mitchell. Hotel policies banning cornrows as an “extreme” hair style constituted “just thinly veiled racism,” Steele said.

Pandora’s Box

Hyatt and Marriott spokesmen said the hotel companies never have had nationwide policies prohibiting cornrows, and instead left it up to general managers at each hotel to interpret company rules against extreme hair styles.

But following protests, calls for boycotts and the discrimination charges filed by the women, both companies late last year overruled their local managers and said some--but not all--cornrow stylings were acceptable.

“All we’re trying to do is maintain a quality image,” said Julie E. Milsten, a Hyatt spokeswoman.

Workers have limited recourse against dress codes. Courts have held that they are legal, as long as they are applied uniformly to all workers.

Molloy, for one, thinks that’s just fine.

“Once you say every individual in the company has the right to do anything they want, you open a Pandora’s box,” he said.


Corporate Dress Codes

John T. Molloy, author of “Dress for Success,” identifies degrees of corporate control over employee deportment.

20% of companies have formal, written dress codes.

20% of companies have a strict but unwritten dress code.

20% of companies have unwritten dress codes that vary by jobs; salesmen dress one way, engineers another.

20% of companies have an unwritten, “no-no” dress code; only outlandish attire violates the code.

20% of companies, almost entirely in small towns, have no dress code; people are so well known to each other that their image is not defined by their clothes.