Advertisement

All Dressed Up With Nowhere to Go--but Work : Job attire: In Orange County at least, the trend is toward less casual clothing on the job, even though company codes are vague.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the folks over at the Salvati Montgomery Sakoda advertising agency come dressed casually on Fridays, the account people might loosen up enough to leave their ties at home.

But the artists and writers, says Vice President Dan Pittman, “wear their painting clothes.”

“The clients just assume the creative people don’t wear ties,” Pittman says. “And in fact, they can come to work naked if they want.”

Then there’s the Walt Disney Co. The company doesn’t like employees wearing “clinging” fabrics around Disneyland. In fact, a rather stern dress code bans offending clothing, along with sideburns that reach below the earlobe, strong-smelling after-shave or heavy perfume, earrings larger than a penny, mustaches, beards, eye shadow, hairpieces, dark-red nail polish, bracelets, Earth shoes, wedgies or anything but plain black shoes, and sunglasses. And the list goes on.

Advertisement

Such are the extremes of dressing for work in Orange County these days. But for those who like to go to the plant or the office looking like an unmade bed, there’s distressing news: People are dressing up more for work, even though few of the dozen or so companies interviewed for this story have formal, detailed dress codes.

Instead, it seems to be understood by employees that the shirt-sleeves look once favored at many of the county’s businesses is a thing of the past.

But Southern Californians are supposed to dress more casually than people elsewhere, right? And in Orange County even more so, since this is supposed to be a newer, sprightlier, more informal version of the much bigger Los Angeles.

In fact, people in both Orange and Los Angeles counties probably don’t dress much differently at work than, say, people in Boston. Southern Californians’ well-known penchant for eccentric clothing seems to extend only as far as the beach; it doesn’t go to work with them on Monday mornings.

Advertisement

“We’ve all heard the jokes about how Southern Californians dress,” says Elliot Gordon, an executive headhunter in Korn/Ferry International’s Newport Beach office.

“But the fact is, how you dress has more to do with what industry you’re in than where you live. If you’re a lawyer for a large firm, you’ll probably be dressed the same as lawyers in other large firms, no matter where you live.”

If anything, people in Orange County tend to over -dress, as if to compensate for the perception in Los Angeles that the county is full of suburban boobs. Send out a black-tie optional invitation in Los Angeles, say people familiar with both places, and a goodly number of people will show up less formally dressed; send one in Orange County and the odds are good that most people will come in the requisite finery.

“There’s been a tremendous increase in the sophistication of dress since we opened 15 years ago,” says Bjorn Sedleniek, managing partner of a fashionable men’s store called Posh in Newport Beach’s Fashion Island shopping center.

Advertisement

“Back then, we sold mostly sport coats, and that’s what guys wore to the office,” he says. “They’d have a blue blazer, gray slacks, no tie.”

Now, however, it’s only natural people here would tend to dress more formally; the county itself even looks a little less suburban these days, having grown larger in the past 20 years than many traditional eastern cities. Consider just one measure: There’s more office space here, for instance, than in Phoenix, Baltimore and even San Francisco.

But if your idea of the typical young man on the move in Newport Beach is a guy in an Armani suit and a leased Jaguar, you could be mistaken. The boxy European suits that drape a man’s frame haven’t really caught on with executive types here, Sedleniek says. If you want to dress like the top people in your company, you’ll probably want something a little more conservative. Like the stuff they sell in Posh, where the average suit--by the way--goes for about $600.

Because many of the new companies coming into the county sell services--accounting firms, law firms, architectural concerns, ad agencies--appearance has become extremely important.

Advertisement

“If a guy’s being paid well to give you advice,” says John Bodenburg of commercial real estate brokers Lee & Associates, “the last thing you want is for him to look like your kid at home.”

As for women professionals, well, they’re getting dressier too, although employers seem to be lightening up on things such as skirt lengths or banning pants from the workplace.

“Most of our clients have some kind of dress code,” says Carol Priestley, an image consultant in El Toro who charges from $75 to $795 to advise clients on how to get their sartorial act together. “And most of those codes used to say skirts had to be a certain length. Now, it doesn’t have to do so much with length as with quality.”

Does this sort of thing pay off? It depends. But you ignore clothing and makeup in the office at your own peril, one of Priestley’s customers says.

Advertisement

“I was 33 years old when I signed up with her and I didn’t have a clue,” says 35-year-old Alicia Dose, who owns a Century 21 real-estate franchise in Long Beach. “I grew up sort of a tomboy, and I didn’t know a whole lot about makeup or jewelry. And that probably hurt me with customers and bosses.”

On the other hand, you can always go to work for an easygoing boss like, say . . . yourself. David Brown in El Toro, for instance, is a lawyer who owns one suit. He stopped wearing suits and ties to work 10 years ago, but then it’s his own firm. And because he spends all his time in the office writing wills and is almost never in court, he never has to impress a judge or jury. In fact, he says, his clients find his informality reassuring.

“It’s hard enough to talk to an attorney, and harder still to talk to him about dying,” Brown confides. “Informality sets them at ease. I don’t even wear a suit to church any more.”

So much for the white-collar types. Now consider Ricoh Electronics Inc., a Japanese company that makes copying machines in Tustin.

Advertisement

On one assembly line are the skeletons of copying machines; on another next to it are the guts. Every time an assembly line moves, it plays an electronic version of a Beethoven work, a much more pleasant sound than the old horn that warned workers that the line was about to creep forward. Elsewhere, robots about the size and shape of a kitchen stove hustle parts to the assembly line following a track in the floor. They play “Camptown Races” to warn people of their approach.

Those aren’t the only differences between this plant and most American factories: All 200 factory workers here wear smocks in four different colors, denoting their jobs. Blue is for the people who assemble the machines; green for technicians; orange for the quality-control people, and management wears white. Everyone has to wear a smock on the shop floor.

None of this is unusual in Japan, where even high school and college students wear uniforms. Jackets, pants, hats and shoes can all be part of workers’ uniforms there. The idea is that everyone wears the same thing and nobody stands out in a crowd.

The workers at Ricoh don’t seem to mind the smocks, says Chi Huynh, the office-machine group’s deputy general manager. To American eyes, the different-colored smocks might tend to denote a hierarchical corporate structure just as surely as blue and white collars do in an American plant.

Advertisement

Ricoh, however, doesn’t see it that way. “Everyone from the president of the company on down wears the same type of smock when they’re on the factory floor,” says Huynh, who started off on the assembly line himself before getting his white smock. “The color is to differentiate job functions, not titles.”

Most local companies, though, seem to have staked out a middle ground on the issue of acceptable dress, usually insisting that employee dress be “businesslike” but otherwise leaving things deliberately vague, says Daniel Mitchell, a professor at UCLA’s Anderson Graduate School of Management who has studied personnel policies.

Take Michael Dunahee’s bank, for instance. When Dunahee worked in the personnel department at Security Pacific National Bank’s Los Angeles headquarters, one of his jobs was writing a dress code for bank employees. It was not an easy task. In fact, Dunahee says, “it couldn’t be done.”

“When is a fabric ‘clinging,’ for instance?” Dunahee said. “That’s a hard thing to define.”

Advertisement

Now that Dunahee runs his own bank--he’s president of the tiny, two-branch Bank of San Clemente--he eschews a formal dress code. The only requirement is that employees must dress neatly.

Partly, that’s because entry-level bank employees are often single mothers who can’t afford to spend a lot of money on clothes. So Dunahee says that he hassles employees about their clothes only if customers complain.

In fact, most local companies interviewed for this story sort of muddle through with informal, unwritten dress policies, with only the most outrageous clothes or hairdos banned.

And often the boss himself sets the style, which people further down the corporate food chain then copy.

Advertisement

Consider the Irvine Co., the big Orange County landowner and developer. In the early 1970s, says Martin Brower, who worked there at the time, President William Mason--a former engineer--wore a sport coat and white socks every day, because “engineers wear white socks.” Most other company employees dressed in a consistently informal fashion.

Then, in 1977, along came Donald L. Bren, the elegant billionaire who now owns the company. “He was a dark-suit-white-shirt type of guy, and people emulated that,” says Brower, who now publishes a real estate newsletter.

Bren, in fact, is said to favor well-made, double-breasted suits in subdued colors. Thus, the level of sartorial elegance at the company’s Newport Beach headquarters has gone up proportionately, even though there’s never been a formal dress policy.

“A woman in public relations came in one day with her hair dyed chartreuse,” Dawn L. McCormick of the company recalls.

Advertisement

“Nobody told her to dye it back, but after a while she left anyway-- I think to PR for a rock band or something.”

Few people are likely to turn up for work with green hair or a safety pin through one ear. If they did, though, their boss might very well fire them. And in most cases, it would probably be legal.

The courts have said that companies can insist that their employees dress according to acceptable business standards. The only exceptions: When companies insist on one standard for, say, men and another for women, or one for those of different races.

This legal standard was established in the 1970s when a raft of lawsuits over corporate grooming and dress codes hit the federal courts. Eccentric employees will find little solace in those rulings. A typical suit was filed in the early 1970s against a Georgia newspaper by a graphic artist with long hair who got turned down for a job. The artist said the company’s grooming code discriminated against men, since women at the paper could wear their hair long. A federal appeals court tossed the suit out, saying the newspaper had a right to make its employees conform to prevailing standards of dress and grooming. Other courts ruled the same way, saying employers could forbid long hair, beards, women wearing pants and the like.

Advertisement

Consequently, similar lawsuits are very unusual now. And while the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says it doesn’t keep count, complaints from employees about how their boss makes them dress aren’t very common either.

The most recent one occurred in Boston when Continental Airlines fired a woman ticket agent who refused to wear makeup; after a lot of nationwide publicity, the company backed down and rehired her.

“These cases were resolved with common sense,” says Paul Grossman, an expert on labor law and senior partner at the Los Angeles law firm of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker. “Namely, that employment-discrimination law was meant to refer to more serious things.”

What about cocktail waitresses in scanty uniforms? Or, say, the waitresses at Texas Loosey’s Chili Parlor & Saloon, which operates five restaurants around the county where the waitresses wear chaps, halters, cowboy hats and not a lot else?

Advertisement

While women have won some lawsuits against employers who require them to wear skimpy outfits, it’s usually only in cases where men in the same jobs aren’t required to wear revealing clothing. Otherwise, the courts reasoned, you know about the costume when you start work at a place like Texas Loosey’s; so as long as everyone has to wear the same thing, there should be no complaints.

Texas Loosey’s management, which says it serves a lot of families with children at dinner time, says: “We don’t get any complaints from the waitresses. After all, the tips here are better than at other family-style restaurants.”

All of which brings us to the case of Kenton Faust, the 21-year-old clerk in Irvine who shaved his temples and dyed cheetah spots on them to show solidarity with endangered wildlife. The spots lasted about six months until his employer, the mobile phone company PacTel Cellular, said last month that the spots had to go. Faust has been plastering on white shoe polish since to hide the offending spots and trying to get a lawyer interested in his case. So far, no bites.

“The dress code just says you have to be ‘neatly groomed,’ ” Faust says. “Well, I have to get my hair cut once a week to keep this style. You can’t get much more neatly groomed than that.”

Advertisement

“We believe we have a very fair policy,” says PacTel Cellular executives. “But we also feel strongly that we have to maintain a professional image.”

Even Disneyland seems to be lightening up these days. When Disney, which is based in Burbank, took over management of the Disneyland Hotel and the passenger liner Queen Mary in Long Beach two years ago, the company fired several men for refusing to shave mustaches or beards.

Facial hair is still out. But recently, Disneyland told women office workers that they could trade in their traditional, flesh-toned hosiery for subdued colors like black, blue or ivory. And their earrings--by fiat no bigger than a dime--could grow.

To the size of a penny.

Advertisement


Advertisement
Advertisement