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Wardrobe for Work Is a Statement on the Job : Attire: As the service sector grows, more professionals are dressing up for the office.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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

But the artists and writers, Vice President Dan Pittman says, “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.

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Such are the extremes of dressing for work in Southern California 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 companies have formal, detailed dress codes.

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

But Southern Californians are supposed to dress more casually than people elsewhere, right? 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.

“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.

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“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.”

And as the service sector in Southern California has grown--accounting firms, law firms, architectural concerns, ad agencies--appearance has become more important.

“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.

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“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.

“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 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.

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“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 anymore.”

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

On one assembly line are the skeletons of copying machines; on another next to it are the guts. 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.

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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.

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.”

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

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.

In fact, many local companies 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.

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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.

In general, 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.

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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.

Consequently, similar lawsuits are very unusual now. And while the U.S. 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.

Still there are the exceptions, such as 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.”

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“We believe we have a very fair policy,” a PacTel Cellular executive says. “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.


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