Casual Day a Bad Fit?


Getting dressed for work used to be a snap for executive Ron Demczak. Then his company went casual--every day.

With 30 suits and little else in his closet, Demczak spent several thousand dollars buying a new, sporty wardrobe. He learned to call ahead to clients to make sure he didn’t wear corduroys when they were wearing suits. And he dreaded the mornings.

“I hated it because every morning I had to have my wife match new outfits to wear,” said the colorblind Demczak, who is the liaison for U.S. customers of drug maker Warner-Lambert Co. “Now I’m getting a little better at it.”


High-tech engineers and creative sorts long have been casting aside suits, stockings and ties, and much of corporate America has learned to dress down on Fridays.

But in the last year, more and more buttoned-down corporations, from Procter & Gamble Co. to Ford Motor Co. and Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad, have given their work forces--and executives--a jolt by giving khakis full rein every day.

Since Boeing Co. went casual last year, Chairman and Chief Executive Phil Condit changes his clothes two to three times daily to accommodate the different dress styles of those he meets. He keeps a suit in his office just in case.

According to a recent poll of 900 workers, more than half of white-collar workers can now dress casually every day, compared with 33% two years ago. The survey was funded by Levi Strauss & Co., which has aggressively sought a slice of the booming business casual-wear market. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.25%.

The boom in “business casual” in part reflects larger changes in how Americans work. With laptops and faxes, more people work at home or have more flexible hours, blurring the line between work and home.

In addition, top-down management is waning. Managers and employees are supposed to be working side by side, teaming together for everyone’s good. Double-breasted suits are out; cuddly cardigans are in.


For Ernst & Young’s Northern California offices, the switch to full-time casual dress in October was also spurred by the desire to blend in.

In that region, the accounting firm’s clients hail mostly from Silicon Valley, where software engineers and other young techies practically invented casual office wear.

“We used to stick out like sore thumbs, being the only ones in suits and ties,” said Robert Park, a manager at the firm’s San Jose office. “Everybody knew we had to be the accountants or the bankers.”

Still, Park keeps a traditional wardrobe for use when meeting outsiders who expect suits and ties. Some managers even stow suits in cars so they won’t be uncomfortably surprised. Others, like Demczak, call ahead.

“That’s when it gets complicated,” said Wendy Liebmann, president of WSL Strategic Retail consultants. “Do I go by my code or their code?”

Liebmann makes it simple for herself. She wears suits no matter how casually--or strangely--her client is dressed.


One memorable experience came when she walked into a client’s office and found him wearing a traditional suit--and a corduroy shirt. “At least take off your jacket!” she blurted out.

Some companies help baffled workers by passing out sometimes explicit lists of do’s and don’ts. Many remain confused. John Molloy, the 1980s guru of the “dress for success” movement, now spends most of his time teaching befuddled executives what to wear in a casual world.

“While casual dress has done some wonderful things for companies--communication is better, morale is better--it’s created problems for some individuals,” Molloy said.

Many managers feel they lose authority when they’re dressed casually. In reaction, some try to “announce their power” by trading sweaters for sport coats, or carrying fancy briefcases, Molloy said.

Despite the confusion and unease, the casual dressing experiment at four Ernst & Young offices in California proved so successful that all offices nationwide are now allowed to permit it every day.

Still, casual dress probably won’t become mandatory any time soon, said Deborah Holmes, head of the firm’s office for retention.


“In some markets, that would upset the clients too much,” she said.