Casual dress at the office may become the latest casualty of the slowing economy, with critics linking the laid-back look to an overall lack of professionalism and business acumen.
And the foes of informality may have a couple of bellwethers on their side too. President Bush is a jacket-and-tie man at the White House, and staffers there are expected to dress similarly, even on weekends. Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates has reportedly taken to wearing more suits and ties as well, but, as one observer pointed out, so do a lot of people who wind up in court.
But the business casual movement remains so strong that the traditionalists are being forced to take baby steps.
"There has been some decline in business-casual dress at the office, but it remains very popular," said Kristen Bowl, a spokeswoman for the Society for Human Resources Management, or SHRM. "Casual dress is a good recruitment tool. Employers wouldn't have offered these programs if, on a large scale, it didn't work for them."
The casual movement didn't begin with start-ups and dot-coms, but those businesses' emergence as an economic force took it to a new level. In 1992, only 24% of businesses surveyed by SHRM allowed casual attire at the office, and nearly 75% of those permitted it on just one day of the week. By 1999, 95% of employers polled by SHRM had a dress-casual allowance, and more than 40% of those businesses permitted it every work day.
During the late 1990s and in 2000, casual dress became so popular that it was the employee in the dress suit who looked like the odd man out at meetings with clients.
Today, companies say it makes good business sense to change with the times.
"We always try to match our clients in terms of clothing and we were totally influenced by the tech wave," said Bruce Schuman, senior vice president for the Southern California offices of Julien J. Studley, a national commercial real estate firm. "At the peak, spring of 2000, we were almost expected to show up casual even to meetings with chief financial officers and law firms."
The situation was the same for Los Angeles-based Korn/Ferry International, an executive recruiting firm.
"Most of our offices have always maintained traditional business attire," said spokesman Dan Margolis, "but some of our offices developed large concentrations of high-tech clients. More and more of their clients were wearing casual clothes, and we began allowing business-casual dress codes at those locations: Seattle, Denver, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, Dallas and Houston."
By contrast, the entertainment industry has long been more flexible than the traditional workplace in terms of business attire. The level of dress depends almost entirely on the situation.
"We're a large event and design production firm, and the dress here varies with what is needed," said Mike Eyre, executive vice president at Merv Griffin Productions. His company handled the premiere for the movie "Pearl Harbor," which meant formal wear for some and shorts and hard shoes for taking the venue apart after the premiere was over.
"For us [in the entertainment industry], it's always been this way. It really hasn't changed," Eyre said.
Many businesses have now adopted that Hollywood-style flexibility with clothes: Wear what the situation dictates.
Leslie Song Winner, who runs a small public relations firm called the Strategy Workshop, said she has gone to her downtown Los Angeles office in khakis, jeans and even overalls "once or twice, unironed," but only on days she wasn't meeting with clients. The standard is the same for her eight employees.
"I expect them to use good judgment," Winner said. "The men here who go out to meetings wear jackets and ties."
Back at Julien J. Studley, Corporate Managing Director Mike Catalano was wearing a dark brown Armani suit and Kenneth Cole dress shoes because he was scheduled to meet with insurance company clients that day. "They dress fairly conservatively," Catalano said. "But if I'm not seeing clients I'll just wear slacks and a dress shirt and footwear that looks like cop shoes."
Colleague Janice Cimbalo, 36, agreed, saying, "Casual is for when you are not meeting clients," but she added that she works more productively when she is in more comfortable casual clothes.
"These days, you hear people say, 'Nice suit, you must have a meeting today,' " Cimbalo said.
Dressing as the situation dictates runs both ways, according to employees and job seekers who come to the table with their own expectations.
Bill McPherson, 35, works in computer-assisted design in the San Diego area, and his usual office garb includes Dockers pants and a polo shirt. But McPherson is looking for a new job, an act that he and many others believe requires a touch of formality. So McPherson dusted off an old graduation present, a Botany 500 suit, and put on a tie for an interview with another San Diego tech company.
McPherson said he was appalled when one of the administrators conducting the interview showed up in dirty pants, a wrinkled shirt and visibly dirty hair.
"It took all of the wind out of my sails," McPherson said. "Until then, my impression had been that this was a top-notch design firm."
McPherson isn't alone in linking dress and success.
"Casual dress has been a detriment to a lot of companies," said Victoria Seitz, a professor at Cal State San Bernardino's college of business administration and author of "Your Executive Image: How to Look Your Best & Project Success for Men and Women."
"People have taken it too far," she said. "People seem to act better when they are dressed up. We act a little stiffer when we are dressed up and that's good.
"You may have productivity under dress-casual codes, but is it quality productivity? You have to realize the importance of image. Image is everything," Seitz said.
Image aside, there are those who link casual clothes to bad behavior. A 1999 study by Jackson Lewis, an employment law firm with 20 offices nationwide, came to the conclusion that casual clothes can lead to increased on-the-job flirting, harassment, tardiness and absenteeism.
But tying loose clothes to loose behavior is a stretch for some.
"This kind of reasoning is the basis for many superstitions and erroneous beliefs," UCLA professor of management Sanford M. Jacoby said. "When unemployment rates get very low, absenteeism does go up. There is less discipline in the workplace because employees simply aren't as afraid about losing their jobs. It's harder for the company to fire them. Now, people are attributing this to casual dress codes, and it had nothing to do with that.
"Now unemployment is rising, you don't have to cater to your work force as much, and you, as an employer, don't have to do those things that you really didn't want to do," Jacoby said.
Korn/Ferry International, in fact, has moved to eliminate its casual dress rules for every office except the one in Silicon Valley. But spokesman Margolis said that has more to do with the ebb and flow of his company's clients, who are now showing up for meetings in suits and ties.
SHRM's 2001 office attire survey did seem to show a decline in the number of offices offering at least one dress-casual day, down to 86% from a peak of 97% in 1998, but the results are hardly conclusive. The same survey also showed an increase in offices that dress casual every day, up to about 50% this year from 42% in 1995.
In the end, however, what's casual depends on who's judging. In reaction to hot weather and reduced air conditioning, the Los Angeles County Fire Department, for example, has allowed its employees a little relief.
They can now open the top buttons on their blue six-button shirts.
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Keeping It Casual
The number of companies allowing casual dress on at least some days peaked in 1998, but the percentage permitting it every day has continued to rise. Percentage of human resources professionals who say their organizations allow casual dress at least one day a week and those that allow it every day:
Note: Surveys were taken in the first quarter of every year. This survey question was either not asked or asked in a different way in 1993, 1994, 1996 and 1997.
Source: Society for Human Resource Management