What Is Business Casual?

It was supposed to make life easier, but confusion reigns

It's so hard to dress for success these days. For Jack Steeg, vice-president for sales at the Internet-partner division of Dell Computer (DELL) in Austin, Tex., choosing what to wear to work used to be a no-brainer. He'd put on a white shirt, tie, and suit and be done with it. But with the introduction of casual-dress rules, picking an office wardrobe has become a major task. That's why Steeg, 51, recently hired image consultant Sherry Maysonave to give him some pointers on choosing casual outfits that befit his station.

If you're like Jack Steeg, you, too, are probably bewildered by the new mode of dress pervading the business world. It's the ultimate sartorial irony: Less restrictive dress codes were supposed to make life more comfortable for everyone. Instead, with the old rules gone, many people are in a state of dress-down confusion. As a result, companies are refining their dress policies or hiring consultants such as Maysonave to help. "People are struggling over just what the new standard of appearance should be," says Dominique Isbecque, an image consultant in New York.

Of course, there are some general guidelines that will keep you from getting too far off the mark. Fashion experts say men usually can't go wrong with a sports coat in muted colors and flannel or gabardine trousers. Shirts, whether button-down or knit pullover, must have a collar. Women can wear pantsuits or tailored pants with a sweater set.

When it comes to business meetings, image consultants and company executives agree that employees must make their wardrobe fit the client's style. If you don't know what that is, it's up to you to find out. Daniel Reehil, director of sales for Clik Communications, a New York marketing firm, first tries to figure out how casual the client might be from the company's Web site. Otherwise, he calls the client's office and speaks to either the client or an assistant to try to figure out the style of dress. Many companies ask that employees keep a change of appropriate clothing on hand just in case they have to go out on a client call.

Beyond that, the rules get fuzzy. For one thing, they vary by region and industry. Not surprisingly, the East Coast and Midwest are more conservative than the West Coast. About 50% of financial, insurance, and real estate companies allow casual dress once a week, but just 34% permit it all the time, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. The SHRM says 44% of all businesses have adopted all-casual, all-the-time policies, up from 36% in 1998.

Companies have also learned that if they don't lay down specific policies, the words "dress casual" can be subject to wide interpretation. "There was a general assumption that employees would share the same definition of what `business casual' meant," says Robert DeRocker, executive vice-president of Development Counselors International, a New York marketing and communications firm specializing in tourism and economic development. "We were wrong."

Three years ago, when Development Counselors expanded its casual-Friday dress code to five days a week, its 25 employees were delighted. But then they started wearing just about anything they wanted--torn jeans, gym clothes, tube tops. Things got so out of hand that management formed a committee to devise an official dress policy. It then attached the new guidelines to the employee handbook.

Lots of companies are doing the same, according to the Association for Image Consultants International. In some cases, they're starting from scratch. In others, they're reshaping existing policies to reduce the guesswork. Two years ago, the Austin office of Kennedy-Wilson International, a Los Angeles commercial real estate firm, adopted a casual-Friday policy and sent out a brief statement about appropriate dress, nixing such items as sundresses and jogging suits. More recently, when the office introduced a new arrangement--business casual Monday through Thursday and plain casual on Friday--they revised the requirements considerably. Example: Monday through Thursday, men have to wear shirts with collars and muted patterns; Fridays, Hawaiian shirts are O.K.

Policies differ dramatically from one place to another. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter (MWD), which introduced all-year casual in April, requires that men wear long-sleeved shirts except in summer. J.P. Morgan (JPM) launched its "business-appropriate" policy in February without specifying details. "We pay our people a lot of money for their judgment, so we leave it up to them," says Vice-President Kristin Lemkau.

Management Recruiters International, an executive search firm in Cleveland, has two sets of rules: On the 30th floor, where the executives work, a jacket and tie are required; the technology and creative types on the 31st are allowed more relaxed dress. Incredibly, Clik Communications specifies that employees must wear undergarments. The Philadelphia office of Arthur Andersen recently sent missives forbidding capri pants, leather pants and skirts, and fleece.

Some companies with written guidelines also make their point with fashion shows. Often featuring employees as models, they present a series of appropriate outfits. At one two-hour event held in early October at Saks Fifth Avenue's flagship store in New York, some eight employees from J.P. Morgan and Salomon Smith Barney (C) modeled the clothes. Sometimes, the shows go a step further, highlighting dress-down don'ts as well. Last March, Powell Goldstein Fraser & Murphy, a law firm with offices in Atlanta and Washington, D.C., held a presentation at each office, with several partners demonstrating such business-fashion faux pas as shorts and sandals.

When companies turn to image consultants, they are usually seeking guidance for more than just deciding whether, say, open-toed shoes are acceptable. They also must make sure policies aren't potentially discriminatory. Ideally, that means that if you indicate specific restrictions for women, you ought to do the same for men, and vice versa. "These things are sometimes held up in the legal department for weeks," says Isbecque. Some consultants conduct seminars for managers in how to enforce the rules. Isbecque, for example, leads role-playing exercises, holding up photographs of specific infractions and asking participants to demonstrate how they would confront a guilty employee.

Not surprisingly, retailers have learned to take advantage of the current state of confusion. Banana Republic (GPS) is one of the few retailers specifically addressing the women's business-casual market. It also recently set up temporary on-site stores at the New York headquarters of three corporations, where employees could buy outfits tailored to each company's dress code.

And a new effort called Dress-Up Thursdays, launched in September by two menswear execs, offers monthly events in scattered locations to publicize a new guide to appropriate garb. Recently, they held a fashion show at clothing store Rochester Big & Tall in New York, where celebrities, such as TV weatherman Al Roker and former boxer Gerry Cooney, acted as models.

"We're saying there are different levels of dress for different occasions," says co-organizer Vincent Rua, chief executive of Christopher's, an Albany-based menswear store. The bottom line is that while suits and ties may never regain their once ubiquitous presence in the workplace, companies are stopping well short of anything goes.

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