Here Come The Suits

Raising the style standard in the office

When paralegal Whitney L. Culbreath learned her law firm was planning to reverse its business-casual dress code and adopt a formal one, she thought, “Thank God. Now I don’t have to guess what I should and shouldn’t wear to work.” The 28-year-old typically dresses in pants, button-down shirts, and sweaters for work, but says that many of her colleagues wrestle with their firm’s current dress-down policy. Although the policy lists no-no’s such as halter tops and stiletto heels, it doesn’t spell out what is allowable. “You have to figure it out on your own,” Culbreath says.

Many companies are working to eliminate such confusion since business attire is taking a turn toward the serious. Professionals who have become accustomed to dressing down in khakis, jeans, and golf shirts over the past few years could soon find themselves suiting up again.

A January 2002 survey commissioned by the Men’s Apparel Alliance (MAA), a national, nonprofit industry trade group in New York City, shows that 19% of over 200 companies with more than $500 million in annual revenues are returning to formal business attire. Respondents also believed that productivity would increase as much as 40%. Last year, several firms reversed their business-casual dress policies, including Bear Stearns, Deutsche Bank, and Lehman Brothers. According to a 2002 survey by Jackson Lewis, a law firm focusing on workplace issues, 67% of companies had a casual dress code at least one day a week, down from 75% the previous year.

Many companies adopted casual dress policies during the heady 1990s. As a result, bankers courting business from twentysomething dotcom millionaires dressed to relate to their clients. But some companies are now concerned that casual clothing conveys a negative impression, particularly during a tough economy. Others find that relaxed clothing can result in less-than-professional activity. In another survey, Jackson Lewis noted that 44% of companies that adopted casual dress policies had an increase in tardiness and absenteeism, and 30% saw a rise in flirtatious behavior.

“Tough times require better performance [from employees], and that includes dress,” says James Ammeen, president of the MAA. “Credibility in business is a tremendous issue. When you are dressed appropriately, people listen to what you have to say.”

Once a company decides on a dress code appropriate for its industry, experts say, executives should spell out the dos, not just the don’ts. Vince Rua, president and chairman of Christopher’s Men’s Stores, a men’s clothing retailer with four New York locations including Albany, Poughkeepsie, and Syracuse, concurs. Otherwise, “you give [people] the opportunity to slip to the lowest common denominator if you only tell them what not to wear,” he notes.

Reversing its business-casual policy last year, Lehman detailed its requirements in a memo to employees. “Business dress for men is a suit and tie, and for women, a suit with either a skirt or slacks, a dress, or other equivalent attire,” it read.

For many professionals, a dressier code means updating their wardrobes. Some companies work with retailers to refine their dress codes and help their employees

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