BERGEN COUNTY, NJ
March 25, 2001
By JUDY JEANNIN
Vol. 335, Issue: 31106
BACK TO BUSINESS - THE PENDULUM IS SWINGING AWAY
FROM ULTRA-CASUAL ATTIRE AT THE OFFICE
Sherry Maysonave has noticed a change in the way clients are dressing as she's traveled around the country in her role as image adviser to some of America's top corporations. "Casual dress is changing. Companies are tightening dress codes.
They are being forced to define what business casual is and not leave it up to the interpretation of the employee," says Maysonave, founder and president of Empowerment Enterprises, a communication- image firm.
"I see the pendulum swinging to much dressier casual dress. I also see executives choosing to go back to full business dress, even though the company has a casual dress policy. Men like the armor of that suit. It does set them apart."
Andrea Pass, vice president of Maximum Exposure Public Relations in Woodcliff Lake, has observed the same thing: "A year ago people were wearing khakis, now women are wearing a skirt with tights and a sweater, and men a sport coat. The look is getting back to business."
Credit the faltering economy, dot-bombs, or the presidential edict that jeans are no longer acceptable in the West Wing, but increasing numbers of businesses are asking their employees to ditch the sneakers and T-shirts and dress for success.
Bert Hand, chairman and CEO of Hartmarx Corp., which produces labels ranging from the upscale Hickey Freeman to the trendy Kenneth Cole as well as two women's lines, agrees the trend is toward improved business casual, but doesn't foresee a stampede to suits.
"It is never going back to what it was before, but you are going to see a lot more wearing suits at specific times," says Hand. "There will be casual Fridays and casual dressing during the summer, but the suit is going to have a form of recovery. There are times when it is not appropriate not to wear a suit. I think President George W. Bush recognized that." Larry Bryan, senior men's designer for men's tailored products at Lands End, agrees. He's noticed a trend to dressier fabrics and looks on the runways of Europe, particularly in Milan.
"We've seen the beginnings of a more structured approach to suiting," says Bryan. "We saw ties with everything last season, even sweaters.
"In the world of dot-coms they got too casual. It got so you couldn't tell the CEO from the guy in the mailroom."
Vincent Rua, founder of an organization called "Let's Get Back to Business" (formerly "Dress up Thursdays"), credits Levi Strauss & Co. with mainstreaming casual dress. Quick to spot the marketing potential for its Dockers division in the informal dress of Silicon Valley, the firm lobbied human resources departments across the country to change their dress codes.
"Levi's crafted a clever plan and implemented it," says Rua. "In December of 1999 they reported that more than 30,000 businesses had requested their professionalism package since 1995."
Problems developed when firms failed to place limits on casual dress and left employees to sort it out. Men, comfortable with suits, had difficulty assembling dress-down wardrobes. Women also floundered, often resorting to jeans and khakis. The result was not the enhanced communication and better performance that had been projected, but a workplace filled with inappropriately dressed employees.
"It is more difficult for women," says Maysonave. "If a man is wearing dress trousers and a sport shirt people assume he has a sport coat. That is not true for women. Women have to work harder to command respect, so women must step up their clothing to look very professional.
Good quality is such a key.
"When people hear business casual, they think khakis. Khakis are so disempowering for women. They are too casual for women. It is as though they are trying to look male. We are beyond that."
Maysonave also faults the fashion industry for misleading women as to what is appropriate office wear. She cites the example of a young woman working for a fashion-oriented California company who disagreed with her about the appropriateness of sleeveless dresses and a lack of hosiery, two strong fashion trends.
Her boss, a man in his 30s, agreed with Maysonave, who dislikes both for the office. "He said, I think you are more concerned about where you are going after work than what you are doing here," Maysonave recalls. "He intimated that she couldn't continue to climb if she continued her present way of dress."
In an effort to rid businesses of what they view as sartorial blight, Rua, an Albany men's wear retailer, and his organization work with members of the Association of Image Consultants International to present "A Guide to Dressing with Professional Style." The three- hour seminars are designed to help employees of both sexes navigate the various levels of casual dress.
Men's Wearhouse, a nationwide clothing chain, has joined the effort by offering a video entitled "Casual Know-How." Using classic sportswear pieces, it demonstrates acceptable versions of business casual.
"It is a lot harder to look good dressing down than wearing a suit," says Charles Bresler, executive vice-president of store operations for Men's Wearhouse.
Come spring 2002, Hartmarx is rolling out a line Hand calls "The Perfect Wardrobe." It will consist of 20 to 22 related pieces ranging from tuxedos to pique shirts and khakis. It will be marketed much like women's sportswear, enabling a man to mix and match.
All agree that the key to business casual is quality. For men that might mean a soft suit worn with a fine-gauge knit shirt, or a sport coat, button-down shirt, and wool slacks. Women might wear a pantsuit and turtleneck or shirt, or a skirt and sweater set. Appropriate shoes and other accessories are also important. (Sandals and bare legs are a no-no.)
"Non-verbal communication is still key," says Maysonave, whose book "Casual Power" offers clear-cut suggestions for proper dress. "Your clothing, posture, and demeanor are an important part of communication."
"You really are giving a message about how you feel about yourself, other people, and the job you are doing," says clothing psychologist Emily Cho, who has spent the past 30 years providing image consultations and is author of several books on the subject. "If you look too sloppy your whole posture and carriage changes."
Rua takes it one step further. "I believe very strongly that when you are allowed to dress in sloppy casual, your mentality changes. It has an impact on worker productivity.
"The suit is still the power garment, always was, always will be." Fashion Editor Judy Jeannin's e-mail address is email@example.com (SIDEBAR)
The basics of business casual dress
If you are what you wear in this new business environment, then it pays to play by the rules.
In her book "Casual Power: How to Power Up Your Nonverbal Communication and Dress Down for Success" (Bright Books, $29.95), Sherry Maysonave breaks down corporate casual chic for both men and women:
DO'S - For both sexes:
Maysonave's Web site is www.casualpower.com
Back to Master Article Index