July 22, 2002

By Niesha Gates
Bee Staff Writer

Dressed To Go Nowhere
T-shirts and capri pants come up short as office attire

It's a summertime problem that most people face daily -- a standoff with their wardrobe as they try to dress appropriately for the office while still staying cool in the sweltering Sacramento heat.

Realizing that the traditional suit and tie could place executives on the fast track to heat stroke, many companies have relaxed their dress codes during the summer. But this doesn't always solve the problem. In fact, as some companies have quickly found out, it simply creates a new one.

Enter Hill and Knowlton, an international public relations firm with an office in Sacramento. The local firm has a written dress code of business casual for days when clients are not in the office, and just added jeans to the summer dress code for "casual Fridays."

The company discovered that given an inch, one employee took a mile.

"One individual came to work wearing a combination of jeans and Birkenstocks," said Chris Holben , senior managing director. "I didn't have to send the person home, but I made it clear that it wasn't appropriate."

The line dividing appropriate business attire from that which is too casual has been blurred by the popularity of business casual, experts say. With the tech explosion of the mid-1990s came the surge of casually dressed millionaires, and the dress code caught on. But now business casual has evolved into couture chaos, and some say employees need to be reined in.

Sherry Maysonave, author of "Casual Power," a guidebook of business attire, said the first thing employees need to do when questioning what to wear is to consult the dress code or the human resources department of the company.

Although it's tempting to adopt a "less is more" wardrobe during hot summer months, Maysonave, who also does corporate image consulting, said doing so will only send the wrong signal to supervisors.

"I was in a consultation meeting with executives from a very hip San Francisco company, and one of the women said my ideas were too stuffy," Maysonave said. "Her boss, who was between 32 and 35 years old, said he disagreed and said he didn't think she was concerned enough with the way she was presenting herself, and was more concerned with where she was going after work. Needless to say it got very uncomfortable in there."

The secretary of state's office has specifically defined summer dress code guidelines for its employees. Here too, business casual is adopted for summer. For most, this means khakis and polo shirts.

"Employees are more productive when they're comfortable," said Alfie Charles, assistant secretary of state for communications. "And we have specific prohibitions so employees won't be more casual than is appropriate for the workplace."

So just what is too casual for the workplace? Mary Mitchell, president of her Philadelphia-based consulting firm and author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Etiquette," said one of the most common errors women make is wearing capri pants to the office. Couple that with any kind of sleeveless blouse and you have the makings of business attire disaster. Mitchell said any kind of sleeveless blouse, T-shirt or shorts is also off limits.

"Capri pants really look unprofessional and unfinished," Mitchell said. "Don't wear clothes you'd wear to the beach."

Like many companies, a Pennsylvania law firm hired Mitchell to design a dress code for the office. When she arrived at the firm for the first consultation, Mitchell said she was shocked when she saw an employee walking down the hall in a tube top and pants. Mitchell is still haunted by the image.

"I couldn't believe my eyes," she said. "This woman was wearing a Spandex tube top at work. Spandex! But when there is no dress code, people try to push the envelope."

Tips for the office
Don't damage your professional image by wearing:

  • Shorts

  • T-shirts

  • Tank tops/sleeveless tops

  • Flip-flops

Just because you need to wear a suit doesn't mean you have to sweat:

  • Choose a fabric such as linen or tropical weight wool, which is lightweight and breathes.

  • Stay away from fabrics such as polyester and rayon, which trap heat.

Source: Sherry Maysonave, image consultant and author of "Casual Power"

Copyright Sacramento Bee


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