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Letting Loose on Friday : A workday without ties, pantyhose or pumps? It's true. Businesses are easing dress codes in an attempt to boost morale. Even the conservative corridors of banks and law firms are joining in.


It is Friday, which means office manager Kim Dixon will take only 15 minutes to dress for success. Instead of crafting a French twist, she will toss on a baseball cap. Instead of sifting through silk separates and suede shoes, she will whip on jeans, an oversize T-shirt and cowboy boots.

For Dixon and millions of others nationwide, this is casual Friday. Inspired by the think-tank attire of the Silicon Valley, where dressing down has long been the norm, it's a day in which firms try to boost morale by releasing employees from suits and ties, pantyhose and pumps. A familiar sight in advertising agencies and other creative havens, casual clothes are now invading the conservative corridors of banks and law firms, if only once a month. Benefits range from a relaxed mental state to a nice savings on clothing and dry-cleaning bills, employees say.

For the past three years, Fridays at Creative Design Consultants in Costa Mesa have been more comfortable and productive because of the company's casual day policy, creative director Julie Ann Macias says. "You can notice a difference because everyone is getting ready for the weekend. Maybe they slept in that day because they could dress quicker in their casual clothes. But once they arrive at work, everyone's working hard to finish up their work and get things done so they can leave."

The company's employees trade in their normal business attire--jackets with slacks or dresses with hose--for Friday wear--dressy jeans and boots or Bermuda shorts and huaraches. Hair that's neatly pulled back to avoid distraction at client presentations during the first four days of the week is hidden under straw hats or baseball caps.

The guidelines at Creative Design Consultants? "Casual but clean," Macias says.

The comfort level varies from office to office--as does the frequency of casual days. In some companies, jeans are fine; in others, they are taboo. Most declare beachwear off limits and promote classy weekend attire such as khaki pants, Bermuda shorts, polo shirts.

"You still have to have a professional appearance in case you run into the president in the hall," explains James Boyd, assistant manager of graphics for Hilton Hotels Corp. in Beverly Hills. On the company's monthly casual day, Boyd says, "the president sets the tone," typically wearing a "nice" sweater or polo shirt, slacks and loafers.

Boyd's enthusiasm starts to build on Thursday night, when, he says, "it's a relief to know you can roll out of bed in the morning and roll into your Cole Haans." With the loafers, he usually wears a chambray shirt and loose-fitting jeans. And his Friday comfort doesn't stop there. Minus a conservative suit, tie and shirt, Boyd says: "I don't have the dry-cleaning bill adding up in the back of my mind."

Dixon, office manager of Clein + White, a small public relations firm in West Hollywood, says weekly dress-down days save her more than $600 a year--in dry-cleaning bills and in "not buying that extra outfit, that extra pair of slacks."

But the day isn't a given. If a client is expected in the office, Dixon says, "we choose as a group to dress a bit better, even though we could come in casually."

In some firms, there isn't a choice. A client's scheduled visit triggers the alert for business attire, an alert delivered by memo, phone or what one employee jokingly calls "a visit from the fashion police."

At Creative Design Consultants, casual day is canceled if a client is coming in. "Image is important in our business, and our image is reflected in our attire," Macias says. "But we try to avoid Friday client presentations if we can."

At Langberg, Leslie, Mann & Gabriel, a Century City law firm, there is a different approach. To greet new clients, senior partner Barry Langberg says he wears a business suit. But his colleagues aren't expected to go along, and Langberg tells his visitors "up-front that casual day is a tradition in the office."

When a couple of lawyers quietly started dressing down a few years ago, Langberg was less than thrilled. "I thought we should dress more formally," he says. "I thought if clients came in, it wouldn't be the right appearance."

Now, he wears jeans and so do longtime clients "who have taken up the tradition." But Langberg still takes a ribbing over a memo in which he attempted to define the boundaries of casual. He specified "no beachwear" without giving any examples. "I keep telling them 'I'll know it when I see it.' "

Some dress-down edicts just won't die. Earlier this year, publisher HarperCollins formally introduced a casual day for its New York staff--only to find excerpts from its memo and an employee's letter in a Publishers Weekly article headlined, "Are Kilts Okay?"

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