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Feeling Hemmed In by No-Pants Dress Codes

August 27, 1994|CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Given that women run everything from the Justice Department to Hollywood studios, and seeing as this is California, where--according to mythology--every way of life is embraced and no style of anything is forbidden, it may seem quaint to realize that some women still cannot wear pants to work.

Sometimes it's just an unspoken code, other times it's a blatant rule. Either way, the state Legislature narrowly avoided tackling the issue this week. A bill to prohibit employers from refusing to let women wear pants to work was killed on the Senate floor Thursday.

The stately Biltmore Hotel Downtown is one place where the no-pants policy is strict.

"It's not recommended," public relations director Maureen Stokes said about wearing pants. "It's part of the hotel policy."

Stokes herself was swathed in a long sweep of below-the-knee lilac skirt with stockings and pumps. "I love skirts," said Stokes, who would not wear pants even if the hotel allowed her to. It is a matter of her religion, she said. "Pentecostals don't wear pants."

But there are other women at the hotel who long to wear pants and who watched the demise of the state bill with disappointment.

"I was going to write to all the ladies in Sacramento," said one executive assistant who said she would wear pants to work if she could. Even the hotel maids cannot wear them. "I don't see what's wrong with a maid wearing them--to vacuum, getting under beds, scrubbing floors."

But neither she nor the gray-dress-clad maids would be wearing pants this week. "It's just not a tradition in the hotel industry," she said. "And the hotel industry is very conservative. You don't go around changing things."

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At other places the policy is less a written rule and more what the business world will accept.

"It's really up to the local manager for the division," said Kathy Marshel, regional manager for personal financial services at the Los Angeles office of Chase Manhattan Bank. Marshel has no problems with women at the bank wearing pants but rarely chooses them herself. "In our division, we deal with a lot of high net worth individuals. When you're dealing with that kind of clientele, you project that kind of image."

Others chafed at a vague but powerful sense of restriction.

"I think it sucks," said Elizabeth Klune, 32, who sells financial services for Chase Manhattan. "I think it's ridiculous. I have to wear a suit and nylons, and I carry around 70 pounds of equipment," she said of the laptop computer, files, briefcase and garment bag that accompany her when she calls on clients. "I think it's discriminatory to ask someone with a smaller frame to carry that around while they're in high heels."

Ironically, she was standing in the Chase's carpeted reception area wearing jeans, a knit top and a print jacket. Chase is just one of many Downtown companies that have made Fridays into a festival of dressing down. But just on Fridays. And not to visit clients.

So she lives up to the suited dress codes she believes her clients expect. She even makes concessions with her pierced earrings. She only wears two. "I have three holes in my right ear," she said chuckling as she fingered her Friday casual dangling earring, "and two in my left ear. My last boss at Chemical Bank lectured me. . . . He said, 'I would not have all those earrings."'

At City National Bank, there are no restrictions on women wearing pants. "That went out," said Vickie Piatt, a vice president at the Pershing Square branch who was clad in jeans for dress-down Friday. "The last bank I worked at had a rule that women couldn't wear pants. That bank closed," she said, laughing. "I don't think that was the reason."

Piatt said she believes she has more flexibility than men in what she wears. "I think in the financial industry, the dress code is more restrictive for men. They are expected to wear suits and coats. I can wear nice pants and a dressy blouse."

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But her colleague, Beverly Ellis, a vice president and commercial loan officer, said her personal dress code makes her stay away from pants. She did make an exception Friday, wearing a fashionable pantsuit in keeping with the office's casual mode. However, she feels more comfortable in skirts when she is working with clients from multimillion-dollar companies who come looking for financing. "I'm a feminist, I kept my maiden name," Ellis said. "But for me, it's just not something I wear."

Opponents of the bill bristle at the notion that they are sexist. "I see nothing wrong in letting women wear pants," said state Sen. K. Maurice Johannessen (who lets women in his office wear pants), "but I just see something wrong in dictating to businesses what they can do."

In an effort to save the legislation, the bill's author, Assemblywoman Diane Martinez (D-Monterey Park), has merged it with another bill on employment discrimination that will hit the Assembly floor next week.

"In the last decade of this century, it's entirely appropriate that women's business attire include pants," Martinez said. "We do not take away an employer's right to demand professional dress."

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