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Dress Codes Become More Relaxed

October 04, 1994|From Reuters

CHICAGO — Signs warning patrons "No shirts, no shoes, no service" are common in some American cafeterias and restaurants. But at Microsoft?

This year, a sign, "Shoes and Shirts Required," was seen hanging from a cafeteria door at the software company's Redmond, Wash., headquarters.

While a shoeless computer whiz doesn't seem out of place in a high-tech incubator like Microsoft, the notice itself says something about the state of America's business wardrobe.

Casual dress codes are becoming standard at institutions far removed from the Silicon Valley culture, which some retail observers credit with putting the corporate uniform out to pasture.

Casual Day is becoming a way of life rather than a special event at many U.S. companies where younger managers, at-home offices and corporate restructurings have all taken the bite out of the power suit.

It's difficult to figure exactly how quickly companies are abandoning a strict dress code and what sectors of business are leading the drive.

A poll conducted by the Gallup Organization for Accountants on Call, a New Jersey employment service, showed that, while companies still maintain some dress code, employees are not bound to a pin-striped suit five days a week.

In the survey of 682 working adults in September, 1992, just 21% said they have a strict dress code. Another 31% had relaxed attire rules--meaning that men can get away with open collars and slacks--and 22% had a combination of a relaxed and rigid dress codes.

"We have made informality a much bigger part of our day-to-day lives," said Watts Wacker, managing partner of Yankelovich Partners, a market research firm.

This trend has put retailers in a tough spot. Shoppers just aren't giving in to far-out styles and fat price tags like they did in the 1980s.

"Suddenly you find yourself in a very fluid time saying, 'Wow, what is my core business?' " said AnnTaylor chairman and chief executive Sally Frame Kasaks. "We had to really define ourselves not by whether women worked or not."

Today, professional women are shopping for fabrics suitable for any season, separates instead of suits and flexible styles for both the office and play.

"What we're finding ultimately is that fall is shaping up as a season for separates," Kasaks said. "What's the trend? Is it slim? Is it straight? Is it full? I say 'Yes.' "

AnnTaylor, like many other specialty retailers, fell into a slump about two years ago as consumers were turned off by unpopular fashions and instead plowed money into their homes.

But a turnaround has taken hold at retailers that have cut expenses and sharpened fashion offerings. AnnTaylor reported its earnings more than doubled in the second quarter to $7.9 million from $3.6 million, excluding unusual items.

At Marshall Field's, a mainstay Chicago retailer, companies have flooded its design director with queries about how to relax dress policies without going overboard.

"I think the industry has had to respond to people wanting to dress down," said Rebecca Hitchcock, fashion director. Nonetheless "women and men are still buying business wardrobes each season."

Some companies tell workers to dress up only when necessary. At Designs Inc., whose stores sell exclusively Levi Strauss products, casual attire makes good business sense.

"We tried doing it for one day (a week), and everyone loved it," said Designs President Joel Reichman. "And then we said, 'You know something, our associates are our best customers. They pay cash. They don't return stuff. Let's have them (dress casually) every day."'

The hitch is that Designs' employees have to wear the Levi brand if they're wearing jeans, he said. But the policy is more than a marketing tool; a relaxed atmosphere seems to boost productivity and communication.

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