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Casual Friday Too Clothes for Comfort?

Fashion: Some critics say relaxed dress codes in the office have gone too far, changing attitudes and the industry.


A lot of people have been pushing to make casual dress on Fridays the new office standard. You know, TGICF.

It seemed like a good idea all around--in law offices in Fullerton, high-tech centers in Irvine and design firms in San Juan Capistrano.

Easing dress codes in corporate America was intended to be an earned, once-a-week respite from tight collars, stiff suits and uncomfortable shoes. The relaxed rule, although met warily in some boardrooms, was welcomed by the water-cooler set.

But now there are some new memos circulating on the subject. Critics of casual business attire argue that it's creating chaos in and out of the work place: confusing employees, frustrating superiors, hurting the dress-clothes industry. It may even be contributing to a change of attitude about work and other areas usually associated with respectful dressing.

Men and women are thrown into a quandary over what to wear. Companies have had to adopt dress policies to prevent employees from wearing sweats and shorts, and the workers who like to dress up fear they won't be seen as team players.

Downsized dress codes have also resulted in dropping sales for clothes stores, and those buttoned-downed types say the lax dress codes contribute to a lax attitude toward the job. They also worry that the business casual trend will escalate, ending the tradition of dressing up for church, the theater and special events.

Charlene Walker, co-owner of a career development and outplacement service called Women's Focus in Tustin, has resisted implementing a casual Friday policy at her office and she counsels clients to be cautious of it.

"Why would you dress less on a Friday?" she asks.

She says professional dress helps business people make that all-important positive first impression. Not for nothing do people call it a power suit.

For some, the stock of casual Fridays is plummeting. "Casual Friday is a disaster," says Mortimer Levitt, chairman of the Custom Shop Shirtmakers in New York City and a foe of business casual who recently addressed the issue before CEOs of major retailers.

Levitt, who has been in the fashion industry for most of his 90 years, blames Giorgio Armani for fostering the casual trend by sending male models down the runway in T-shirts with soft suits and three-day facial hair.

"It affects your morale," Levitt says. "You don't get geared up for business; you get geared up for play."

Levitt says all of this is harming the better menswear business. In the past 10 years, more than 1,500 fine apparel manufacturers and retailers have gone out of business nationally, while casual dress stores, such as the Gaps and Banana Republic, have added stores (five more Gaps and two more Banana Republics have opened in Orange County).

"What we'll have left is the Gap, Banana Republic and a bunch of discount stores," Levitt says.

"Clothes have gone downhill," Levitt says. "Men are given permission to look like slobs."

It's not just men. Critics say casual Friday is a bad idea for all professionals.

Women need to be careful about how they dress because they're still trying to break through the glass ceiling to top executive positions, says Walker of Women's Focus.

"Women can't afford to have people think less of them," Walker says. "We're noticed by what we wear all the time. If women go into a male-dominated company where the men are wearing the corporate look and they're wearing a flowy skirt, they'll be perceived as less than. They'll think she's not as good, not as professional."

Some companies that did relax their dress standards have contended with employees who have misread their inventories, mistaking casual for sloppy and showing up to work in blue jeans, tank tops, sandals or other inappropriate attire.

"Some determined casual Friday meant they could wear anything," says image consultant Sandi Clark, president of Image Works in Newport Beach. "We saw women in tight jeans and leggings with big, baggy sweaters. You still need to look like you're going to work."

The problem is that the concept of casual Friday is so new, many people have no guidelines on what to wear.

"They think that anything goes," Levitt says. "Companies have had to send out memos saying no shorts or T-shirts."

Take stock. Without the corporate uniform, traditionally a navy or charcoal suit and white shirt, workers suddenly have a wealth of choices. That has sent many running to image consultants for help.

"For women, casual Friday can mean wearing a conservative pantsuit," Walker says. "No denim, fluff or ruffles. Don't wear any fabric that's too flowy. It gives the impression of a garden party. They should choose a coordinated ensemble."

Bjorn Sedleniek, owner of POSH menswear in Fashion Island Newport Beach, tells customers that casual Fridays should not be confused with weekend wear. He steers them away from Dockers and T-shirts to more conservative fare, such as a sport coat worn without a tie.

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