Christina Haselbusch was told she shouldn't wear the camisole or the sundress that bared her shoulders to her accounts receivable job at a Century City law firm.
But down the street, Kimberly Barrow, a Northrop Grumman Corp. switchboard operator, is considered perfectly acceptable in a matching camisole and skirt, and tennis shoes.
Tyneia Hawkins and Laurie Haines, both dressed in snug, lowriding jeans and clingy, bare camisole tops, look as if they're headed to a hip bar. The 20-something legal assistants have the freedom to dress as they please. They suspect that not everyone in their Century City law offices approves.
"I know that people are probably talking behind my back," says Hawkins, 28, who is also a law student. "But I like to dress with flair." Her boss, litigator Daniel Ben-Zvi, says he has never had a problem with his assistant's attire, though he did ask her during a recent lunch, "Are you going to dress like that when you're a lawyer?"
"Either I'll win the case on the merits, or by the way I look," she quipped.
Such cheeky attitudes--and dress--have helped bring casual office clothes to new states of undress that some employers find unbearably bare. It's no wonder that the office fashion patrol, as they race to keep up with changing styles, are seeking out the advice of consultants who favor putting the business back into business-casual codes.
Ten years after the first casual dress codes freed men from ties and women from stockings, employees are pushing the limits of appropriateness. With fashion pushing bare styles and employers offering few clear-cut rules, the office tsk-tskers cluck about how bare is too bare.
The list of working-world taboos today reads like a women's summer fashion's bestseller list: camisoles, halters, sheer mesh tops, lowriding jeans and clingy, spandex-enhanced skirts, pants and shirts. The strapless, backless and skimpy styles that have sailed out of stores and across the office threshold have made bosses wince--and retailers smile.
Ironically, some retailers responsible for the parade of barely there clothes have thrown a blanket over the work world striptease. Sales associates at the Express chain of contemporary women's wear can sell their trendy tank tops, crocheted halters and clingy camisoles, but they can't wear them on the job. The Limited Inc.-owned company requires its store employees to cover their shoulders, said corporate spokesman Anthony Hebron, who explained that the store's skin-showing styles are for off-duty hours.
And over at Victoria's Secret, where nearly naked models in lingerie give their come-hithers from larger-than-life window posters, the sales associates are required to follow a strict, six-page dress code that bans sleeveless tops, bare shoulders, open-toed shoes, denim, bold checks or clothing that reveals underwear lines or bulges. The lingerie company is touchy about the topic: When the policy was posted on http://www.thesmokinggun.com in June, Victoria's Secret lawyers demanded that the information be removed.
The friction between fashion's cues and the work world's rules is bringing repeat customers to image consultants such as DiAnna Pfaff-Martin, who heads the Newport Beach-based California Image Advisors. Here in Los Angeles, where flaunting flesh and breaking rules are part of the local lore, formality can be especially hard to enforce.
"When business casual first started, it was about going without a tie or wearing pants instead of a skirt," said Susan Morem of Premier Presentation Inc., a Minneapolis image consultant who wrote "How to Gain the Professional Edge." "Now it's gone to a much different level of almost anything goes. We're not surprised or shocked by anything we see anymore."
Revealing, clingy clothes are everywhere this summer, from Lane Bryant, where plus-size halters are paired with jeans, to Macy's, where clothes that flashed a little shoulder, back or belly were the bestsellers, said junior's buyer Dena Fiorelli. "Bare was the big success for the season, and it was important in all areas, not just in juniors," she said.
Even toes have come under fire. Sandals, a huge footwear trend, are verboten in many traditional workplaces. "Let's face it," said Chicago-based image consultant Susan Fignar. "Most sandals make your feet look sexy."
So what's the problem with looking attractive or even sexy?
Nothing, as long as the fashionable flaunters are prepared for the consequences, said Pfaff-Martin, who warned, "You might get the date but not the contract."
She most often sees inappropriate attire on younger workers, particularly women. "Young people are marketing themselves for what is important to them, not what is going to profit the company," Pfaff-Martin said. "People in their 20s are looking at who they are going to marry and whose children they are going to have. They don't want to look like stodgy old businesspeople."