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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS | VENTURA COUNTY LIFE

Casual Office Attire Suits Me Fine

March 10, 2000|STEVE CHAWKINS

"This OK?" I asked my wife this morning, holding up an antifreeze-blue sweatshirt.

There was a time I would hold up glowing Chernobyl-green ties for her approval, but now it's sport shirts, sweatshirts, polo shirts, and other staples of the professional man's millennial wardrobe.

No, it's not OK, declared my image consultant, barely looking up from the paper. It's too casual.

Too casual? How can anything be too casual here in Southern California--especially in Ventura County, the place that put the "ah" in La-La Land? Too casual? How can anyone be too casual when the 20-somethings running the billion-dollar dot-coms wear the same torn jeans and black Limp Bizkit T-shirts as the kids at the carwash?

Too casual for a newsroom? A few newsroom types can pull off a natty, journalistic look, but newspaper people . . . well, picture a thrift-store explosion--with worn sweaters, tired golf shirts, shapeless Dockers, battered sneakers, wide ties, narrow ties and Indian-bead belts--raining down on astonished passersby. That's the newsroom dress code all week except in those few with "Casual Fridays," when reporters tend to dress with more care.

Too casual?

Absolutely, say anti-casual activists promoting what they call Dress Up Thursdays.

Dress Up Thursdays are a reaction against Casual Fridays, which have expanded into Casual Sundays through Thursdays in many a workplace.

"Casual Fridays are a slippery slope," warned Vince Rua, a former accounting executive and the mastermind of Dress Up Thursdays. "Within 30 days of going casual, firms find guys coming in in wrinkled khakis and T-shirts, and really pushing the envelope on shoes. They look like frat guys on their way to a keg party."

You might not think that's a problem--if so, call me for some brews and a quick game of Twister--but it's a mega-problem, especially for Rua, who owns a chain of men's stores in New York.

"In a lot of instances, Casual Fridays don't promote anything but less productivity, and more flirtatious behavior," he said, contending that "what gets talked about at the coffee station tends to be more than just business--a lot more."

Casual Fridays, you must understand, were started 10 years ago by Levi Strauss & Co.

Dress Up Thursdays come to you courtesy of the folks who peddle, as Rua does, men's suits.

You shouldn't have to ask about the sponsor of Dress Entirely in Banana Peels Wednesday.

In any event, I predict the move to Dress Up Thursdays will hit a rough patch in Ventura County.

Not so many years ago, I was stricken with managerial ambition and went looking for a suit in a Ventura department store.

"Where are the suits?" I asked.

A sales clerk squinted at me as if I'd asked my question in Uzbek.

"Oh, the suits," he finally said, pointing to a rack of red and green sweats. "The suits are over there."

Eventually, I bought a nice suit. I took it to the thrift shop years ago, and dressed down with the times.

I can't say I've noticed a change in my post-suit productivity, but I'd advise the Dress Up Thursday people not to play the productivity card if they want more workers to buy suits.

American employees are tired enough as is. They don't want to be more productive. If I were a boss, I'd keep my mouth shut on productivity, but rhapsodize about family friendliness, flexible schedules, workplace empowerment, team building and free cappuccino. Then, of course, I'd work them like mules.

Besides, quite a few workers these days would be less productive in business wear.

"Tell some of the programmers to wear a suit and tie, and they'd never be comfortable," said Rick Barrett, a spokesman for Maxon Computers in Thousand Oaks.

At Maxon, a dottish-commish company that makes 3-D animation software, the average age is 22, said Barrett, who is 22. On the firm's programming and technical support side, the preferred dress is jeans and a T-shirt. On the marketing side, it's jeans and a polo shirt. The cultural divide comes down to a simple collar.

Things are considerably more traditional at the Ventura law firm of Ferguson, Case, Orr, Paterson & Cunningham.

"Every once in awhile, an attorney will come in without a tie, but that's about as casual as they get," said office administrator Kathy Gooding. "People are expected to dress professionally."

And that's just the problem! In a day when excellent dentists wear Hawaiian shirts and Al Gore campaigns without a dark blue suit, what exactly does it mean to dress professionally?

At Amgen, Ventura County's biggest private employer, only a handful of employees regularly wear anything other than casual garb, said David Kaye, a spokesman for the Thousand Oaks biotech company.

Employees bask year-round in California casual, he said, occasionally throwing on a jacket and tie for East Coast visitors but sticking to sports shirts the rest of the time.

"In the labs, you can see them in lab coats, lab goggles, boat shoes and cutoffs."

But what would be more professional for chromosome-splicers than a pair of well-worn genes?

Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or by e-mail at steve.chawkins@latimes.com.

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