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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Casual Is Working Full Time

Corporate suits take a leave of absence as dress codes become more relaxed. But the trend has created a backlash. `Tie Tuesday,' anyone?

August 11, 2006|Molly Selvin | Times Staff Writer

On those rare occasions when insurance executive Tara Guizot wears a suit to her Century City office, "people invariably ask me if I'm interviewing for a new job," she said.

The trend toward casual dress has gone so far that Matt Smith, a 27-year-old Century City lawyer, is on a quest to establish "Tie Tuesday." He would like to wear a suit to work but knows he'd be ridiculed. Instead, Smith dons a tie every Tuesday and hopes other men in his office will follow. So far a couple have.

"It's just something fun," he said.

Forget casual Fridays. In many workplaces, it's casual everyday as corporate dress codes have gone the way of fedoras and white gloves.

Office workers, from executives to receptionists, now wear pretty much what they want, sometimes baring more cleavage, tattoos and body fat than co-workers care to see.

The sartorial style pioneered by the T-shirt-and-jeans-wearing technology moguls of Silicon Valley more than a decade ago has spread even to law offices, accounting firms and corporate headquarters -- bastions of tradition that had kept generations of Brooks Brothers salesmen busy teaching customers how to fold silk pocket squares.

Polo shirts, sweater sets and tailored slacks -- what many companies consider "business casual" -- have given way to halter tops, rubber flip-flops, T-shirts and jeans.

The trend has even sparked a mini-backlash among professionals opting for a more buttoned-down look.

"Wearing a tie used to be a sign of conformity. But dressing down is now conformity and dressing up is rebellious," said Robert Stephens, who founded the Geek Squad, Best Buy Co.'s computer repair service. Squad members sport short-sleeve white shirts and black ties.

Credit younger workers, who bring a who-cares-what-I-wear attitude to their cubicles, for the casual-everyday trend. The hip-hugging jeans and silk-screened tees they favor have caught on with aging baby boomers, many of whom started their careers with a closet full of pinstriped "power" suits. Many women believe they no longer need to look suited-up like men to be taken seriously in the office.

Today's casual dress also reflects the needs of parents who want to be comfortable as they race from staff meetings to their kids' soccer practice.

Employers who once took a hard line on suits and pantyhose realized they risked losing valued staff members unless they lightened up. Many see their relaxed dress codes as a potential recruiting tool.

"It really helps us, specifically with Gen X and Y workers," said Miriam Wardak, senior vice president for ICF International, a Virginia-based consulting firm, adding that some younger workers have told her they would not consider a potential employer if they had to wear a suit and tie.

But today's lax dress codes are raising tough questions for managers about what's acceptably casual and what's too sloppy, offensive or revealing.

Most companies have dress codes, whether formal or informal. "Companies want neat and clean, a notch above what you might wear at home," said John Challenger, who heads outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc. But some workplaces seem to have abandoned hope of even that.

Packaged food giant General Mills Inc., which had formal rules until the mid-1990s, now simply asks employees to "dress for your day," spokeswoman Kirstie Foster said. The company suggests that "traditional business attire may be more appropriate on days when employees have meetings scheduled with customers or external clients."

Credit -- or blame -- luminaries such as T-shirt-and-jeans donning Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple Computer Inc., for the demise of neckties and pencil skirts. If they could doff their suits and still get rich, many people figured they should be free to do the same, Challenger said.

Generational shifts also explain the move to casual.

Baby boomers "felt compelled to express themselves through work and to be winners in that arena," said Peter Rose, a partner with the marketing research firm Yankelovich Inc. The mannish dress-for-success suits with floppy bows many young women wore in the early 1980s were testament to that ambition, he said.

But as Gen-Xers entered the workforce in the late 1980s, "they didn't feel as compelled to exhibit that sense of 'I have to be a winner,' " Rose said, even though many are just as driven.

Gen-Yers, also called echo boomers -- roughly those between 18 and 26 years old -- have an "even more relaxed set of standards and they especially don't like to be told what to do," Rose said. A bare midriff or cargo pants may look sloppy to a baby boomer, he said, "but to an echo it says, 'I need to be comfortable.' " An echo boomer "thinks nothing of wearing a nose ring to an interview," while boomers or Gen-Xers "would think you're out of your mind," Rose said.

At 29, Olga Shmuklyer, a New York public relations consultant, straddles the line between Gen X and Gen Y.

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