Example, not dictate, enforces today's office dress codes

How many figures in history or legend are associated in our minds with an article of costume? Hermes and his winged feet, Caesar and his dagger-rent robe , Queen Elizabeth and her ruff, Lincoln and his stovepipe hat, Daniel Boone in his coonskin cap, Theodore Rroosevelt in his fringed hunting shirt -- separate a man from his clothes and you are left with Swift's forked radish. But who will remember the man in the gray flannel suit?m J. Donald Adams, "Naked We Came"

Sumptuary laws stating who could wear what abounded in the Middle Ages, effectively keeping the lower classes from looking like their betters. Such laws find modern counterparts, some say, in the dress codes of our own society.

Ranging from the blatant -- the uniforms of pilots, infantrymen, and waitresses -- to the subtle hints of executive example, dress codes are still in force.

And the law's on their side. A spokesman at the Department of Labor says there is "nothing on the books prohibiting an employer from dictating how his employees dress." Some specific dictates -- such as those requiring waitresses to wear seductive outfits -- have been questioned in the courts, however.

But it's a rare employer who spells out skirt length and shirt color anymore. Most -- including offices where appearances count for much, like sales -- set the code by example. Says a spokeswoman for the Hotel Sales Management Association, "Our people know that they need to present a tailored, current look , and that's what our executives wear. If someone were to come in here in slacks or blue jeans, they'd feel like they'd arrived at a dress ball in a swimsuit."

Presenting a tailored, professional look extends to all sorts of occupations these days. Observe the repair person next time you copier, or your office telephone, breaks down. Bob Musgrave of AT&T explains the service technician's suit-and-tie look this way: "It was an effort to present a more professional service all the way around. Of course, we don't tell them just what to wear, and the individual technician may wear a colored shirt or a sports jacket."

Not so his female counterpart. Ever since John Malloy wrote his classic "Dress for Success," companies have been filling up with navy blue or gray-suited women wearing tie blouses and sensible pumps -- cousins to the man in the gray flannel suit.

Not everyone agrees that this is the last work in successfuLl fashion. Says one female executive, "Wardrobe engineering won't do much for you if your work is lousy . . . or if you're one of an army of aspirants in impeccable skirted suits all competing for the same spot. As with investment advice, once everyone agrees that it's the thing to do, it's time to look for value somewhere else."

Caryl Krannich, an image consultant in the Washington, D.C., area, agrees that dressing -- successfully or otherwise -- won't cover up incompetence or help you do your job. But she still believes that certain styles are "more powerful," and advises clients to stick with the John Malloy system -- with some exceptions.

"If you have a lot of color contrast on your body -- if you have black hair, white skin, and blue eyes, for example -- then you can wear highly contrasting colors like a white blouse with your blue suit," she says.

"But if you look like me," says the brown-eyed, brown-haired consultant, "an outfit like that would walk into the room before you did. It's better to wear more blended colors, like a light blue blouse with a navy suit, and a neckpiece that pulls it all together."

Dr. Krannich suggest that the street wisdom that a person should dress like the job he wants rather than the one he has still hold true. "I tell secretarial school graduates to wear a skirted suit if they want to get to work in the executive suite," she says.

But, says Alison Lurie, author of "The Language of Clothes," "There are problems with dressing to advance your status professionally. First and most obvioulsy, it is very expensive. Second, there are one's colleagues to consider. The secretary in her severe skirted suit is seen as snotty and pretentious."

The etiquette books suggest the way around this is to dress according to the office norm -- be it three-piece suits or open-necked sweaters and gold chains -- and dress conservatively until you know what the norm is.

Then again, if you don't think you can stand to face each day in a navy suit, consider working for Reader's Digest. "We get a lot of temporaries here to help sort the mail," says a spokeswoman in its personnel department, "and you should see some of their outfits. I've seen things like halter tops and shorts -- honestly! We had to send some home."

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