To Dress Up Or Down, That Is the Question

Casual-day fervor grips business world

BOY, what a concept. Casual days, casual Fridays, dress-down days ... whatever you call them, they spell profit for the clothing industry.

The blue suits and rigid clothing standards that governed American business for so long have begun to slacken since the 1960s. The fashion industry has answered the call. At first, the designers began to loosen the suit. Stiff cuts and fabrics gave way to loose weaves and baggy, unconstructed suits. Slacks were cut in a more generous and softer style. The look was still dressy, but the feel was all casual.

The American consumer was not satisfied, however. Men were still governed by the tie. They pleaded for a day in which they could relax. Slowly businesses around the country, with the help of the fashion industry, began to institute casual days, often on Friday.

These dress-down days quickly infiltrated nearly all of society, even striking at such giant organizations as IBM. While exact numbers are hard to come by, it seems that nearly every major company has at least one relaxed day.

Yet the word ''casual'' is deceiving. You can't wear jeans and a T-shirt. Casual Fridays are a complex arrangement of dressy without the tie.

David Chu, designer of Nautica, a sportswear line, says on casual days you should look ''neat and good looking, but not sloppy.'' By sloppy, Mr. Chu says he means flannel shirts, cut-off jeans, and T-shirts.

So the key word is relaxed. A lot of magazines, newspapers, and designers have been touting a new line of clothing specifically for casual days. If by doing this, they sold more clothing, all the better.

This does not mean that the entire industry is out to rob buyers of their hard-earned paychecks. It could be argued that garmentmakers are just giving buyers what they've asked for.

''I think casual has been a movement for a long time,'' Chu says.

Many companies, including Nautica, don't think shoppers have to buy a new wardrobe for their newfound relaxed-wear days. The key is mixing and matching. Because suits have become more relaxed, many can be worn without a tie and not look silly. A polo shirt under a suit still looks stylish, but casual.

For some professionals, casual day is nothing new. People who work in more artistic or creative fields like advertising have been dressing down for years. So if you never wear a suit, casual days mean stay as you are.

Hewlett-Packard is one of the biggest computer companies in the world, but casual days became casual weeks years ago in the creative side of the company. Engineers haven't worn suits for years, but office workers continue to dress up. If you are in view of, or work with customers, more formal dress is important five days a week.

Tim Breuer, an IBM spokesman agrees. He says that IBM's new casual policy depends on the employee's daily schedule: ''365 days a year, it is up to them on how to dress,'' Breuer says. ''If their schedule includes a meeting with banking clients, you will see people wear the suit.''

The banking industry, long one of the most conservative, has only been slightly influenced by casual days. Suits are still common. Boston-based BayBank has dress-down Fridays during the summer, but they are only applicable to those employees working in the back offices. ''If you are working with customers, people must stay dressed up,'' Bruce Spitzer of BayBank says.

The media has hyped casual day, but remember - you do not have to go out and buy a new wardrobe. You don't even have to take off your tie. It is an attitude about life. It is about being relaxed and mixing up your wardrobe. The most common casual-day outfit is usually a polo shirt, blazer, and khakis, the traditional weekend sportswear of the trendy. Not too fancy, and without a bit of sloppiness.

Casual days are merely a manifestation of the American trend toward dressing down at work. They are opportunities for an individual's own tastes and fashion sense to emerge from behind the cloak of regimented suits. Yes, the fashion industry benefits, but hey, being comfortably dressed at work is a good tradeoff.

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