The fashion police are on patrol

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Fashion has long been a study in contradictions and ironies. Consider the skirt. Not so many years ago, when pantsuits were still a newcomer in women's wardrobes, few people could have imagined a day when women would have to sue for the right to wear a skirt.

But that's the problem female correction officers in New York face. Three have been suspended for wearing skirts instead of trousers to work, defying an order that bans skirts with uniforms. Union representatives call the order unconstitutional, noting that some religions believe wearing pants is wrong. Correction officials counter that pants are safer, making it easier for women to run.

Score another point for fashion confusion. From school districts debating student uniforms to businesses trying to preserve professionalism, fashion lines are being redrawn. Even the Yale Club in New York, a bastion of jacket-and-tie propriety, has modified its dress code to allow T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers on Fridays during the summer.

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But wait. Just as the Whiffenpoof gentlemen and -women are relaxing their standards, corporate managers are tightening theirs. Casual Friday, hailed by many workers as one of the great inventions of the 20th century, is falling on hard times. Concerned that casual Friday has spread to casual everyday, bosses are lowering the sartorial boom.

Some complain that tasteful has devolved into tacky, decreasing productivity and service and increasing sexual-harassment suits. Human resources experts predict that the trend will come full circle, with a majority of companies allowing casual dress only on Fridays.

The executive search firm Korn-Ferry International in Chicago is ending a summertime experiment that allowed casual wear all week. A day at the office looked too much like a day at the park.

Similarly, members of the Chicago Board of Trade received a midsummer newsletter outlining a strict new dress code. It banishes T-shirts, jeans, tight stretch pants, low-cut dresses, and mini-skirts. The board warns that the code will be enforced and tickets will be issued, with fines as high as $100.

A ticket for wearing the wrong clothes? A dressing-down for dressing down? The fashion police are on patrol. So, button your shirt, straighten your tie, and banish that Spandex tank top to the dresser, at least until Saturday.

The question "What shall I wear?" requires daily decisions involving the closet, the mirror, and the weather. In theory, answers should be easier as relaxed attitudes replace rigid standards. In reality, even a closet filled with everything to wear can leave an owner feeling that there's nothing to wear.

This revolution in fashion represents a seismic shift, dictated not by designers or fashion editors but by shoppers, voting in the fitting room for comfort and easy upkeep. As Silicon Valley's laid-back culture has spread east, the casualization of America has permeated everything from work to weddings.

Dressing down, dressing up. What's a shopper - or a CEO - to do? Is it only a matter of time until someone - perhaps a Miss Manners clone - writes "The Rules" for dressing, modeled after the bestselling "Rules" for dating?

Mercifully, the fashion pendulum will probably never swing back to those man-tailored pinstripe suits and floppy ties that constituted women's dress-for-success uniform in the 1970s, and which look touchingly comic today.

The challenge will be to preserve the best of the new individuality while maintaining decorum and refinement. The current confusion is a reminder that although clothes don't make the man - or woman, they do create a collective atmosphere that, for better or worse, shapes the culture. Striking a balance between workers' desire to "lighten up" and the boardroom need to "tighten up" can allow correction officers to wear skirts and corporate chiefs to ban backless sundresses and biking shorts.

That still leaves a few old-guard Yalies harrumphing in their leather chairs at the Yale Club, fearing that casual Friday signals the end of the world as they have known it. It does, but that doesn't necessarily mean the end of the world.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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