As profits go down, workers dress up

Every revolution has its backlash. And so it is with "business casual" – a movement that began in the 1980s with "dress-down Fridays" and gained speed in the mid-'90s, as dotcoms launched the reign of Dockers and flip-flops, and sent the white-collar world into vertiginous wardrobe flux. Traditional dress, it seemed to some, was headed the way of the typewriter.

But "business casual" meant different things to different people. As boundaries dissolved, workers turned up in everything from bow ties to cutoffs. One Boston boss came to work in a Speedo. And with the economy booming and labor scarce, bosses were loath to send ill-clad workers home.

These days, according to a new survey by iron manufacturer Rowenta, 88 percent of US companies have gone business casual (not surprisingly, Rowenta recommends more ironing). But with lax dress codes linked by some to everything from a rise in office flirtation to absenteeism to dotcom failures, many managers are steaming over the whole idea of business casual, and a more conservative sensibility is threading through the American workplace. As companies buckle down on budgets, they're buckling real belts as well. Flip-flops have lost that confident, dealmaking savoir-faire and become, well, flippant.

"It's a displaced anxiety," says Steve Lawler, a St. Louis-based ethics consultant who observes businesses worldwide. "Work environments are much more tense these days, so one of the ways people can control that stress is to manage things that are available to them – saying, 'We've gotten a little lax about clothes here, so pants should be ironed, and shirts should be collared.' "

The change has been swift: Nearly 1 in 5 corporations with daily formal dress codes have reinstituted those policies over the past year, according to a survey by the Men's Apparel Alliance.

In some cases, the pendulum of formal dress has swung back to pre-1990 levels. Mary Lynn Damhorst, associate professor of textiles and clothing at Iowa State University in Ames, says expectations for women have grown more conservative over the past decade, with muted colors and modest cuts. She surveyed corporate workers in charge of hiring in 1991 and again this year, and finds they're favoring a look that "increasingly resembles men's traditional tailored suits."

Tattling on the code breakers

In Houston, says Texas image consultant Toya Owens-Shepard, born-again dandies in the corporate ranks have become so rabid that they'll tattle on co-workers who aren't dressed to code. Now that expectations are clearer, she says, "they're all fashion experts."

Still, it's not a coup of the three-piece suit: Casual chaos broadened wardrobe possibilities from the CEO on down.

It was, in part, a generational shift: Just as hippiesput denim on the style map, Gen X swept in with casual demands. After decades in which adults assumed they'd need a wardrobe just for work, "young people ... were appalled at the idea they might have to spend money on clothes just for their job," says image consultant Ginger Burr of Somerville, Mass.

But without strict guidelines, togs became a tangle. When "business casual" started, explains Marjorie Brody, founder of the Jenkintown, Pa., consultancy Brody Communications, it was "country-club casual: very nice slacks and a very good shirt ... and a navy blue blazer." But that idea launched a downward spiral from "classic casual," with stylish pants or skirts, to "resort casual" sundresses and bermuda shorts, or "dress down" torn T's and jeans.

To put recent fashion phenomena in perspective, it's worth noting that the men's suit has been evolving ever since 1666. Back then, King Charles II of England declared that gentlemen in business, commerce, and administration should wear three-piece suits (with somber knee-length pants). Over centuries, the suit became a statement of seriousness, rationality, and the suppression of whimsy. As women moved into secretarial jobs in the late 1800s, they co-opted that style in shirtwaists and jackets, "borrowing these long-developed symbols ... related to power and wealth," says Damhorst.

"There's always been a direct, immediately recognizable correlation between appropriate dress, what you do from 9 to 5, and who you are in this world," says Mark-Evan Blackman, chairman of the menswear design department at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology.

The 1990s, then, was a blip, with easy wealth turning formality on its head – and reflecting a work ethos in which high-fives replaced handshakes and a 24-year-old CEO might wear surfer shorts to surf the Web. Though employees often relished their new freedom, some experts say it made maintenance of work roles harder: Suddenly, you'd come to work in gardening clothes – and tend million-dollar crops.

Mr. Lawler, the ethics consultant, recalls an odd hierarchy of dress. "You'd have nervous VP levels with ties and suits ... and then in comes the guy who's the original founder, and he's wearing $20 khakis, hand-sewn loafers with no socks, and hair like he'd just stepped out of the shower – always looking like he just got done with squash practice. At the very top, there was this reverse thing where you'd get to wear killer Nike hiking boots."

Dakota Sullivan, of the San Francisco-based Web firm LookSmart, was troubled by the attitudinal shift. "The casualness of dress reflected the casualness of how easy it was to do business," he says. "You'd go to work in shorts and bring your dogs, and still get $100 million of venture capital. It's not a sustainable thing."

And so, five months ago, Mr. Sullivan's 375-person office launched "dress-up Mondays," complete with a secret judge who strolls the ranks and chooses the best-dressed employee.

Casual's legacy: more color and flair

But despite the pendulum's swing, analysts say a legacy of casual dress will linger – more colorful shirts, a more stylish suit, ties with shimmer and flair. And with salary less clearly linked to suits, there's now more freedom in dress at the top. It's a contrast to midcentury, says Professor Blackman, when "if you were making X salary, you'd shut up and wear your suit, because you wanted to make that salary."

Even those companies just now catching up to the '90s casual craze are taking a more moderate approach. For example, the Oakland, Calif., branch of executive-search firm Management Recruiters International was a business-suit stalwart for years. Now that Steve Swanson is general manager, he's letting the office go casual – but not too casual. Cognizant of the slippery sartorial slope, he'll keep men in slacks, and women in pantsuits. "People walking in with boogie-board shorts and flip-flops [leads to] a certain atmosphere and work ethic," he says.

To whatever degree businesses go casual these days, it's symptomatic of a deeper change, says Lawler. For baby boomers and Gen X, "there's more of a blur between work and life, and I think clothing follows the blur."

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