Seeking the right fit at work

We've sure changed our sartorial standards.

Debonair head-of-state Jack Kennedy wouldn't have run a key official meeting without a dark-gray suit and a skinny tie.

Now, President Clinton makes peace plans with heads of state while clad in Nikes and jeans.

And in the private sector, where protocol also used to count for a lot, old codes of attire have been unraveling like a cheap knit.

Remember the "power tie"? Wear one to an interview at some hip New Economy firm, and they may ask you for the time to see if you reach for a pocket watch.

Regis Philbin, the television personality, may have sparked some neckwear nostalgia with his monochromatic look. And fashion types have been trying to whip up support for "dress-up" Thursdays to counter "dress-down" Fridays.

But it may be a losing battle.

In 1998, a survey by Management Recruiters International found 42 percent of hiring executives said the suit and tie would vanish as work attire within the next 10 years. (The dress-down trend is by no means gender-exclusive, but the shift in women's clothing has been more subtle.)

Should we care? It's like the work-from-home debate. "If I'm free to be me," say many workers, "I can be more productive than I am in some dictatorial setting."

Employers in most sectors - consumers, too - are trying to figure out if that's true.

We may chuckle about getting stuck with new types of uniformity (khakis! polo shirts!). And we may try compromises like "closet formal," keeping tailored duds on hangers at work for when we think clothes matter. But we're really trying to gauge whether laxity about looks affects our respect for our work - and for others.

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(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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