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ON THE JOB Is the move toward casual clothes at work good for business?



Published: Sun, July 21, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Proponents of a more formal dress style argue that casual dress leads to decreased productivity.

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

Diana Vuylsteke remembers the time, several months ago, when everyone was told it was OK to wear blue jeans to a meeting on utility rates.

"The man who called the meeting said he'd wear jeans and we all could wear jeans," said Vuylsteke, a lawyer with the Bryan Cave firm in St. Louis, which represents large corporate-utility customers.

"So, I showed up in jeans, and everybody else wore a suit. The guy who called the meeting wore a suit. He'd changed his mind, and no one told me."

Vuylsteke squirmed and felt uncomfortable at the meeting. And she learned a big lesson: no more dressing down for this lawyer.

Despite the trend in recent years toward dressing casually at work, business leaders, clothing-store managers and the Men's Apparel Alliance, a trade group, seem of one mind nowadays about the virtues of men wearing coats and ties and women wearing slacks or skirts with suit jackets.

They might even agree with this statement from a research psychologist who surveyed 500 firms several years ago, just as the casual, dress-down Friday trend was hitting offices across the country: "Continually relaxed dress leads to relaxed manners, relaxed morals and relaxed productivity," Jeffrey Magee said.

"His findings revealed casual dress policies resulted in a decrease in productivity and overall quality of work, decrease in ethical behavior and decrease in commitment and company loyalty," reported Maximum Exposure, a public-relations firm that represents the Men's Apparel Alliance.

A return to the tie

The group's members, major men's clothing makers and retailers, would like to bring about a resurgence of interest in the old coat and tie as the basic office uniform.

Clothing makers and retailers prefer to sell suits, sport coats and blazers for a simple reason: They make more money on this type of clothing than on casual cotton pants, polo shirts and crew-neck sweaters.

Vuylsteke has returned to the tried-and-true uniform at the office for a simpler reason: Its versatility means she can go from working in her office to taking a deposition or appearing before a judge.

"I like the certainty of knowing that what I am wearing will let me go anywhere," Vuylsteke said. "You never know when you'll be called into court. At our firm, we require that our lawyers have a nice set of clothes in their office or car."

All that is music to the ears of the Men's Apparel Alliance in its bid to suggest that business casual has gotten out of hand.

The alliance also commissioned a poll of senior executives at more than 200 companies with more than $500 million in annual revenue.

One result: More than 17 percent of the respondents said productivity would improve "as much as 40 percent if there was a business dress code implemented in the workplace."

The other side

People pushing a few years ago to loosen dress codes cited the same productivity argument. More casual, comfortable wear at the office, they said, would mean happier employees who would work harder and would produce more widgets than they would cinched up in a buttoned-down collar, tie and suit.

The trend has trickled down even to the business schools.

"I will say that I have seen students dressing better," said Gerald Parker, a professor of management at the Cook School of Business at St. Louis University. "Grunge, that's not what students seem to want anymore."

Parker and others tie the improvement in student dress to the tightening in the job market. New graduates, like other job seekers, are dressing a little more fashionably to get an edge in the interview.




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