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Cool Threads Weave Their Way Into Most Workplaces

In the early 1990s, Generation X was the buzzword and high-tech companies such as Microsoft - with their ultra-laid-back office atmosphere - became the hot management models.

To some, casual dress in the office was a mere corporate fad.

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But now, khakis from the Gap have replaced gray flannel suits as the workplace uniform.

"What started as a one-day-a-week perk for employees has really become an everyday thing," says business etiquette consultant Susan Morem of Minneapolis.

A survey by Levi Strauss & Co. found that last year 53 percent of white-collar workers are allowed to dress casually every day, compared with 20 percent in 1992. Another 31 percent can dress casually once a week, compared with 17 percent in 1992.

Simply put, people are wearing almost anything to work - from ripped-up jeans, to casual slacks. Business suits remain only at companies maintaining a conservative image.

High-tech roots

"This really started in the high-tech field," says John Challenger of the Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray, and Christmas. "Many start-up companies moved to that approach to show that they were different from the stuffy Fortune 500."

Lotus Development Corp. in Cambridge, Mass., a large software company, is among the places where the trend began.

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Since its founding in 1982, employees have been given maximum freedom in their attire, says Paul LaBelle of Lotus. Only sales representatives are expected to wear suits.

"In the software industry, the vast majority of work taking place is out of view of the customers," he says.

He also cites the youth of employees in the technology field and establishing an image of coolness as reasons for the office atmosphere.

"[Restrictions on clothing] are just one less factor that's going to get in the way of an employee enjoying his or her job," Mr. LaBelle says.

Now it's mainstream

Eager to adopt the management style of high-tech firms, more traditional companies have eased up on office environments.

Only the most conservative companies require business suits of employees day-in and day-out, says Ms. Morem.

At First Union Bank, headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., for example, the level of formality expected depends on the frequency of contact with customers.

"We want every employee to be appropriately and professionally dressed," says spokeswoman Sandy Dean.

So while some employees dress as they please, others follow a more traditional business-banking attire. And many departments have dress-down Fridays, at the discretion of managers.

Lynx Capital Corp., a small investment firm in Washington, D.C., has a generally relaxed office atmosphere, with khaki pants de rigeuer on Fridays.

But company president Steve Martin says that male employees are expected most days to wear a coat and tie to make older clients more comfortable.

"It's an issue of respect," he says. "That's how they're used to doing business, and we have to comply with that. Otherwise we would always dress more informally."

This model - basing dress requirements only on the amount that an employee comes into contact with the public or clients - is commonplace, says Mr. Challenger.

Problematic perk

Employees view more relaxed clothing positively. In an earlier Levi Strauss survey, 82 percent of personnel managers said that employees view casual dress as a perk.

But there are those who find truth in the book of "Dilbert" cartoons called "Casual Day Has Gone Too Far."

Relaxed dress can present problems at work.

"Because so many companies lack clear guidelines, their perception of casual can differ from that of employees," Morem says.

She sees confusion particularly among young people, who are used to the casual college environment. Morem advises companies to have well-defined dress policies.

Problems notwithstanding, the trend of casual workplaces shows no sign of waning.

"[Casual-dress policies] might very well come from the rebellious generation of the 1960s that is now growing into leadership positions," says Challenger.

"But it's no longer rebellious."

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