It all depends on the company you keep.
by Patricia Majher
Jeans and T-shirts (or polo shirts or sport shirts) are still the uniform of choice for those working with software, even in Michigan. Jim Knick, a software engineer at Ann Arbor’s Mechanical Dynamics, has spent 14 years in the industry, and has always dressed casually for work…except for the first day on his first job, when he showed up in a suit and tie: "My boss quickly took me aside and told me, ‘you don’t have to dress like that, you know."
Jim’s not against dressing up for work; he believes in presenting a professional image to customers, especially when you’re meeting off-site. But he thinks that an official dress code would be a restrictive work requirement: "I wouldn’t want to be required to have a tie strangling my neck every day."
Casual equals comfortable
Perhaps the best result of the movement toward casual dress is that those who have active jobs can dress more appropriately for their situations. Take teachers, for example. "In the early 1970s, when I began to teach," noted Susan Paris, an elementary-school music teacher in Milan, "the dress code was rather conservative. I remember wearing a skirt and stockings, even in hot weather. That made it difficult to interact with the kids in any meaningful way."
In the 1980s, the unwritten dress code at her school moved to the other extreme: "I wore jeans to work all the time during that decade." Lately, the pendulum has settled somewhere in the middle: "We realized that, while we were able to move around more in casual clothing, we were losing something in terms of what we were communicating to kids and parents." Today, Susan wears a free- flowing skirt or jumper, or pair of khakis to work: "It’s sensible clothing; it’s practical and it’s professional." And it doesn’t stop her from having a little fun: ‘I can still add little kid oriented touches to what I wear. For instance, if I’m teaching a song about the ocean, I’ll wear a shirt with a fish on it and matching earrings," she says.
There are still moments when…
Though an employer may allow casual dress, there are still times you should think about reaching for your business blues. "Even if I’m sending someone to an interview at a casual company, I advise them to wear a suit," explained Andrea Linn, owner of Adecco Employment Services. "You only have one chance to make a first impression. If you get the job, you can always dress down later."
Andrea also suggests dressing up on the day of a big presentation, whenever important visitors are scheduled and whenever you have a meeting outside your building. "Casual clothes are comfortable and more affordable than dress clothes, but they don’t communicate confidence and presence the way a good suit can," she said.
Have we gotten too casual?
Some companies, especially those concerned with communication and image, think that corporate America has taken this dressing down thing too far. Count the Pollack Agency among those companies. In response, this New-Jersey-based public relations firm recently decided to dress up, not down, at a week’s end. On their first "Formal Friday," employees showed up in black-tie formal wear and evening gowns, even a fur coat or two. One Friday led to another, and some clients joined in the fun. Then a new account – promoting the high-end delicacy, pate’ - came the agency’s way as a result.
You are what you...wear?
In some areas of corporate America, image is still everything. If you want to work in banking, investments and the law, you’d better dress up. If you can’t imagine yourself in a suit all day, maybe education, the arts, computer careers or industry would be more to your liking. Those employed in medical fields and protective services have it easiest of all: With a uniform, you never have to spend too much time worrying about what to wear!Top