Informal Wear

Does dressing down send productivity up?
Magazine Contributor
9 min read

This story appears in the January 1996 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

Put the staff of Open City Communications on a fashion show runway during a typical workday last summer, and you'd have seen president Phil Hall resplendent in khakis, a Southwestern-style short-sleeved shirt and black Reeboks; senior vice president Karen Freid in a cotton gauze gypsy dress with sandals and a blue T-shirt; and vice president Robert Toledo sporting a sleeveless yellow T-shirt, jeans, sneakers and an American-Indian necklace.

"I specifically do not want my staff to dress up," says Hall, who founded the New York City public relations firm in January 1994. "I don't see the correlation between suit-and-tie and quality and productivity."

Hall is not alone. Major American corporations have recently instituted dress-down policies. And even in Japan, known as one of the most conservative business climates on earth, colored shirts, plaid trousers and even sneakers are appearing in corporate offices.

"The trend is really expanding," says Jerry Kline, editorial consultant for newsletter John Naisbitt's Trend Letter. "It started with casual Fridays during the summer. Then it became casual Fridays year-round. Now it's casual every day."

Mark Henricks is a New York City writer who specializes in small-business topics.

Dress-Down Benefits

The casual movement isn't the only trend affecting what people wear to work. Uniforms are also becoming popular. (See "Leading Edge," September 1995.) A similar force drives both trends-the perception that what people wear to work is a corporate as well as a personal concern.

"There are a lot of reasons businesses are [encouraging casual dress]," says Massimo Iacoboni, fashion director of The Fashion Association. Indeed, casual dressers cite improvements in everything from morale to customer relations after dropping neckties and high heels in favor of open collars and flats.

First is the perception that casual dress equals high productivity. "I believe that if the employee is physically comfortable, then that individual will give 110 percent," says Hall. "Whether a person is wearing a T-shirt or an Armani suit is, in my opinion, not relevant."

Another reason is modern communications technology, which allows people to do most business without ever coming face-to-face with each other. "[Virtually all] our work is done by telephone and fax," says Hall, "so the people we're in contact with have no idea what we look like and don't care how we're dressed."

Casual dress policies may also help break down the social and communication barriers that often exist between higher- and lower-paid employees. "When everybody's wearing casual clothes, everybody looks the same, at least from a financial standpoint," says Iacoboni.

There is also a widespread perception that looser dress codes equal greater creativity and innovation. Particularly in Japan, a corporate culture requiring strict conformity in dress and behavior is beginning to be blamed for complacency and lack of imagination, says Kline.

Finally, the casual dress movement may be a minor manifestation of a general trend toward greater informality in American culture. Says Iacoboni, "People just seem to be feeling more relaxed and comfortable."

Limits And Risks

Casual dress has its critics as well. "I don't think it creates a good image for the companies involved," says Gerald Andersen, executive director of the Neckwear Association of America.

Image is an issue. Many firms limit the dress-down zone to places where employees are not likely to have contact with customers, according to Nancy Nelson, president of Onpurpose Inc., a Brookline, New Hampshire, consulting firm that advises companies about corporate culture.

Dressing in jeans and a sweater when you're meeting with blue-suit prospects, for instance, is generally inadvisable. "Some credibility may be lost, particularly with a new client," Nelson says. "Once you've developed some rapport and there's a working relationship with a client, there's a little more space for relaxing."

Customer-contact dress codes should be guided by what customers themselves wear. "Chances are you're going to be a lot more effective in developing rapport with your customers if you dress similarly to the way they dress," Nelson says.

That means formal businesswear isn't desirable for dealing with every customer and may even be a negative in some cases. Nelson cites the software industry, which is famous for eschewing fashion. "If I call on a programmer and I'm wearing a three-piece pinstriped suit, I'm probably going to look like a salesperson and someone they [won't] trust," she says.

Some purely in-house occasions, such as board of directors meetings, are probably better attended in traditional attire, again for the sake of image. "There are definitely occasions where a suit is still the most appropriate thing to wear," agrees Iacoboni.

The issue of workplace productivity is harder to nail down. The idea that casually dressed employees are better workers is widely accepted. But Andersen says no formal study has ever looked at the impact of a casual dress policy on an office's productivity.

"I don't think [casual dress] contributes to a good workplace atmosphere," Andersen says. "In today's business world, where every little edge counts, why not give yourself the edge and look good? There have been lots of studies saying that how people perceive you is a function of how you're dressed."

The Costs Of Casual

A casual dress code can be either an employee benefit or an employee burden. Casual clothes don't necessarily cost less than formal attire. And a businessperson whose existing work wardrobe is a closet full of suits will have to spend some money to buy new clothes if the workplace dress code changes.

Furthermore, dressing casually requires a new set of aesthetic principles. It doesn't take much fashion sense to put together a blue suit, white shirt and red tie, with black or Cordovan shoes and a belt. But combining slacks, shirts and accessories of many different colors may strain some people's matching skills, or at least create some new insecurities about how to dress in the morning.

Casual dress codes may also be a challenge for older workers, who have grown up in a different business culture. "The baby boomers and Generation Xers grew up wearing jeans to school," says Kline. "They go into business and want to continue to dress the way they did in school." Older workers, however, grew up when dress codes ruled school and college campuses.

Just as dress standards differ across the globe and across generations, they also vary in different areas of the country. In Miami, with its strong Latin American influence, an open collar is likely to be more acceptable than in buttoned-down Boston. Says Iacoboni, "There are places in America where it's a more formal lifestyle and vice versa."

Setting Boundaries

Implementing a dress-down day or other casual attire option is more complicated than it might seem. The first question: What is casual? In some companies, it could mean a sport coat and colored shirt with a tie; in others, it could mean cutoff shorts and sandals. Corporate culture and customer preferences should dictate the style.

Once that question is settled, the next issue is how to impart that policy to employees. Nelson advises her clients against setting strict dress codes. Instead, she recommends disseminating a general statement such as "We are committed to presenting an appropriate image in dress and behavior at all times," then leaving it to individual employees to interpret it.

"People are more likely to comply when you leave it to them to make the right choices," Nelson says. "And it does a lot to build morale." Those who interpret the policy poorly can be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, she adds.

Casual dress day doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition. Nelson says she and her three partners usually dress down when working in the office but spiff up for client calls. To guard against unexpected customer drop-ins, they all keep traditional businesswear at the office. "If we have to go on a sales call in an hour," she says, "we can go dressed professionally."

Naked Lunch?

If you look back at grainy black-and-white photos of 19th-century business tycoons and compare them to today, there's no doubt the casual trend has come a long way. Extend it forever and you might conclude that, sometime in the next century or two, we'll all be reporting to work in the nude.

Of course, the dress-down movement isn't likely to go quite that far. "I don't think the casual dress trend means people are going to wear casual clothes 365 days a year," says Iacoboni. "It does mean corporate culture in America is changing."

Hall says he's ready for almost anything when it comes to employee attire. "As long as you're wearing something, you're welcome to work here," he says.

But even this sartorial libertarian recognizes limits. Nancy Nelson reports that when Hall met with her to solicit Onpurpose's business, his khakis and sport shirt were nowhere to be seen. "When he came to lunch with us," she recalls, "he wore a three-piece suit."

Contact Sources

The Fashion Association, 475 Park Ave. S., 17th Fl., New York, NY 10016, (212) 683-5665;

John Naisbitt's Trend Letter, 1101 30th St. N.W., Washington, DC 20007, (800) 368-0115;

Neckwear Association Of America, 151 Lexington Ave., New York, NY 10016, (212) 683-8454;

Onpurpose Inc., 199 Rte. 13, #1-U, Brookline, NH 03033, (800) 526-2245;

Open City Communications, 292 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10001, (212)714-3575.

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