Life at Work

Business Casual? Seriously.

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 13, 2006

Jason Young follows the same rule in work and dating: It's better to be overdressed than underdressed.

So when there's any doubt about what he should wear to work, Young reaches for a suit and tie.

"I have been in those meetings where someone sticks out because they are the only one not in a tie. I'd rather stick out where I'm overdressed," said Young, deputy communications director with the American Psychiatric Association in Rosslyn, where "business casual" is the rule.

If he finds his suit out of place, he works it into the conversation -- something about having somewhere else to go later that evening. ("And then to make myself truthful," he said, "I'll take myself out to a special dinner.")

That's Young's solution to the confusing rules of business casual.

Blame that perplexing legacy on the dot-com era, which swept away the old conventions and had many businessmen tossing away ties in favor of polo shirts. Such enthusiasm led, in the 1990s, to a workplace-as-playground sort of atmosphere, where employees were permitted to slap on jeans and hide the heels. But after the dot-com bust, a bit of correction ensued. Companies hid the foosball tables and began to head back to dressier wear, almost as a sign they were not "one of those" failing dot-coms.

But the certainties of that earlier, more confining era are gone, and workplace dress is a hodgepodge today.

Men, in particular, are stuck: Go without a tie, and inevitably the others at the meeting will be in suits. Dress up, and of course you'll be the only one. For women -- and I'm sure some will disagree -- it's a bit easier. They have more options, and few definitive signs of business casual and business formal like the men's necktie.

"Honestly, it's a little confusing," said Pamela Burns, a personal shopper based in the District. "Mainly it's confusing because men don't know what's appropriate. What is business casual?"

Those companies that had Jeans Fridays are not really touting that anymore, she said. "Because that turned into two days a week and three days a week," she said. "People got too relaxed."

Even though the American Psychiatric Association, like most associations in the area, has a business-casual dress code, Allison Dichoso, director of human resources, expects men to show up at an interview in a tie and dress shirt.

She has her share of interview stories: The woman in short houndstooth pants with ankle boots and a bright purple top; the man with a hippielike beard that had pieces of paper stuck in it; the guy in a nice suit wearing beat-up running shoes.

The association established a business casual dress code about three years ago, "just to keep up with other associations in the D.C. area," Dichoso said. The guidelines pertain mostly to women: Skirts more than three inches above the knee are not acceptable. No halter tops, no backless dresses. And then for everyone: No bare feet, no flip-flops, no beachwear.

But to this day, Dichoso said, business casual is hard to define. "It's somewhere between a shirt and tie or stockings and heels, and flip-flops and baseball caps or shorts and miniskirts."

So the men at APA's Rosslyn offices do what men everywhere do: They keep ties hanging in closets. "There might be some occasions where the supervisor has something formal to do or someone might be going downtown to lobby," Dichoso said.

Even on a day when Young doesn't wear a suit, he looks well groomed, usually with a button shirt, nice pants and always -- though this has more to do with just his personal style -- socks that match his shirt. (On Thursday, he was wearing a button-down pink shirt with matching pink argyle socks.)

At the other end of the spectrum, some offices are made to be casual, like those that float. Geri Critchley is director of recruiting at Management Systems International, an international development consulting firm. Its offices are -- yes, really -- on eight houseboats at the Southwest waterfront in D.C. (The founder found this creative office space to be a good alternative to renting traditional office space that often changed hands, meaning he had to move.) "If I know I'm just coming to my boats or walking around the docks with interns, there's no reason to get all dolled up," she said.

Most of the employees dress as if they are in graduate school -- as many of them are. "Causes are more important than what you look like," she said. "I'm not saying come in and look awful. I'm just saying that nylons and heels really sometimes do not enhance the work you do when working for causes."

She does, however, expect those interviewing for jobs to look put together. So even though a tie on the docks is a rare occurrence, that interview might be the time to throw one on. "It is better always to dress up than dress down. It just shows that you care," she said. "Even though it's not what we wear here, we do appreciate people trying to look nice."

Even partners at law firms aren't all rushing out to buy expensive suits, said Scott Hodes, a partner with Bryan Cave LLP in Chicago. He's no clotheshorse and he doesn't read GQ, he said, but he likes to look sharp.

In the summer, he likes a green or pink tie. Although most of his clients are corporate, he also represents artists, and he likes to feel as if he has a bit of style, he said.

Since he represents Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the artists who did "The Gates" installation in Central Park, he broke from traditional lawyerly browns and blues. "When we were doing 'The Gates,' I wore a saffron tie," he said.

Mostly his attire depends on his schedule. If he is meeting with people who will be dressed up, he tries to match them. He keeps an extra tie and jacket in the office just in case. And when those 100-degree Chicago summers roll around, he is a little more forgiving and puts the suits in the back of the closet. "But still there are the bankers and other clients who always have a suit on, which means I'm going to suffer," he said.

Join Amy on Tuesday to discuss your life at work from 11 to noon at You can e-mail her Hear her on Washington Post radio (107.7 FM, 1500 AM) at 12:50 p.m. Mondays.

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