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Corporate Casual Dress Cautions

By Retha Hill Staff
Monday, January 19, 1998

  Dress Me

Man wearing navy blazer and khaki pants
Khaki pants, a navy blazer and merino wool mock turtleneck sweater make an ideal casual dress look, and wardrobe builder. (Illustration by Anne Maika for
Editor's note:
This is the first part to an answer about appropriate casual dress clothes and focuses on relaxed business attire for men. DressMe also suggested casual business looks for women.

I manage the sales team at a technology company where the staff is young. For many of them, this is their first or second job. Our dress policy is pretty liberal, especially on Fridays. But too many of the salespeople, particularly the men, have taken Casual Fridays to the extreme. I'm talking worn jeans, ancient loafers and faded or rumpled T-shirts. At a team meeting, I'd like to explain to them that they are no longer in college and to give them tips on what is appropriate for dress-down days and what is not. Any ideas on what I should tell them?


Dear Brenda of Reston,
Why casual dress is associated with sloppiness is beyond the DressMe experts. Are rocked-over loafers any more comfortable than a pair of kid leather slip-ons or a buffed pair of Doc Martens? A pair of pressed chinos is both casual and neat, but a wrinkled pair of chinos is unforgivable in a business setting, unless you are planning to never move up in the company.

Casual clothes that you wear to the office are "not the same thing you'd wear to a football game or outing," says Richard Cohn, owner of Brooks Oliver, a men's clothier at The Mall in Columbia that specializes in well-tailored clothing. "You want to present yourself in the workforce with the proper appearance."

For the young man who wants to dress down, but still wants to be presentable in case he has to go out on a sales call or attend a meeting with the boss, the DressMe experts advise that he stick with tradition.

"For men, we like to feel that khakis are a great basic to build your wardrobe, with a blue or white woven button down. Then you can add more color with a tie or sports coat," suggests Rachel DiCarlo, senior director for global public relations at the Gap, which in September kicked off a Casual Friday promotion by dressing 3,500 members of the New York Stock Exchange in similar clothing. It was the first time the NYSE members wore anything other than business dress on the floor."Khakis are still a nice pant. They are perceived as clean and nice, but they are not sloppy, not worn and not denim."

DiCarlo isn't necessarily telling men not to wear denim to the office but cautions them to stick to darker wash jeans as opposed to faded colors in the workplace. "I don't think jeans are taboo," she says. "It's the way you put it together that makes it accepted."

Cohn encourages men to buy wool gabardine pants – "It is a couple of steps above the khaki pants, as we see it" – that can be paired with a nice sports shirt in the modern darker blue, green, tan or gold tones and with a rayon finish. Another look for the pants would be with a lightweight merino wool sweater, Cohn says.

Must-have wardrobe builders for casual days include a navy blazer that can be matched with khaki, the darker jeans or gabardine pants and over T-shirts and other tops. A second sports coat could be in herringbone or glen plaid. Mock turtle neck sweaters, high v-neck sweaters and button-down shirts are a must. For the winter, corduroy pants in neutral colors are another staple that can be "mixed with anything that exists in a wardrobe already," says the Gap's DiCarlo.

Stay away from no-collar shirts, not because they are seen as too casual for the workplace, but because they've been out of style for several years now.

"You've got to dress the part," Cohn says. "You feel better about yourself when you dress up. If you outshine the next guy with your appearance . . . you've got one foot closer to the door [of opportunity] than he does."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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