What to wear to work?

That's been among the more confounding question people have had to face first thing in the morning.

From time to time, employers have stepped forward to make the choice easy by stipulating dress codes for their employees. Sometimes the codes have been prescribed for all, sometimes for women only.

Now a federal appeals court in Chicago has ruled that a dress code requiring uniforms for women but not for men is discriminatory and illegal.

The case involved a young trainee, Mary Carroll, hired by Talman Federal Savings and Loan Association of Chicago. She objected to a rule that made her don a uniform -- a "career ensemble," her employer called it -- while men of equal rank in the organization had simply been told to wear "appropriate business attire."

In a 2-to-1 decision last week that reversed a lower court, the appeals court ruled that the dress code illegal under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The court called the differing treatment in attire demeaning to women.

"While there is nothing offensive about uniforms per se," said the majority opinion, "when some employees are uniformed and others are not there is a tendency to assume that the uniformed women have a lesser professional status than male employees attired in normal business clothes."

Dress codes in general, the court noted, have been upheld by other courts, providing the regulations are justified by commonly accepted social norms and reasonably related to the employer's business needs. The standards can even differ somewhat for men and women in some cases.

But they cannot differ, the court said, when men and women are performing the same functions.

In a dissenting view, Judge Wilbur Pell suggested this was all much ado about nothing. He termed the male and female dress codes at Talman Federal only semantically different because both resulted in ordinary business attire.

Though the S&L orders men merely to wear "appropriate business attire," Pell said this in effect means they, too, end up putting on a uniform since "men's customary business attire has never really advanced beyond the status of being a uniform."

Pell said such dress codes are not illegal under the Civil Rights Act because they do not prevent employment opportunities. But the court majority noted that the law also prohibits employers from discriminating in the conditions and terms of employement as well.

Talman Federal, which has assets worth about $2.5 billion and employs some 1,000 persons -- two-thirds of whom are women -- was given the option of relaxing the code for women or stipulating that its male employees also wear some sort of uniform.

A spokesman for Talman Federal said the savings and loan is considering an appeal to the full appeals court or to the U.S. Supreme Court.