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White Collar: Suited for work / Tough job climate causes casual look to give way to more formal attire
Tuesday, March 02, 2004

It's yet another work day and she's standing in front of the closet wondering whether a pleated miniskirt would be too short for the office, even with dark stockings. He's pondering whether comfortable corduroy pants will pass muster if he has to meet a client at the Duquesne Club.

Daniel Marsula, Post-Gazette
Click illustration to see a larger version.
There seem to be two sets of rules out there: what companies say they allow and what really impresses the boss. As the economy muddles along uncertainly, impressing the boss appears to be winning out these days in this modern-day dilemma.

Suit-heavy Jos. A Banks Clothiers expects to earn at least 49 percent more this fiscal year than the last. Men's Wearhouse last week reported sales in stores open at least a year rose 6.1 percent during its most recent fiscal year, and net sales for the year climbed 7.5 percent to $1.4 billion.

Women are getting with the program, too. Lazarus-Macy's owner Federated Department Stores Inc. reported that sales of more structured clothes, handbags and belts had been growing. Chief Financial Officer Karen Hoguet told analysts in early February the department store chain was very encouraged by "the continued comeback of the career business," which began in July 2003.

It's possible these sales might be driven by better clothes choices, but it's just as likely to have something to do with economic realities. A month before Federated saw the career bump, the nation's unemployment rate hit its highest point in recent months and the so-called jobless recovery was about to enter its third year.

"It's a more serious time," said an executive at Larrimor's store, Downtown. "In more serious times, you want to look more serious."

Most people know better than to pull out the cut-off jeans and ripped T-shirts, yet they still stand confused at the closet door.

Nearly 200 women showed up at Saks Fifth Avenue in New York a couple of weeks ago for a session on the best career looks. "It was incredible," said Saks spokeswoman Lesley Langsam. "I certainly didn't expect that many."

The session, the first of several scheduled around the country, featured advice from Nicole Williams, author of a new book, "Wildly Sophisticated: A Bold New Attitude for Career Success." The Canadian career development consultant is not scheduled to come to Pittsburgh but she has been signed on to advise participants in "The Big Break,'' a new work-related reality TV series.

Overwhelmingly, women at the Saks event wanted to know what was appropriate, said Langsam. Rules that apply at a law firm may be a bit looser at an advertising agency, for example.

What surprised the Saks staff most was how many people were willing to admit they don't know what to wear, even savvy New Yorkers. Perhaps the last time everyone knew the rules was in the '60s, when "long-haired hippies" sang about getting jobs by hiding their anti-establishment locks. Then men tried to dump the tie with their '70s leisure suits.

Anarchy began to lurk as an ever-present threat on the white collar landscape, which took its very name from the shirts that professionals favored. Revolution hit with the dot-com explosion.

Who wanted to wear suits when they were working all night on the latest programming breakthrough? Who needed to when their skills were in such demand that no one cared how they dressed?

Now that retailers have a second chance at getting people to invest in work clothing, some seemed more prepared for the moment than others. The most detailed advice still seems to be found on the men's side of the aisle. The rules were always more clear cut there anyway.

The Men's Wearhouse's Web site details everything from what color suits are best for which professions -- charcoal gray for accountants but high-tech workers can try more adventurous earth tones -- to how microfiber pants can be good for dress casual occasions. Jos. A. Bank Clothiers differentiates business dress gear from business casual.

The Gap also has an online section called "wear to work" with men's shirts, pants, even socks. Customers may recognize that the selections -- not a pin-striped suit among them -- fall into the business casual domain.

For women, tracking down wardrobe basics hasn't gotten any easier with the advance of technology.

Shoppers searching for black pants on the Saks' Web site end up in the pants department, which goes on for more than 13 pages. J.C. Penney's online store came up with more than 100 selections when asked to seek out "black pants."

On the fan message board for "What Not To Wear," a popular TV show dedicated to ending crimes of fashion, one still finds desperate calls for help finding closet staples. "This seems like it wouldn't be this difficult, but it really IS -- I need a conservative, wool, charcoal gray suit, and I can't find one anywhere!"

A women's store strictly limited to navy blazers, gray pants and dark skirts might do well, offering a professional version of the Gap strategy of basic jeans and shirts that did so well for years.

The Ann Taylor women's clothing chain takes a stab at the issue by organizing its online merchandise under headings such as "suits that work" and "work casual," sticking with darker colors for the former and filing sweater-skirt outfits under the latter.

Of course, there's still a certain amount of closet negotiation going on as workers try not to give up everything they've won in concessions on the dress code while acknowledging that those professionally attired may have a leg up on everything from job offers to salary.

"Business casual is not over," said one retail executive. "It's never going to be over." Even lawyers like the days when they have no appointments and they can wear knit shirts into the office, keeping a navy blazer handy for emergencies.

But the rules are pretty clear for the job-seekers.

Elaine Stolick serves as director of a competitive edge coaching program focused on helping University of Pittsburgh MBA candidates learn more about issues not normally covered in the classroom.

Stolick hasn't moved into offering advice on clothing yet, but she does suggest job candidates check out a company's Web site or visit its corporate campus to see how employees are dressed.

Personally, she thinks there's no question about what to wear to that interview. "A suit is always the best way to go."

First published on March 2, 2004 at 12:00 am
Teresa Lindeman can be reached at tlindeman@post-gazette.com or at 412-263-2018.