NEW YORK-- Dressing casual at work was supposed to make life easier.
But now, confusion is rampant across corporate America, with some stodgy types thinking casual means taking off your suit jacket, and others showing up at the office in ratty T-shirts or with bare midriffs.
The situation has gotten so bad that some businesses are hiring consultants to help people figure out what is appropriate for work -- and what is better left at home.
One law firm has even teamed up with Polo Ralph Lauren and Esquire magazine to hold a ''business casual'' seminar for its attorneys next week.
''There is a lot of casual confusion out there, people showing up at work in outfits that they wash their cars or walk their dogs in,'' said Sherry Maysonave, author of ''Casual Power: How to Power Up Your Nonverbal Communication and Dress Down for Success.'' ''Companies are realizing that it isn't so easy to go casual. In fact, it can cause some headaches.''
Casual dress has long been the norm for those working at high-tech companies. It began creeping into the rest of corporate America in the early 1990s.
At first, companies allowed employees to ditch their suits and ties on Fridays during the summer. That was soon extended to Fridays throughout the year, and eventually was permitted every day during the summer.
Now, lots of big companies -- including most Wall Street powerhouses such as Morgan Stanley Dean Witter -- are dressing down year-round.
Many want to keep pace with the casual dot-com companies that they do business with -- and with whom they compete for employees.
Fifty-one percent of companies with more than 5,000 employees are casual five days a week, according to the Society for Human Resource Management, a trade group in Alexandria, Va.
But some companies are learning that everyone interprets casual differently.
At Development Counsellors International, a New York-based marketing firm with 25 employees that went casual year-round in 1998, some came to work braless and in gym clothes.
The company now has a detailed list of what workers can or cannot wear. Button-down shirts and dress sandals are in; bare midriffs and beach attire are out.
''It took more time to come up with this policy than anyone would have thought,'' said Rob DeRocker, DCI executive vice president. ''We never thought it would be so complicated.''
That's why many companies are hiring consultants to develop casual dress codes, hold seminars on proper wear and trouble-shoot.
''One company asked me to try to help them with a little problem: One girl was wearing thong underwear and for some reason everyone knew'' because her clothes were so tight, said Myra McElhaney, president of the Atlanta-based consulting firm McElhaney & Associates.
Instead of talking to the young woman individually, McElhaney held a group discussion on appropriate work attire. ''I reminded them that they didn't want to be remembered by their co-workers for their underwear,'' she said.
The law firm Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft is turning to Polo Ralph Lauren and Esquire for help. The firm went totally casual on March 6, and next Tuesday will offer its workers a one-night seminar at Polo's flagship store in New York.
Under the firm's policy, men have to wear shirts with collars and buttons, and socks are a must. No jeans, no sneakers, and for women, halters and tank tops are out. All employees must keep a suit on hand in case they have to go to court or meet with a client who doesn't dress casually.
''Before this, I knew the suits, ties and shirts I had and what worked together,'' said Jason Cohen, a 29-year-old lawyer at Cadwalader. ''Now, I'd like someone to show me the spectrum of what business casual means to see what the options really are.''
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