- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 21, 2000

Veteran lawyer Joe Johnston does not mince words about the sagging state of fashion that has infected his profession.

"It's bush-league stuff; it's tacky," says Mr. Johnson, 66.

In some offices, casual summers have become casual year around.

Buoyed by the growing high-tech industry, where dressing down is de rigueur, lawyers at some of the city's most powerful firms are shelving their chalk-striped suits and natty silk ties for a more relaxed look that includes khakis and golf shirts, even bare legs for women. Some have drafted policies that call for lawyers to "dress for your day."

A proud suit-and-tie man who teaches a law class at the University of Virginia, Mr. Johnston takes issue with society's changing standards for appropriate dress. Those casual standards, he believes, are "inextricably intertwined" with a larger issue the destruction of morals and objective values.

"Lawyers were previously taught to uphold standards, and that included good manners and high standards of appearance. That has gone downhill," said Mr. Johnston, a Harvard Law School graduate who lives in Alexandria, Va. "It's a sign of decadence, and the legal profession is going along with that."

Mr. Johnston is not alone in his outrage over the changes in office apparel.

Last summer, Sheldon E. Steinbach, general counsel and vice president of the American Council on Education, returned from traveling to find construction under way at his building near Dupont Circle. Employees had been given permission to wear casual attire until the work was finished.

"I vowed to dress even better," said Mr. Steinbach, 59, who buys his suits at upscale clothiers such as Neiman Marcus and Brooks Brothers. They are investments.

With a closet in his Bethesda, Md. home full of clothing he has maintained well for years, Mr. Steinbach says he is comfortable dressed up and has no plans to buy a whole new wardrobe just to fit in.

"What am I supposed to do with my suits?" he asks, looking cool in navy-blue pinstripes on a 90-degree day.

A 1999 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management found that 42 percent of corporate benefit executives said their companies had gone to casual dress every day. That figure was up from 36 percent in 1998.

Many companies have hired fashion consultants to hold in-office seminars to make sure employees understand what is appropriate.

Some major retailers also have schooled their sales forces so they in turn may educate customers on how to look casual and stylish on the job.

Not surprisingly, well-known social arbiter Miss Manners takes a dim view of dressing down at work. So does Jeffrey Magee, who heads an executive training company in Tulsa, Okla.

He told the Los Angeles Times that his 1997 study of 500 companies found that casual workplace attire could lead to a decline in ethics, morality and productivity as well as an increase in what he described as "gutter language."

The backlash against office casual is growing, not only in professions like law, banking and accounting, but also in the fashion industry itself, which has been bitten by a loss in revenue.

Vince Rua, who owns Christopher's Men's Stores Inc. in Albany, N.Y., is leading a national initiative for "dress-up Thursday," geared to returning workers to the "traditionalism" of tailored attire.

"The dress code of America has slipped into the gutter," Mr. Rua told the Albany Tribune. "If you have something that you would wear to your kid's soccer game on the weekend, you shouldn't wear it to work."

While experts have laid blame for the casual-dress trend on the technology industry, Mr. Rua points the finger at Levy Strauss, which he says blanketed the nation's chief executives with research claiming that more comfortable clothing aids in productivity. Many corporations bought into those claims and failed to look at other studies, including the work by Mr. Magee, he said.

"In white-collar situations, when the dress code is relaxed, office decorum suffers tremendously," Mr. Rua said. "Productivity suffers all week, and Fridays don't even exist."

"Even in a blue-collar situation, when dress is allowed to be more casual, the level of service is also more casual," Mr. Magee said. "If you are talking on the phone and a customer comes in, you are more likely to get off the phone right away if you are in a suit."

While Mr. Johnston and Mr. Steinbach have practiced law for several years, less-seasoned legal eagles share their concerns.

Ronald Jacobs, a third-year law student at George Washington University, says he thinks dressing up promotes a positive image and a strong work environment. A summer associate at a downtown law firm where a casual summer dress policy is in place, he says he fears the trend toward casual apparel has the potential to diminish his future profession.

"Law has always been the cornerstone of our society, and lawyers are often of questionable esteem," said Mr. Jacobs, 25, a Cincinnati native. "If they dress in an appropriate suit, it helps to elevate them to a position of importance."

Mr. Jacobs says he is not complaining that his summer firm allows him to dress comfortably on muggy summer days. Occasionally, however, he misses his coveted cuff links and sporty braces, which he wears when he has an important meeting or presentation.

"I like to dress up, and I feel much more professional when I'm dressed for the workplace," Mr. Jacobs said.

"Casual clothes can be a little more comfortable, but a suit is not uncomfortable. I think people generally look better when they are dressed up. It also eliminates the confusion about what you should wear."

Michael Remington, a lawyer at the Washington office of Drinker Biddle & Reath, says he likes dressing down and has bought some new clothes to add to his casual wardrobe. Others in his firm have embraced the casual policy a few are even wearing blue jeans while others are sticking to more traditional clothes.

An expert in intellectual property issues, he has many clients from technology firms, so dressing like they do helps put them at ease, he said.

He admits that wearing more casual attire, however, has given him some awkward moments.

"One day, I got a call from a congressman who wanted me to come up to the Hill," recalled Mr. Remington, fitting right in on a recent Monday with the luncheon crowd, clad mainly in khaki and button-down shirts, at the Palm.

"I told him, 'I don't have a suit on,' " Mr. Remington said.

But the lawmaker was not dissuaded.

When Mr. Remington arrived, the legislator acted surprised, even though he had been warned.

"I felt a little uncomfortable going to see a congressman in a golf shirt," said Mr. Remington, who may consider keeping a suit in his office, just in case he needs one.

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