- The Washington Times - Monday, September 6, 2004

Izods and Birkenstocks in the workplace are so … 1999.

Starched shirts and sophisticated uniforms are back in vogue as the economy improves and employers give their corporate image a new look.

Target Corp., for example, is retailoring its dress code — putting an end to business casual at its Minneapolis headquarters after Labor Day.

The business suit is regaining popularity in corporations nationwide — reversing the trend set by the casually clad dot-com era. And some workers — particularly men — are even buttoning up their look voluntarily.

Workplace experts say the change stems partly from the improving economy.

During the economic downturn, companies focused on just surviving. But now that business is picking up, many companies say, “It’s time for a change and time to turn over a new leaf,” said John A. Challenger, chief executive of global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas Inc.

More firms are likely to institute new and more-stringent dress codes, Mr. Challenger said.

Target’s new policy outlines what clothes are acceptable and unacceptable in the office, according to the Star Tribune in Minneapolis. The guidelines, posted on an internal company Web site, included photos of appropriate apparel.

Suits are “preferred” for both men and women. Men must wear a sports coat and/or tie if they leave their usual work area. They must wear a pressed-collar shirt and tie with any sweater.

Women can wear sweater sets or dressy sweaters, and they must wear a jacket over any sleeveless blouse.

Fridays remain casual.

Target officials could not be reached for comment.

Although the days of wrinkled T-shirts, ripped jeans and flip-flops in the workplace are falling by the wayside, many companies continue to keep a close eye on what their employees are wearing.

Columbia-based Micros Systems Inc., which provides information-technology solutions for the hospitality industry, has a strict policy of which apparel is acceptable for its business-casual dress code.

“We encourage people to dress more professionally, especially when they have contact with customers,” said Louise Casamento, director of marketing at Micros.

In some cases, employees grab the tailored shirts and slacks out of the closet without their company’s guidelines. More than 60 percent of men say they voluntarily choose to wear tailored clothing to work, according to a survey by the NPD Group, a marketing-information company.

Mr. Challenger says too-strict dress codes implemented by company officials could have negative consequences.

A detailed and uniform dress code could suppress creativity and individuality, and it also can alienate employees who might interpret the dress code as the company’s lack of trust in their taste and judgment, he said.

There is no proof that formal business attire improves productivity or quality of work.

“Right now, employees may tolerate more stringent dress codes and, in some cases, uniforms because they feel that their job options are limited,” Mr. Challenger said.

But as soon as the economy is back on track and employees are once again in demand, employers will be fighting to hire the best workers — luring them from competitors with dot-com-style perks such as a relaxed dress code.

On the other hand, companies that are expected to wear uniforms — like some retailers, restaurants and airlines — can use it to their advantage and help motivate employees and improve morale.

Delta Air Lines, for instance, is developing new uniforms that will debut in 2006 for its flight attendants, gate and ticket agents, and other workers who have contact with the public.

The airline has hired designer Richard Tyler, whose dresses have been worn by Hollywood elite such as actresses Julia Roberts, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sarah Jessica Parker, to create a classier, sophisticated look for the workers. The company is using feedback from employees to help design the new uniforms.

“Delta employees are enthusiastic about the new uniforms and being part of the design process,” said Peggy Estes, a Delta spokeswoman.

“That’s a plus,” Mr. Challenger said. “Uniforms can feel like a straitjacket, or they can make people proud of their organization.”

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