Ripped jeans and T-shirts are out. Oxford cloth shirts and sweater sets--even suits--are back in. Many firms are refashioning their dress codes, with some instituting a uniform look, some holding seminars on appropriate business attire, and others encouraging employees to don clothes that promote the organization. Scruffiness is fast becoming an unwelcome reminder of the failed dot-com era, and fashion experts are heralding the new "business professional" look.
The cleaned-up look may reflect a renewed optimism, says John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which conducts research on workplace issues. "Companies are starting to grow again and feel they have more potential. One way of signaling that is by changing dress codes."
Many firms consider new sartorial standards especially important for workers who interact with the public. Bank One, a division of JPM organ & Chase Co., now requires employees at its 1,700 branches to wear a limited wardrobe that "creates a consistent, professional look and makes it clear who the employees are," explains spokesperson Tom Kelly. A $100 voucher helps employees build the wardrobe, which includes a top--typically a light-blue oxford shirt or sweater set--emblazoned with the bank's logo and purchased from a special Lands' End catalog, paired with black slacks or skirt.
One benefit of a corporate dress code is that it clarifies what's off limits. "People are confused," declares Suze Yalof Schwartz, executive fashion editor at large at Glamour. The advice from Schwartz and other fashion mavens is basic: Dress for the job you want, not the one you have; dress the way your boss does; wear clothes that look good on you. But after years of "anything goes," many employees need a refresher course. Schwartz gave a seminar last year on business attire to employees of New York-based pharmaceutical maker Pfizer.
For women, the new look means tailored clothing that is more feminine than the "power suits" of the 1980s, explains Schwartz. This year's jackets are cropped and fitted, not boxy and bulky. Even the U.S. Navy is catching the wave. The service recently issued a new dress code making skirts optional for its 54,000-plus female sailors while redesigning its skirts to be more figure flattering.
As for men, "guys are wearing suits again," reports Jim Moore, GQ creative director--though you might personalize the suit with, say, a brighter tie. The trend is already showing up in retail sales figures. For the 12 months ending in August, men's tailored clothing is up 9.8 percent from the prior 12 months, according to market researcher NPD Group. That's good news for sellers such as Men's Wearhouse. "On a year-to-date basis, our men's suits sales units are up in the high single digits, and that's a significant change in this industry," reports George Zimmer, founder and CEO of the Houston-based firm.
Well suited. High-tech companies may be especially keen to change their sloppy image. "We were part of an enormous amount of exuberance in the economy that didn't pan out, and we've had to correct some perception problems, in part through our appearance in the business world," says Kathryn Koegel, director of research and industry development at New York City-based DoubleClick, an online advertising and E-mail marketing technology firm. The company has no official dress code, but, Koegel says, "now, we tend to be more dressed up than the clients we call on."
At Qwest Communications International, logo-bearing clothes and accessories may be playing a role in rebuilding morale. The Denver-based telecom recently agreed to pay $250 million to settle charges by the Securities and Exchange Commission that it improperly booked $3.8 billion in revenue. When CEO Richard Notebaert, who joined the firm in 2002 after the dispute, gave his first talk to the company, he wore a shirt with the Qwest logo and these days rarely appears in public without it, says Delmar Wyatt, director of marketing operations. Qwest employees have followed Notebaert's lead, buying $1 million worth of "logowear" and accessories last year--up from $300,000 the year before. With other firms joining the trend, a logo-branded blazer or sweater set may turn out to be the uniform of the next economy.
This story appears in the November 8, 2004 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.