Anything goes in office clothes

Wardrobe: Under the influence of ultra-casual Silicon Valley, even Baltimore's lawyers and stockbrokers are dressing way, way down.

June 01, 2000|By Neal Thompson | Neal Thompson,SUN STAFF

Overlooked in the antitrust battle against the nation's software giant is this: Microsoft's complicity in the demise of the business suit.

Microsoft - and its khakis-and-T-shirt cousins - have systematically untucked and short-sleeved the togs of the American workplace. They've made pinstripes obsolete. They've made ties as necessary as typewriters.

And here in Baltimore, they've spoiled the Memorial Day de-mothballing of the poplin. Memorial Day weekend once delineated the shift to summer business attire.

Wool suits went to the dry cleaner and out came the seersucker. Women put away their gloves and took down the straw hats.

But then came Dress Down Fridays, which evolved into Casual Dress Summers. Now, in step with the biggest business fashion change of the century, white-collar offices are going all casual, all the time.

Take, for example, the offices of Whiteford, Taylor and Preston. Lawyers who once wore the traditional corporate uniform of dark suit and white shirt now - with the blessing of the firm's elders - look like Gap models.

"I think in many regards we feel that we're following the trend of a lot of our clients," said David E. Rawson, director of client services at Whiteford, Taylor, who now wears golf shirts instead of button-downs.

"Baltimore's economy is becoming much more diversified, we're seeing more of the computer and technology industry, and that whole environment is much more casual."

The trend has taken a bit longer to reach Baltimore, but this spring it hit full force as companies doing business with the Internet set - or companies trying to lure tech-savvy workers - are officially switching to corporate casual.

Whiteford, Taylor adopted a new dress code last month, preceded by Piper Marbury Rudnick & Wolfe, an old-line downtown law firm.

T. Rowe Price unveiled new "business casual" guidelines in March, following the recent cue of Wall Street firms such as JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs.

A few rules apply to non-Internet firms: Shorts, sweatpants, Spandex, miniskirts are considered a little too casual, as are Metallica T-shirts and flip-flops. Such rules don't apply to businesses with @ or dot in their name.

But the trend is raising all sorts of questions. Are casually dressed workers more productive? Are sneakers at IBM symbolic of a creeping corrosion in corporate America? Does this shirt go with these pants?

Casual dress, like many of today's workplace trends, began in the Silicon Valley. It was an effort to democratize the workplace by eliminating the status of formal wear.

But it also exemplified the tech industry's melding of home and work, an industry that builds bunk beds over software writers' desks.

It's evolved to the point where Gucci now sells $285 office slippers.

In Baltimore, the past year's emergence of a tech sector has brought the trend here. The new offices of BusinessMonkey.com, an Internet firm in Canton where jeans and T-shirts are the uniform, feature a game room, pool table, lounge chairs and a shower.

At Mom.com in Owings Mills, employees can bring pets to work.

One Canton area firm is looking for matching bowling shirts for its employees.

John Berndt, of the Berndt Group Web design firm on North Charles, said clients have been shocked when he's arrived at meetings in a suit.

"We had a system administrator here who, to test the boundaries, actually came in in his pajamas three days in a row," Berndt said.

When no one seemed to notice or care, he reverted to T-shirt and jeans.

Such casualness has required lawyers, bankers and insurance workers serving tech companies to follow suit, so to speak.

Lawyer Chuck Morton, for example, comes to work at Wright, Constable and Skeen in a suit most days. But as general counsel to a number of Internet start-ups, "I actually keep a change of clothes in my closet to dress down."

Workers elsewhere do the reverse - they come to work in khakis or jeans and a casual shirt, but keep a backup suit on hand for important meetings.

Donald Grauel of L.E. Goldsborough & Sons insurance company found that even the backup suit isn't necessary anymore. At a recent meeting with a local Internet company, "I was the only one in a tie, not to mention the suit."

His next step: "I'm off to the embroidery shop to have our name sewn to a golf shirt the first chance I get."

Traditionalists aren't sure what to think. Rob Hendrickson recalls wearing a blazer and red tie to class at City College. Today, as a partner with Boyd, Benson & Hendrickson, he still wears a tie - usually a bow tie - each day and is looking forward to pulling his cord suits out of the closet.

"Good grief, when I started downtown [in the 1970s], you weren't seen on Charles Street without a coat and tie," he said.

To help folks like Hendrickson transition to casualness, firms are going so far as to hire fashion consultants. Joseph A. Bank clothiers has retooled its wardrobe and its sales techniques. Last week, new training videos were mailed to salespeople, to show them how to sell the casual look.

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