Summer In The City

Looking good and staying cool at the office in this season's heat and humidity requires judgment based on workplace's culture.

July 13, 2005|By Blanca Torres | Blanca Torres,SUN STAFF

Chris Holehan got the office memo on summer attire: no flip flops, tube tops or denim.

"There are people who push the envelope and ruin it for everybody else," she said.

Some people just don't exhibit common sense when it comes to workplace fashion, Holehan said. But as long as the 34-year-old financial services worker from Perry Hall can wear open toed-shoes minus pantyhose, she's pleased.

Humid Baltimore summer days can make maintaining a professional appearance nearly impossible. Even though many people spend their days in an office, they still can be weather victims when they're coming and going from the job.

"One thing about hot weather, you can look kind of rumpled in a hurry," said Neal Black, executive vice president merchandising and marketing with Jos. A. Bank Clothiers Inc.

So, how can workers survive if they can't wear tank tops or thigh-length skirts? Most experts suggest finding the right mix of comfort and professional style. Breathable fabrics as well as short sleeves, open toes and loose fits make the heat more bearable, and they shouldn't draw attention in a workplace where suits and ties are standard.

"It's summer, so it's normal to want to show a little more skin, but you have to resist that impulse," said Liz Ryan, a Boulder, Colo.-based workplace expert and founder of WorldWit, an online community for female professionals. "You never want to be the envelope-pusher in the office."

At some companies, such as Bank of America and others in the financial services industry, the dress code is "seasonless," said Brooke Hodges, who is the bank's senior vice president for community affairs. Most people know that regardless of what's happening outside the bank, workers wear suits inside.

"Companies in financial services tend to be more conservative than others and that certainly includes business attire," Hodges said.

Fashion experts agreed the best fabrics for summer include cotton, linen, seersucker and light-wool blends. Some stores sell shirts or suits made of fabrics that have added materials to pull moisture away from the body.

Another technique is to wear multiple layers that can be added or shed easily such as a shirt and blazer or sweater set. That comes in handy for many workers whose offices are kept chilly during summer months.

Women can wear sleeveless shirts and men can wear golf shirts that can easily be dressed up in case the chief executive comes by. "You can get the polished look simply by putting on the jacket," said Jane Goonan, a fashion expert with Marshalls stores, based in Framingham, Mass.

At offices where suits are a uniform all year, workers should look for lighter fabrics and colors, said Black from Jos. A. Bank. Women can wear skirt suits or suit pants that come in ankle or calf lengths.

Joseph H.H. Kaplan, 68, chief judge of Baltimore Circuit Court, dons a robe over the suits he wears to work most days. "When June 21 comes, I change to my summer wardrobe," he said. That includes light-colored ensembles like a tan and white seersucker suit.

Some companies adopt what Ryan calls "summer casual" dress policies. The question then becomes how casual is too casual? Certain items such as flip flops or torn T-shirts always can be considered a "no."

For women, experts cautioned against spaghetti straps, sheer fabrics, low-cut tanks and visible bra straps. Styles for women such as Capri pants or circle skirts provide a lot of variety, Goonan said. She recommends looking for cotton or polyester blends in darker colors because they hide wrinkles.

Men have to use a little more personal judgment based on their office cultures. Shorts, for example, may be fine in some workplaces or totally unacceptable, said David Levin, president and chief executive of the Casual Male Retail Group based in Canton, Mass.

Short-sleeve dress shirts function as a middle ground for many men, Levin said.

Summer time means men can opt for "festive summery colors," Black said. Bright orange, green or lavender are good options for shirts. Black also suggests experimenting with tie colors such as yellow with blue stripes.

The dress code at McCormick & Co. states that all employees maintain a clean and neat appearance and that "office employees are expected to dress in a manner appropriate to a business environment; extreme styles are prohibited."

The company expects its employees to use their judgment on issues concerning appearance, said Mac Barrett, a company spokesman. Casual at McCormick means men can wear shirts with collars, pants and socks while women should wear dress pants, dresses or a skirt and blouse.

Many workers don't have a clear idea of what terms like casual or business casual mean, said Steve Blake, president of Gage Menswear, a clothing company based in Baltimore.

"There's no reason why you cannot look good and still be comfortable," Blake said. If someone does decide to wear a T-shirt, for example, it should be a nice one made of silk or microfiber -- not basic cotton.

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