Ideas From the Front

The Great Biz-Cas Debate

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When it comes to dressing for work in a business-casual law office, John Comiskey can offer a few tips about what not to wear. Lead­ing the list is a tie.

So when Comiskey read the August 2005 Life Audit feature in the ABA Journal, he couldn’t help but take us to task. The feature offered advice to a young lawyer about how to dress for success on a budget in a business casual office.

Chicago fashion stylist Mark Gill, the Life Audit profes­sional attire expert, told the lawyer to play it conservatively. He recommended an office wardrobe of flat fronted dress slacks, a long sleeved collared shirt, sport jacket and tie.

Comiskey disagrees. “No one considers wearing a tie to be business-casual,” says the Uniondale, N.Y., lawyer, who works in a medium-size law firm with a business casual dress code. Comiskey says nice slacks and a polo shirt or long-sleeved shirt–sans tie–are standard attire at work for him and most other lawyers he knows. He only wears a tie when he must.

Comiskey isn’t the only lawyer who disagrees with Gill’s advice, and he isn’t the only lawyer who felt compelled to share his thoughts with the Journal. Among the other letter writers was Philadelphia lawyer Paul Quinones. “In­stead of following Mr. Gill’s advice, one would have an eas­ier and cheaper time just wearing a suit ev­ery day,” Qui­nones wrote.

Quinones, whose law firm allows lawyers to wear business casual attire on Fridays, thinks Gill’s sartorial advice is anything but business casual. “A tie is the equivalent of a human yoke,” he wrote. “If the purpose of business casual is to be comfortable, then wearing a necktie every day defeats the purpose.”

When he can wear business casual attire, Quinones says he prefers to wear long sleeved collared shirts and dress slacks. But he also thinks nicely pressed khaki pants are perfectly acceptable in the workplace, along with clean, logoless polo shirts.

Still, he acknowledges that there is little agreement in his own law firm about what is appropriate. The youn­ger generation of lawyers feels more comfortable dressing casually. Those more senior see dress slacks and long sleeved collared shirts as pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable.

Despite the criticism, however, Life Audit expert Gill defends his position. “The words are self explanatory,” he says. “Khakis and polo shirts are casual, not business casual.” “You want to distinguish yourself,” he adds. “If you want to maintain a highly professional look, let the others wear polos and khaki pants.”

Slobby Looks Dampen The Spirit

Lawyer, actor and writer Ben Stein echoed this advice earlier this year in an August New York Times column imploring lawyers and other professionals to dress appropriately if they want to be respected in business.

“To put it boldly as it needs to be put, men at work these days all too often dress like total slobs, and it hurts the eyes, the spirit and, I suspect, the bottom line,” he wrote. “Sometimes I get a clue of this when I go to see my lawyer and am shocked to find that men who should be wearing suits–to keep up their propriety and their sense of dignity–are wearing casual jeans and short-sleeved shirts instead.”

Others in the fashion industry say Gill and Stein are not completely off the mark with their advice, but they also ac­knowl­edge the confusion that business casual has created for so many professionals. “Business casual is probably the most misunderstood catchphrase of the 21st cen­tury,” says Clin­ton Kelly, host of TLC’s pop­u­lar cable TV show What Not to Wear. “And that’s because business casual means different things for different offices.”

Kelly thinks lawyers need to take the pulse of their office culture and fellow attorneys when they decide how to dress each day. If a lawyer’s colleagues or superiors dress more formally, then he or she should, too. In addition, a law­yer’s type of practice al­so should be considered. “I don’t want to see my entertainment attorney in a power suit,” says Kelly, who co wrote Dress Your Best: The Complete Guide to Finding the Style That’s Right for Your Body. “We have the kind of relationship where I could stop by on my way home from the gym. She’s young and deals with a very creative urban clientele, and the way she dresses should reflect that.” Pay attention to the image you are trying to project, Kel­ly says, and the answer to what to wear should follow.

Like Kelly, Glen Hoffs, fashion director for Brooks Broth­ers, has encoun­tered confusion over what defines business casual. Men find the concept especially confusing, he says, because each office has created different stan­dards and dress codes for its own corporate culture.

Nonetheless, Hoffs believes that many men are becom­ing too casual in the workplace. “That is when it gets to be problematic, when you see guys showing up to work in stuff that they should be wearing to wash their car,” he quips.

Like Gill, Hoffs recommends that professionals err on the side of formality. Leave the weekend wear at home, he says, and at the very least opt for a dress shirt with slacks. While Hoffs wants lawyers to avoid wearing khaki pants to work, the store acknowledges their popularity in the workplace. For lawyers who want to wear khakis, Hoffs sug­gests wearing a pair made from a no iron fabric rath­er than the standard issue cotton ones that wrinkle, fray and tear.

Hoffs also likes a tie and blazer to complete the business casual look, but he says a blazer without a tie will also achieve an appropriate business casual look for professional men. New York City lawyer Brent Ray thinks lawyers need to focus not so much on what they are wearing, but what they look like. An associate at a large national firm, Ray had the option to go business casual over the summer months. What he found was what he was wearing was less important than how it looked.

“Make sure it’s not stained or faded or ill fitting,” he says. “The most important thing is to wear clothing that looks nice.”


What About The Women?

Like men, professional women should err on the side of conservatism when dressing for work, even in a business casual environment, says Chicago fashion consultant Kate Shifrin. For a clean, crisp business casual look, she recommends classically tailored pants or straight, knee length skirts paired with more stylized jackets or classic sweaters like ribbed turtlenecks or appropriate v necks. (How low is too low with a v neck? Clinton Kelly’s rule of thumb is that you can show “chest, not breast.”) Footwear can be used to dress an outfit up or down, but Shifrin urges women to think “clean and classic.”

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