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Only last spring companies jettisoned suits for hipper casual dress and law firms jockeyed to be the first to loosen up. It was a race with unintended, and sometimes awful, consequences. Too soon it became clear that many men (and a few women) simply did not understand what was meant by “business casual.” So companies issued dress codes, clarifying that collared shirts remained necessary, even if ties were no longer. Jeans? Taboo, except where local traditions dictated otherwise. At McKenna & Cuneo, for example, denim is permitted in Denver, while unacceptable in more staid Washington, D.C., says partner Lino Lipinsky, who divides his time — and wardrobe — between the firm’s two offices. But dress codes only helped so much. They did nothing, for example, to stop former blue-suit wearers from metamorphosing into Khaki Man. Suddenly khakis became as ubiquitous as briefcases on commuter trains and in airports. The abandoning of ties, just as the rising of hemlines, seemed to be a harbinger of skyrocketing stock prices. But with the market’s downturn, traditional dress is starting to reappear. As one lawyer at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. says, somewhat hopefully, “It does seem like I am seeing more suits around the halls these days.” And while no employer has yet turned back the clock, some think it’s inevitable. I, for one, can’t wait. Let’s admit it: The experiment in dressing casually is causing acute sartorial distress, both in the office and at home. The problem lies in the male view that khakis go with everything. The genesis of this widely held opinion has never been clear to me. But what is apparent after a year of careful observation is this: Khakis do not mix with wing tips. They look awkward (to say the least) with suit jackets. And they don’t hide coffee spills like blue trousers. Sound familiar? Representatives of Paul Stuart and New York clothier Rothman’s Inc. cite these all-too-common combinations as the typical “don’ts” of men’s dress today. It gets worse. In fact, Brooks Brothers’ Geri Corrigan says, “It’s just scary what you see. Many think it’s like casual Friday, but it’s not.” One West Coast lawyer, who spoke only on condition of anonymity, says she stopped her husband, a partner at a prominent firm, only minutes before he left with toothpaste traces on his pants. And Corrigan says that at a law firm seminar she gave, one attorney came in wearing a suit — minus the jacket and the tie. But sensing that this wasn’t casual enough, he dared to leave open not one but the three top buttons on his shirt. Corrigan was aghast. Rather than single out the offending dresser, she told the group that at the very least, they needed to wear T-shirts. Ken Giddon, president of Rothman’s, which has been at the forefront of helping men cope with casual dress, similarly draws the line at being, well, too casual. But he gives away his prejudices up front: “90 percent of men look better in suits.” That’s in large part, he says, because they conceal, to be kind, features that casual clothing cannot. Apparently many men agree. Giddon says his suit business is up again. The same is true at Barneys New York, where vice president Bill Cournoyer says that, after a drop-off last fall, suits are once again selling at the same rate as sport coats. For those who can’t yet return to the suit, there are better ways to cope with casualdom. Giddon confirmed my belief that some mistakes could be rectified by consulting with spouses and significant others in the morning. Neither he nor other fashion experts suggest that domestic partners or spouses preapprove their men’s selections. But a sporadic quality check couldn’t hurt. Not that I always practice this approach. When, for example, the alarm goes off at 6 a.m. in my house, my husband occasionally asks for advice on what to wear. Being a cautious sort, I invariably vote for one of his tailored blue suits before hitting the snooze button. He usually ignores my advice and opts for one of his many pairs of khakis. But at least he doesn’t own wing tips and remains loyal to tasteful shirts and blazers. Thinking we were not alone, I unscientifically surveyed others in our suburban New York town, which by many accounts has a disproportionate share of lawyers. The results proved my theory: Casual dress was adding a new layer of complexity to life as we know it. And wives are not always able to come to the rescue. One friend reported that her husband accidentally wore his soccer-dad pants — the ones with the frayed cuffs — to work one day, not realizing his choice until he’d left the house. He promptly took pre-emptive measures to avoid making the same mistake again: He redacted the existing inside label and substituted the words “Do Not Wear to Office” on the offending khakis. One day I spotted on the train another lawyer I knew slightly. He wore what appeared to be suit pants (the pinstripes were the giveaway) and a white polo shirt. Didn’t he know? Was his wife out of town? A banking lawyer was determined not to commit such style atrocities. Taking a cue from feminist Naomi Wolf, hired to reshape Al Gore’s image during the presidential campaign, the New York lawyer began wearing earth tones only. Unlike Al, his goal was not to become more of an alpha male. He was just practicing the art of coordinating separates that most women learned long ago. Yet another neighbor was sporting a natty sport coat, open shirt, and some form of khakis. I complimented him on his ability to pull it together. He looked both taken aback and pleased. “It’s been hard to get dressed” since his firm embraced progress, he confided. Unfortunately, there won’t be a formal return to traditional garb anytime soon. Casual dress is a no-cost perk that companies can’t afford to rescind in this time of economic retrenchment. American Express Company, a fashion trendsetter when it first experimented with dressing down in 1995, found that employees at all levels view casual dress as a priority, says company spokeswoman Bet Franzone. Frank Judge, the assistant general counsel at Timex Corporation agrees: “There’s no consideration of going back” to suits at the Connecticut-based watch company. And Rick Snowe, the GC of software company J.D. Edwards & Co. in Denver, says that going casual was “a real sea change.” He doesn’t see a retreat. I thought things were looking up, however, when Mona Reilly of Paul Stuart said the store’s staff heard that Prudential Securities Incorporated had rescinded its casual code. Finally, a company was willing to break rank. I called a staff lawyer there, which set off intense speculation in the department. Concerned, he checked out the story, only to tell me that the news was mere rumor, one of many then making the rounds of Wall Street. Prudential general counsel Jim Tricarico later confirmed that the casual dress policy “is still in effect.” And while he “occasionally” dresses less formally, many in his New York office “tend to wear suits and ties.” Still I remain hopeful. Surely somewhere there’s a company that will buck the tide. With any luck, my husband’s employer will be the brave first. STYLE DO’S AND DON’TS � Do invest in clothes that are distinct from weekend wear. � Do venture beyond blue blazers. � Do keep a suit in the office just in case. � Do check on the attire for a meeting before attending. � Avoid being the only casual one in a room full of suits. � Don’t wear suit pants with a polo shirt. � Don’t combine a suit jacket with casual pants. � Don’t wear a dress shirt without a tie. � Don’t wear wing tips with khakis.

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