Bay Street’s dressing up again

But more than half of workers surveyed want business casual

Say goodbye to the chinos and golf shirts and hello to the power suit. The relaxed dotcom business casual look of the ’90s may be a thing of the past for some workplaces. The new fashion statement is “dress to impress.”

“The whole casual dress code came with the dotcoms and there is a turn back away from it now,” says Stewart Saxe, a lawyer with the Bay Street law firm Baker and Mackenzie. “I’m against business casual. What we are offering our clients is leading edge professionalism and (business casual) doesn’t look professional.”

Saxe’s firm reviews its dress code annually, and while a business casual look is allowed for summer, Saxe says most of his co-workers wear jackets, suits and ties. With the dotcom bust, many corporations are re-evaluating their dress code, he says.

“With more formality, there is a sense of turning to more integrity and solid values. When you think of the integrity problems of the dotcom industry, we don’t want that.”

While some businesses are making the fashion transition smoothly, many workplaces would likely get strong opposition from workers. According to the Dockers 2002 Style Survey, more than half of the 1,000 working Canadians polled consider business casual dress to be a perk and a morale booster. However, 43 per cent did admit that business casual has become dressier in the past year.

TD Securities Inc. is going with the conservative fashion style. Last month, the investment-banking unit on Bay Street reinstated formal business dress for employees when meeting clients in its investment and corporate operations.

“I think it’s a trend that’s been happening in the business (for a while). A lot of companies have been going that way, eventually you kind of realize this is what’s happening,” says Kelly Hechler, TD Securities spokesperson.

Major U.S. corporations on Wall Street have also dumped business casual attire. Lehman Brother Holdings Inc. vetoed casual wear like golf shirts, khakis and jeans and Deutsche Bank AG asked its employees in global trading operations to dress more conventional.

“There’s no doubt there’s a change occurring,” says Larry Rosen, CEO and chairman of Harry Rosen Inc., a men’s clothing store. “Our suit, dress shirt and tie business is the greatest growth in the last year, up 15 to 20 per cent.”

People are recognizing that business casual went too far, he says. When people are in chinos and a golf shirt they aren’t taken as seriously by other people.

“There’s a reason why you dress differently for business and when you take the kids to hockey practice. Work is serious, you’re supposed to be conducting transactions, it’s not a game.”

But casual dress still has its supporters.

“I think one of the things business casual does from an expense point of view is cut down on costs,” says Ken Hahn, senior vice-president of human resources for Coast Capital Savings Credit Union in Surrey, B.C.

Coast Capital Savings — formerly Surrey Metro Savings — has had a business casual dress code for two years. Before that, workers were expected to “suit up.” At one point, the firm attempted to put all its employees in a corporate uniform.

“That was a few years ago, we were trying to get everyone to wear the same outfit, but it just didn’t fly,” Hahn says. Some liked it, but most did not and the idea was scrapped.

When the business casual policy was implemented, Hahn says customers supported the look. Some said that casual wear made staff more approachable.

“We’re not going back to traditional, not at this stage. Now the biggest challenge is to remember how to tie a tie,” says Hahn.

Cap Gemini Ernst and Young, a Toronto-based professional services firm, is not on either side of the fashion war. Debbie Fischer, chief people officer for Cap Gemini, says they’re sort of in the middle.

“Our consultants go to see clients and how they dress is dependent on the client. If our clients are dressed traditional, they expect us to be dressed that way too. You have to gauge that. But if our employees are working in the office, we certainly don’t have that expectation, they can dress business casual,” she says.

Although, “anything goes” is not the motto. There are some items of clothing that are not acceptable to wear around the Cap Gemini office such as leggings, sweat suits and jeans. The line has to be drawn somewhere, says Fischer.

“You don’t want to be a watchdog, but you want to make sure a certain level of professionalism is maintained.”

Latest stories