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Real lives: When mr suit becomes mr corporate casual...

... the result can be sartorial disaster for the British office male. Louise Chunn on the perils of down-dressing at work
Suitable: it says it all. What's suitable for most occasions is a suit. It covers the required body parts, gives a smooth patina and a dark silhouette; unless it's very badly cut, it makes you look taller and slimmer. It is clothing that will not shock the horses, or rock the boat. British men, and those women working in male-dominated areas such as finance and law, know this rule and, in the case of men, have lived by it for a century and a half. For if the Englishman's home is his castle, the businessman's suit is his armour. It gives the right messages, it impresses, it asks to be trusted, and it is.

Or is it? As British business and politics is rocked by scandals and all forms of fraudulent behaviour, one starts to wonder whether suit-wearing isn't all an incredible con-trick. Rather than reading "trust me" in a few yards of wool/polyester mix, ought we to be reading the exact opposite?

But if people are starting to distrust the semiotics of the suit, what is the alternative? For most urban people getting dressed for work in the morning is no laughing matter. Clothes are part of the equation that in the long run equals money, and that is important.

In the United States, such debates are old-hat; suit-wearing is already in severe decline. Starting at the beginning of the Nineties, large American corporations such as IBM, General Motors and the Hearst Corporation, began to adopt a new dress code that they felt broke down unnecessary formality in the workplace. Whether they called it Corporate Casual, Fridaywear, Dress Down Friday or even (cringe) Work at Ease, it has meant that the uniform of business has changed.

The alternative they have settled upon is classic American casualwear. One step down from a suit; one step up from jeans and a T-shirt. According to a forthcoming handbook on the subject, Work Clothes: Casual Dress for Serious Work (Thames and Hudson) a typical Friday outfit looks like this: navy blazer, denim shirt, wildish tie, well-pressed chinos, black penny loafers. If you're old enough, think Michael in thirtysomething; if you're not, Ross in Friends is running along the same trajectory. Women getting dressed down on Friday might don exactly the same thing, but without the tie, or opt for something a mite prettier up top, like a twinset or a polo-neck sweater. Think Mi- chael's wife, Hope, in thirtysomething.

Corporate casual started as an occasional "extra"; something that human resources departments invented to make employees feel better about working their proverbial butts off for the company. According to research done by Levi Strauss & Co, around two-thirds of American companies have some sort of casual-dressing policy, and more than four out of five employees affected felt that it improved morale. (Levi's is particularly keen on the scheme. In the US the jeans giant is forecasting $1bn sales for its new Slates brand, specifically targeted at casually dressed office workers.)

News of these new-fangled American dress codes has been filtering through for several years now and Britain has, sporadically, attempted to follow, er, suit. American-owned corporations such as HarperCollins, and banks such as Morgan Stanley and Citibank have largely adopted the one-day-a- week formula. There are no figures on how many British companies are involved but both BP and National Power have adopted Casual Friday policies.

At Wiggins & Co, a leading law firm, head of litigation Caroline Kean recalls that Casual Fridays proved so popular that it has been extended through the week. "Obviously, if you're going in to court, you dress more formally, but otherwise the men are wearing chinos and Ralph Lauren shirts and the women are in trousers. We may still be liaising with big corporate clients, but we found that the world simply did not fall apart if we were not dressed in suits.

"In my time, I've done the power suit and high heels - and I will continue to if it's the right thing for my client - but I do feel much more comfortable, and assertive, dressed as I am now," she says of her black blazer, silk shirt, camel trousers and high-heeled brown boots. "I feel quite trapped when I'm dressed in a skirt with high heels; you seem to trot rather than walk about, and that makes you feel silly."

But while one can understand Kean's relief at shucking off an uncomfortable suit, the prospect of smartly casual British men is perhaps not so appealing. For while dressing down conjures up American TV heroes with square jaws and firm lats, the British example is more likely to be Alan Partridge in Pringle or Michael Fish in a pink sports jacket. Even men of enormous intellect, power and wealth (Richard Branson springs, with frightening speed, to mind) seem incapable to carrying off this insouciance without looking like they're off to play golf.

John Morgan, associate editor of GQ and author of Debrett's New Guide to Etiquette and Modern Manners (Headline) published this week, agrees that the British version of "smart casual" is not, generally, a success. "We can do formal very well, of course, and the casual clothing that is for real purposes - such as fishing, hunting, shooting etc - is marvellous. But the in-between is problematic." It is, of course, ironic to note that much of the best American smart casual clothing is based on British sporting attire: with the likes of Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger pillaging everything from cricket and rugby to grouse-shooting and fly-fishing to come up with male "classics".

Men working in the City, says John Morgan, generally learn to play by the rules. "It doesn't pay to be too much of a peacock; areas like banking and broking are team efforts, and you shouldn't stand out. Men don't like it." Even in less "formal" areas, such as the media, codes are in place. One senior newspaper journalist was renowned for wearing suits by, gulp, Belgian designers and other fashionable types. The other men on staff were indifferent dressers, but they clearly found actually caring about what you wore an eccentric and rather threatening characteristic.

Hairdresser Richard Stepney has a salon, Fourth Floor, in Clerkenwell. He doesn't cater for the straightest of City types - his light-filled premises at the top of a Thirties office block appeal more to architects and media people - but he knows enough about British men's attire to spot a change in what they're wearing. "You realise that a client who usually wears a suit looks different. `Day off, then?' I'll say, and they squirm a bit and say `No it's dressing down for Friday'. And yet somehow that kind of look always seems to be trying too hard. The French know how to wear a jacket without a tie; most English men don't." Indeed some signs of rebellion are already appearing. One British executive working for an American City firm says he flatly ignores his company's Casual Friday policy: he can't be bothered to compete in the corporate casual stakes, so goes in wearing his suit like every other day.

Richard Stepney thinks that many men in suits would rather accept the rules for work, and buck them on the weekend. "You'll see a guy during the week for years and it's always the same bad suit, bad shirt, bad tie. Then one day he'll come in on Saturday and you realise he's got a lot of style. He just doesn't waste his money on clothes for work."

Both Morgan and Stepney were of the opinion that while British workers may loosen their ties a little, it was going to take more than a Casual Friday policy for really conservative areas to change. "I know young chaps in the City who dress just as my father did," claims Morgan, a man rarely seen unsuited himself.

And even if British men do succumb to sports coats and cords - the most likely interpretation of a dressed-down man on this side of the Atlantic - it's unlikely that the Microsoft-style dress code, surfshorts and a T-shirt, will ever catch on. Global community notwithstanding, there are still some pretty basic cultural differences between the two countries. As John Powers wrote in the Boston Globe, "America began as a dress-down country. We won the Revolutionary War by wearing everyday clothes and firing home-made bullets at people garbed in tailored scarlet coats."

The writer is features editor of `Vogue'.