OTHERS

Beyond casual Friday

New York

AHEAD of the calendar schedule, summer's heat and humidity is settling in. And with it, the men's office wardrobe dilemma begins.

Since the invention of wildly popular "Casual Fridays" dress code; confusion about what is correct office attire has set in. According to some, it needs to be reined in.

Who would have thought the gents would worry about things as seemingly mundane as clothing. But rarely a week goes by that the question of what is now considered proper dress for office, restaurant, or occasion does not come up.

Once, there were sartorial and corporate rules. No matter the season, in the office, a man whose job did not require a uniform wore a suit. Period. With a tie. Period. As the seasons changed so did the fabric and colour, but not the cut.

No longer. Some accuse Microsoft's Billionaire Bill Gates, who prides himself on the polo shirt and sneakers look, for the lack of office decorum. But even he has begun to dress for the occasion; donning a suit when making a power play. The real culprit has been those fashion industry marketing geniuses who used the idea to boost sales of men's casual clothes.

In the beginning, "Casual Friday" was season specific. That season was summer. In the United States and Europe, Friday traditionally signalled the start of the weekend. As the hallmark of success is the weekend house, prosperous executives would welcome the idea of dressing down for the "getaway" day.

Then more people began to take more long weekends off and fewer full-fledged vacations. Casual Friday went year round. (Have you ever tried to reach any one in New York or Paris after 11 o'clock on a Friday? Forget it. They have headed to the beach or mountains or are hiding behind voice mail catching up on work.)

From year round, Casual Friday began to become Casual Monday, Tuesday, etc. And now in some corporate cultures hardly anyone dresses in a proper business suit ... unless they are meeting with their bankers and attorneys.

One result of all this casual stuff, is that, at a glance, it is difficult to separate the boss from the mail clerk. Another is the sales of suits in the U.S. and Europe have plummeted. That has the industry's marketing specialists so nervous there is a now a movement afoot for a "Dress-Up Thursdays" campaign. No wonder men are confused.

Let us make it easy. Let us set a few rules to take the stress out of dressing. Let us start with the basics.

Rule One: Unless you are a miner or cowboy, it is trousers, not jeans.

Never jeans at work. Period. Trousers could be khaki or gray in colour ... most Westerners prefer khakis in summer and grays in winter, but, either work.

Rule Two: Shoes are dress lace-ups or polished dress loafers. No sneakers; no kidding. Not even in the computer industry.

Rule Three: The big one .... the jacket dilemma. Follow a tie or no tie dictate. You will not go wrong. Wear a shirt and tie without a jacket, or, wear a jacket without a tie ... unless you are doing business on a golf course, sailboat, or at a cricket match do not go both tie-less and jacket-less. You might get teased by those less well-turned-out, but, you will get respect.

The blazer or sport coat is hardly ever out of place. It is dressy enough to meet with many an executive and is easy to sling over the shoulder should the potential client be in more relaxed garb.

Tucking a tie into the jacket's pocket allows one to duck any embarrassing wardrobe situation. Tucking a silk or cotton square into the jacket's breast pocket is a splendid touch.

With the exception of an elegant turtleneck or fine-fabric polo shirt, English-American-Italian style suits always command a tie. The suit and crewneck tee-shirt has been out of fashion for at least a decade. It is a look that still appeals to gangsters and a few stuck-in-the-1980s TV stars with hair spray heads, but I would opt for a polo shirt with a suit at its most casual.

Fortunately, you live in the epicentre of much of what has become central to a proper and practical gentleman's wardrobe.

Think how banal the world would be were it not for India's contributions to fashion? Khaki, both the colour and the fabric. Madras plaids (which maybe followed by Chennai checks). Paisley. True tropical weight wools and innovative wool blends. Raw silks in searing colours.

Designers from Giorgio Armani, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger are heavily indebted to India. Thanks to its cultural influences and many manufacturing facilities, millions of garments a year stream out of India.

It is not just the big fashion names that borrow from India. The influence of India has woven its way into fad wear as well as classics. It goes well beyond business attire.

Today's hip kids have discovered the tie-dye so beloved by the hippies of yesteryear. For weekend and loungewear, kurta tops are the ultimate in cool. And, young socialites sport string on their wrists and ankles with respect and as a badge of international travel, understanding and chic. Cowboys of the American West wrap bandannas around their necks; fashion models tie them on their heads ... probably neither know of their Indian origin.

Without India's many fashion innovations, one wonders what men would be wearing to the office ... or ... club ... or ... beach! Let us face it, khaki may have started as a colour and evolved into the cotton twill of the colour of dust and sand, but, today it is the most universally accepted summer uniform be it trousers or a suit.

DIANE SUSTENDAL

The writer is a journalist who covers issues of style for a number of international publications. She may be reached at sustendal@hotmail.com