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Casual Staffers Told To Spruce Up

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It's the latest trend in fall fashion: Workers and students who dress down or show too much skin are being told to button up.

Tired of staff members who they see as pushing the limits of professionalism and good taste, a growing number of employers are issuing lengthy dress codes, some with photos to illustrate the do's and don'ts. More schools also are getting stricter about student attire.

M.J. Dean, who's starting his senior year Thursday at the private Cape Cod Academy in Osterville, Mass., discovered new rules at his school when he received the updated student handbook this summer. Among the new guidelines: no pants with side pockets, including popular cargo pants, or T-shirts with writing on them - and "no tight or excessively loose clothing."

"This very strict new dress code is, quite honestly, ridiculous," says the 17-year-old student body vice president. "You can't really represent yourself the way you'd like."

Likewise, some employees think they should be trusted to use good judgment about their clothes. Joe D'Adamo, associate creative director at Chicago ad agency LKH&S, usually wears jeans, a T-shirt and sneakers to work, and dresses up when he sees clients.

He says a specific dress code would be "irritating" - but that hasn't stopped bosses at some companies.

Effective this week, Target Corp. has a new, 20-page dress code for employees at its Minneapolis headquarters. Men must now wear a sport coat or tie if they leave their usual work area. Women are required to wear a jacket over any sleeveless blouse; sweater sets are among the other options.

The staff at G.S. Schwartz & Co., a New York investor and public relations firm, also received a recent e-mail memo asking them to bump up their apparel choices "at least one more notch."

"For example," the memo read, "we would prefer that properly fitting sweaters be worn with a collared shirt underneath. Certainly, khakis should be neat and clean ..."

"Shaving regularly also is a good idea," the memo suggested, "for either sex."

Rachel Honig Peters, a senior vice president at the company, says the e-mail was sent after company officials noticed their clients dressing up more.

Elsewhere, business owners in the service industry say customer complaints are driving them to put tougher dress codes in place.

That was the case for Erika Mangrum, owner of the Iatria Spa and Health Center in Raleigh, N.C. She recalls sending one employee home to change after she came to work wearing a cropped Playboy T-shirt that showed her stomach and a navel ring.

"This is really tough stuff," says Mangrum, who understands how frustrating dress codes can be for employees. Mangrum herself once got in trouble, more than a decade ago, for not wearing panty hose when she worked at a major telecommunications firm.

Now, she's had to institute a dress code at her own company - "no shorts, no denim, no flip-flops." And she's wondering if she should add rules about piercings.

"How far can and should a company go? We're wrestling with that," Mangrum says. "And frankly, we don't have an answer."

The good news, say those who monitor trends, is that modesty and more formal attire are gaining favor even with teens and 20somethings. Many employers say that young workers are the most frequent dress code offenders.

Tina Wells, the 20something CEO of Buzz Marketing, says anxiousness over the economy, the war in Iraq and the upcoming election have created a mood that's more "focused and serious."

"Besides, how much lower could low-rise jeans get?" quips Wells, whose New Jersey firm compiles feedback from teen advisers.

In the end, Thomas Evans, headmaster at Cape Cod Academy, says he'd rather not have to police student attire. But he says administrators at the K-12 school had little choice after parents of younger students complained about some older students' clothing.

Much the same has happened at schools elsewhere, from Texas to Kansas and Illinois.

In Chicago, for instance, strict dress codes - and uniforms - are a matter of safety, since the way a student wears a pant leg, a bracelet or a hat can indicate a gang affiliation.

And even Dean, the student body vice president at Cape Cod, acknowledges that a few students at his school dressed inappropriately last year - "skankily," he says, "if that's a word."

He just doesn't think everyone should be punished over the actions of a few. So he and other students plan to meet with their headmaster to see if he'll loosen the dress code.

Asked what he thinks their chances are, he sighs: "Slim to none."

By Martha Irvine