As fashions go, casual Friday at workplaces has had a good run for more than a decade, popular perhaps because employees could dress for the weekend a day ahead of time.
"There are no rules on Friday. ‘I can wear whatever I want,' they're saying," as Mark-Evan Blackman, Chairman of the Fasion Institute of Technology's menswear design department, put it. "But of course total freedom is not allowed. Some companies say you can wear jeans. Others say khakis and corduroys."
But there are signs that companies, and many of their employees, are tiring of the informality that casual Friday inspired and getting back to serious dressing.
"I see a return to more traditional business wear," said Gary Brody, president of the Marcraft Apparel Group, which champions suits and ties. "People dress up more in times of financial uncertainty and intense competition. It helps their sense of stability."
In place of sartorial anarchy, companies are falling back on "business casual" to serve as a guide for all five days of the workweek.
"Business casual really came about in the 1990s when many young people with long hair and khakis became Silicon Valley millionaires," Mr. Blackman said. "Like it or not, the corporate world had to loosen its dress codes to work with them."
Simon Kneen, vice president and creative design director at Brooks Brothers, the Ivy League icon, said that the term business casual "is an oxymoron." But, he went on, "it tells employees there's a way of loosening up without walking into a boardroom in embroidered shorts on casual Friday."
For Friday fans who get too casual, the job finder CareerBuilder lists no-no's that include workout gear, rumpled clothing, shorts, micro-miniskirts, underwear as outerwear, athletic socks with street shoes, extreme hair color, grungy beards, overly revealing attire, and bare midriffs. And nothing upsets corporate fashion police more than flip-flops.
"It's mostly junior people who take advantage of casual Friday," Mr. Kneen said.
Monster.com, the job search engine, offers a definition that seems the clearest. "In general, it means dressing professionally, looking relaxed, yet neat and pulled together." Or, as Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopedia, put it, "business casual is a kind of middle ground between formal business wear and street wear."
Many companies - IBM, for example - have abandoned dress codes, on the assumption that employees can look around an office to see what is acceptable dress.
Cisco, the computer-networking giant, says it does not have a formal dress code because of its "philosophy of employee empowerment." But the company expects employees "to use good business judgment in choosing appropriate attire," said Robyn Jenkins Blum, a spokeswoman. Engineers tend to wear more casual business attire, the company points out, while executives and other employees who "interface with external partners or customers tend to dress more formally," she said.
But because business casual is such a vague directive, there is little conformity in corporate dress codes. Look no further than Apple's chief executive, Steven P. Jobs, who swears by jeans. Yet Goldman Sachs frowns on employees in jeans or khakis in its offices.
The male executive uniform continues to be a suit with white or blue shirt and a patterned (often loud) tie. "Suits are an easy code to decipher," said Mr. Blackman of the Fashion Institute of Technology. "They universally project an air of authority."
To create that "look" with casual outfits takes a trained eye and an extra half-hour in the morning, said Alan Flusser, author of "Dressing the Man" (HarperCollins, 2002). Mr. Flusser is a designer and owner of a men's clothing store (who dressed Micahel Douglas as the power executive in the movie "Wall Street"). "Unfortunately," he said, "trying to assemble outfits from unmatched separates requires dressing skills men never had to learn in an exclusively suit-oriented work environment."
In any case, going upscale in dress and taking it easy are not mutually exclusive lifestyle targets these days.
"I'd say that dress codes these days are more occasion- than vocation-specific," said Peter C. Yesawich, chief executive of YPB&R, an Orlando advertising agency. Having lunch with a major client, for example, may call for more dressiness than ordinary office garb.
Mr. Flusser traces the comfort factor as far back as the Duke of Windsor who took the starch - literally - out of stiff collars. "The history of fashion is notable for making clothing more and more comfortable," he said.
Joanne Arbuckle, dean of the School of Arts and Design at the Fashion Institute of Technology, said. "You can be comfortable, yet dressy. Women are sick of dressing down. Take a navy blue suit, add a Diane von Furstenberg white cotton blouse and Kate Spade colored shoes or handbag, and your outfit goes from boring to one with some snap."
Deborah Lloyd, a former Banana Republic executive who is joining Kate Spade, sees the same trend. "Women are wearing dresses to work a lot more," she said. "Look at those naughty girls, the Hiltons. They're even getting a little more serious about dressing."
"The key for women is versatility," she added. "Wear what fits at work with a change of shoes and addition of jewelry to carry you through the evening."
Gordon Lambourne, a senior vice president, said: "People want some of the guesswork taken out of what to wear. If you're meeting clients, business attire is recommended - the invitation may even say so. But I've seen speakers arrive at a function with a tie on and quickly stuff it in their pocket after sizing up the audience."