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February 10, 2003

CSUS study shows workplace fashion confusion

Survey summary report pdf

Ever been inappropriately dressed at work or a business function?

If you answered "yes," you are not alone; if you answered "no," you may be wrong.

According to a study completed by California State University, Sacramento, marketing professor Dennis Tootelian, nearly two-thirds of Americans have felt inappropriately dressed at a business or a social function and more than two-thirds are uncertain about the differences among business attire, business casual and casual dress in the workplace. Nearly one in three report that it is harder to know what is acceptable to wear to the office today than it was 10 years ago.

"There is a lot of confusion over just what is appropriate," said Tootelian, director of the CSUS Center for Small Business. His study, commissioned by Mervyn's department stores, surveyed 500 people in Mervyn's 14-state region on their perceptions about appropriate work clothing and their employer's dress policies.

He found that 62 percent of those surveyed said that they had been inappropriately dressed at a business or social function, with slightly more men than women taking note of their fashion faux pas (64 percent to 61 percent). More than 68 percent expressed uncertainty over the differences among business attire, business casual, and casual dress in the workplace, with 47 percent saying that knowing the difference was "somewhat difficult" or "very difficult." Thirty percent said it was harder today to determine what was acceptable attire in the workplace than it was 10 years ago, with more women than men (32 percent vs. 27 percent) citing difficulty. Overwhelmingly-89 percent-those surveyed said that dress codes in their workplaces have become less formal in the last 10 years.

According to Tootelian, the biggest fashion problem for workers today is the concept of "business casual."

"'Business casual' is a term that needs to be better defined," he said. "People don't know what it is."

For men, Tootelian said, the standard for business attire has been a suit and tie with shined, matching shoes. Business casual could mean anything from a sports coat with or without a tie to pleated cotton slacks with a collared short-sleeve polo shirt and loafers. For women, business attire already offers them a choice of pant suits, suits, dresses and coordinated skirt and slack ensembles and the notion of business casual may be more subtle, with factors such as pattern, color, texture and material playing a role.

"Unfortunately," Tootelian said, "business casual may not help women as much as it does men."

His study also found divisions along generational lines, with younger respondents having a different, more casual, perception of what constitutes business attire.

"For them, the concept of a coat and a tie isn't even on their radar screen," he said.

Moving beyond his study, Tootelian said that dressing appropriately for work and business functions-as well as displaying good manners and a sense of etiquette-is still important for workers who want to make a good impression and advance their careers.

"Those who don't dress appropriately can put a ceiling on their careers really quick," he said.

Still, Tootelian said he does not expect American businesses to make a sudden u-turn to more formal dress codes: "I would expect the changes are here for a while."

For more information on the study, contact Tootelian at (916) 278-6203. The full summary of his findings is attached to the press release at For media assistance, call CSUS public affairs (916) 278-6156.


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California State University, Sacramento • Public Affairs
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