SUBTLE SOURCES OF STYLE Men should observe and adapt when putting together office wardrobes


Q: Time was when corporations gave their employees advice about how to dress. Maybe they didn't go as far as IBM or call it a dress code, but it was much more than a subtle bit of direction. If you did not come around, they soon found a way to get rid of you. From what I see around the office, they don't do that any more. Why not?

A: It has never been taboo -- legally or otherwise -- to give such "shape up or ship out" advice. Neither is it the most comfortable part of a manager's role. Not wishing to play "mother," managers usually leave daily dress decisions to the employee's discretion. Still, don't think that because your boss -- and his boss -- do not tell you what they think of your appearance, they don't notice.

Today, when critical eye-rolling and snide asides are more hidden, it may be harder than ever to get good direction. Not everyone is lucky enough to find an encouraging mentor or role model. For young men new at the corporate game, few sources of information exist. Colleges teach how to prepare a resume, what to say at an interview, but not what to wear. Mothers -- and friends -- may give advice, but are they right? Their preferences often lean toward stylish fashions appropriate for magazine models and glamour industries.

A young man who is at ease in current styles may have a sixth sense about their inappropriateness for mainstream America, yet turned off by overly-staid establishment dressing. Not sure how -- or if -- to blend the two, he may mistakenly decide to ignore the whole question.

Make it your business to observe, adapt, and improve. Giving little thought to what you wear because you have "more important things to think about" can result in habits that affect your image and your income (which may be those things you were thinking about) for years to come.

Q: Must a well-dressed man use a handkerchief instead of a tissue?

A: Well, many would say a tissue is not acceptable . . . except if you are confined to bed with a bad cold. Tissues are not articles of clothing, and cannot be "worn." In most business situations, you should have a handkerchief rather than a package of tissues.

Not only does a tissue lack the elegance and gentlemanliness of a freshly-laundered handkerchief, but it seems to lack something in the masculine image department as well.

Men's handkerchiefs come in two different fabrics, cotton or linen (as opposed to silk "pocket squares" that are tucked into one's breast pocket only for show). Actually, there is a third fabric, a blend of cotton and synthetic, designed to avoid the necessity for ironing. These are less absorbent and always of lesser quality than all-cotton or linen.

Send your questions or comments to Lois Fenton, Today in Style, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore, Md. 21278. Ms. Fenton welcomes questions about men's dress or grooming for use in this column but regrets she cannot answer mail personally.

Ms. Fenton, the author of "Dress for Excellence" (Rawson Associates, $19.95), conducts wardrobe seminars for Fortune 500 companies around the country.

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