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Office casual
Freddie wears Chip & Pepper jeans, $168; Elie Tahari navy jacket, $598; Black Gucci loafers, $445; and Rufus checked shirt, all from Saks Fifth Avenue. (Photo by Dina Rudick/Globe Staff, Illustration by Mike Swartz/Globe Staff)

The new rules for office casual

Are flip-flops OK? Shorts? It depends on where you work

When it comes to dressing for work this summer, Kathryn Yee has some pretty strict standards -- about flip - flops.

The graphic designer won't wear cheap rubber flip - flops around her cubicle, but dressy ones with metallic straps are fine. Ripped jeans are a no-no, but her Juicy Couture jeans with heart cut outs on the pockets are OK. An American Eagle Outfitters tank top is acceptable, so long as she dresses it up with a strand of pearls.

"We don't see too many clients [in the office]," said Yee, 23, who designs brochures and packaging for consumer products at Phillips Design Group in Boston. "It makes the day fun when you can show your own personality."

Now that summer is officially here, the annual scramble to decipher the latest summer-casual dress codes for the workplace has begun. For many professionals, exactly what's acceptable has been murky ever since the dot-com bust, when many companies rejected Silicon Valley's brand of business casual in favor of a softened version of traditional business attire.

As a result, what's acceptable can depend on the field you're in. Flip - flops and shorts may be OK -- especially in creative jobs or in the high-tech world. But suits and ties remain the norm in banking or financial services. With the possibilities wide open, fashion disasters are, potentially, just one outfit away.

Experts say that even in the most lenient of environments, employees should use common sense. Necklines and hemlines should be appropriate for a workplace, not a nightclub. And wardrobes should reflect office culture. Open-toed sandals, T-shirts, and even white pants may be best saved for the weekend.

"Personal branding is today's buzz word," said Mary Lou Andre, a corporate image consultant and president of Needham-based Organization by Design, a wardrobe-management company. "There is no one-strategy-fits-all. If you feel your personal best in a suit, wear a suit. If you want to be more relaxed, you can be. Just show respect for yourself. Don't wear a sweater that's too tight or have your stomach hang out when you stand up."

At the Boston law firm Ropes & Gray , business suits are the norm for client meetings, but on days when attorneys have no meetings, "neatly pressed" khakis and loafers are the standard. "Certainly people can be a little more relaxed," said spokesman John Tuerck.

At Reebok, so-called "respectful," or long, Bermuda-style shorts, are perfectly OK on Fridays this summer, as are "dressy" flip - flops. "We're not big brother," said spokeswoman Denise Kaigler. "We expect people to understand they're going to work, not the beach."

The concept of a "dressy" beach shoe can be confusing for young people who have recently entered the workforce. Casual fashion may be all they have ever known. "I'm amazed at the flip - flops I see out there," said Andre. "I see them in offices all the time. Think of the safety issue. What if a file cabinet fell on you? Goodbye toe."

Andre advises her clients to dress for their day (if you have a meeting, look like it). Just as important is to wear a style that's appropriate for your position, and select an image that reflects your career goals. "Flip - flops and capri pants scream young," she said.

Still, even in the most buttoned-up environments, the rules are starting to change.

Boston attorney Eric Parker , for example, feels quite comfortable standing before a jury in a sports coat, tie, and dress pants.

"There's a certain degree of candor in a person wearing something that is not so cliche," said Parker, co-founder of Parker Scheer . "I think things have definitely evolved from the basic IBM-style, Brooks Brothers suit."

Parker contends that lawyers in Boston are still conservative compared to other parts of the country. "We have an office in Vegas where they dress like they're going on a cruise," he said. "They're casual, with no socks, just loafers."

In more creative fields such as advertising and marketing, a sports coat may be too much. At Approach Architects in Boston, linen shorts and polo shirts aren't out of the question when the temperature heats up and there are no client meetings on the books. "Come on, why not?" said principal Bryan Poisson. "We're architects in the field. If we're going to someone's basement, we're not dressed to the nines."

Still, even Poisson has his limits. Sneakers and flip-flops are frowned upon, he says, and T-shirts should at least have a collar.

To be sure, plenty of companies are still wedded to traditional business attire and have rejected the summer-casual trend altogether.

Vincent Capozzi banished casual attire in the marketing department at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care six years ago. "Within the first 10 days that I got here, I changed the dress code," said Capozzi, senior vice president of sales and marketing. "I saw jeans, open-shirt collars, not even collared shirts. I sent the message to the staff that we were going to be more professional."

The staff wasn't thrilled. And Capozzi says he still gets e-mails from employees asking to reinstate a more casual dress code. His answer is no. "I think there is a correlation between appearance and success. When you're meeting people for the first time, you might as well look your best," he said.

Yee does dress up sometimes. "I'm planning to wear a black and white floral A-line dress from the Gap," she said. "It's strapless, but I'll wear a black cardigan with it."

Yee used to wear skirts and heels a lot but she found that while working on her Macintosh computer all day she was more comfortable in flats and "shabby chic" jeans. "I want to look good," she said. "But I want to be comfortable, too. I'm lucky because in a creative environment, it's accepted."

Suzanne Ryan can be reached at