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Friday, June 6, 2008

Bare-Legged Ladies: Hosiery Reveals Office Divide

Hose or no hose? That's the working woman's dilemma around this time of year. The weather grows warmer, and the debate heats up: Are bare legs proper?

In today's casual workplaces, many women have peeled off the panty hose, and it is now common to see bare legs even on conservative Wall Street and at business events. Yet the transition has highlighted a generational divide. For women who entered the work force before the 1990s, hose were considered as necessary as underwear. But many twentysomethings have never worn panty hose at all.

The fashion shift has left some baby boomer managers feeling that their hosiery make them look frumpy. Kathy Garland, the 54-year-old chairwoman of the Northern Dallas area for the National Association of Women Business Owners, says she finally threw out a bag full of hose last week. An executive coach herself, she noticed a few years ago that she was the only woman wearing hose at a formal business fund-raiser. "Younger women don't even think about panty hose," she says.

There are certainly weightier issues to ponder these days, what with a presidential election and a war going on. But to managers in offices encompassing several generations, panty-hose policies are an opportunity to set fair rules.

This is the issue that lately has occupied the mind of Jim Holt, president of Mid American Credit Union, a small financial institution in Wichita, Kan. Mr. Holt is 58 and a three-decade member of the U.S. Army Reserves. He joined Mid American, which has 50 employees, four years ago, inheriting a dress code that prohibited, for women, such things as boots and mules, or backless shoes. The company required "hose" at all times -- even under pants.

When Mr. Holt attended a dress-for-success seminar that year, he got advice that caused him to loosen the reins on women's boots and mules. But not bare legs. The rule, "nylons and dress shoes are to be worn at all times," applied even to business-casual contexts. "We're not New York or San Francisco," Mr. Holt says, wearing ironed khaki slacks, an ironed golf shirt, and crisply creased socks. "We're the Midwest."

If there is a male equivalent of panty hose -- forcing wearers to balance comfort and formality -- it is probably the tie. Ties aren't required at Mid American. "The revolution has already taken place in the tie area," says Mr. Holt. He wears ties only on Mondays for his weekly Rotary Club luncheons.

As for fairness, it's hard to say whether ties or panty hose are more uncomfortable. One male reader of this newspaper, after making a bet with a female co-worker, attempted to discover the answer by secretly wearing panty hose under his business suit for several weeks. He claims ties are worse.

About a year and a half ago, Mr. Holt hired Kristen Spear as executive director of administration and human resources. Ms. Spear is 28. Like Ms. Garland in Texas, Ms. Spear found that wearing hose to professional events sometimes made her stand out awkwardly. Yet it was her job to counsel wayward employees on Mid American's dress code, which she did dutifully if not enthusiastically.

One bare-legged 23-year-old clerk in indirect loans -- where she dealt with customers by phone -- confessed she had never owned a pair of hose. Hose are "so foreign right now to Gen Y or Gen X," Ms. Spear says.

Ms. Spear encouraged Mr. Holt to reconsider his stand on hose. "According to her local research, hose are optional," Mr. Holt said in a recent email to me.

He relented just last week. "I didn't want to be so old-fashioned that people would be like, 'Do you require corsets, too?'" he said.

Mid American's newly loosened dress code, allowing bare legs, will be announced to employees in coming weeks in a series of meetings. Women at the credit union would be well-advised to listen closely. Mr. Holt says that when evaluating employees' performance in dress, as well as workmanship, he'll make a distinction between "who is meeting the minimum standards and who is exceeding them." In other words, hose will be optional but advised.

I suspect it is only a matter of time until Ms. Spear's point of view wins out entirely.

For the time being, Ms. Spear says she'll wear hose to board meetings "or if there is reason to exude the highest professional appearance. I will not wear them if I will be in the office all day, because I believe one can be professional-looking without wearing hose."

By: Christina Binkley
Wall Street Journal; June 5, 2008