It’s casual, not couch potato — even in Bellingham
Photo by Paul Moore
Now that summer weather has finally arrived, it feels like every day is Friday. And for most Bellingham professionals, the temptation to dress for casual Friday on a Tuesday can override even the best fashion sense.
In a town that already leans more to the casual side of “business casual,” defining the line for appropriate office attire can be tricky and varies from company to company.
“We have casual everydays,” said Joshua Jensen, a junior planner at Anchor Environmental. “Though it does get a little more casual on Fridays.”
At Anchor Environmental, the staff of 14 abides by the rule of dressing appropriately for the day’s work, Jensen said. For instance, some days Jensen said he needs Carhartts and steel-toed boots to do field work, whereas other days he’s sitting comfortably behind a desk in shorts and a button-down shirt.
Perhaps the most common reason for dressing more casually during the summer is that business attire can be too warm. But it doesn’t have to be that way, said Gary Lupo, owner of Garys’ Men’s and Women’s Wear.
“The general attire doesn’t change a lot for men — it’s still a pair of pants and a sport shirt, but there are a lot more linens and silks, both short sleeve and long sleeve,” Lupo said.
Lupo starts carrying spring and summer clothes as early as April, but he said sales of lightweight fabrics really take off as the weather changes in late May and June.
Lupo said it is common for business professionals to come in looking for a summer suit made with lightweight wools, which breathe better than linen and also don’t wrinkle as easily. Such suits are popular because they provide the neat, professional look without the bulk of a regular suit.
“We’re lucky in the Northwest because we don’t have extreme weather,” he said. “You can put on a nice shirt and wool slacks and not roast.”
For men, Lupo said he sells a lot of dress shirts and slacks made with natural fibers because natural fibers breathe well. Silk and linen are common for shirts and fine wools are often used for suits and sport coats.
“Don’t forget about cotton, though,” Lupo said. “Nice, woven cottons are also very wearable fabrics for summer.”
One piece of professional flair that tends to hibernate during the summer months is the necktie.
For women, staying cool in the summer is less about the fabric and more about the fashion. For instance, women can wear skirts and dresses that still meet the requirements for professional attire, Lupo said.
Women also have more options than men for footwear, said Jody Finnegan, owner of 12th Street Shoes. From peep-toes to sling-backs to Mary Janes, women’s footwear does a better job of cooling off one’s toes while keeping the professional look — as long as it’s not flip-flops, Finnegan said.
Men have fewer choices: closed-toe shoes are still the standard.
“Sorry guys, but men’s styles don’t change much,” Finnegan said.
Defining business casual
Though different businesses require different attire, the general consensus is to dress nicely. No matter how hot the weather becomes, there is still a push for the professional look, Lupo said.
“I think it’s important to understand that business casual is still a professional look, not T-shirts and jeans,” he said. “The khaki pants and a polo shirt isn’t really business casual anymore. That’s for Saturday. That’s for the golf course. Business casual is dressier than that.”
Over at CH2M HILL, the formal dress code is business casual but the policy doesn’t define what works and what doesn’t, said human resources generalist Heather Everett.
“It’s left to personal discretion,” Everett said. “And for the most part people do well to stay client appropriate.”
In general, Everett said, employees know what clothes just aren’t office appropriate: ripped jeans, short skirts, T-shirts with large logos. And if an issue does arise, Everett has a quick conversation with that person about the dress code.
“Business casual is such a vague term,” she said, adding that such conversations about office attire are often just as relaxed as the dress code. “But this is the engineering world and some take liberty with the dress code on any day of the week.”
However, the relaxed atmosphere hasn’t deterred Jensen, who graduated from Western Washington University last summer, from sprucing up for the job.
“I definitely feel more inclined to dress better than I normally do,” he said, noting that he wears more button-up shirts and shaves more often.
Even with a push for professional attire, Bellingham seems to have a wider gray area between “business” and “casual” than in the fashion-centric big cities.
“I’d say people in Bellingham are very casual,” said Connie Foulk, human resources manager at Dealer Information Systems (DIS). “I feel like you can go to a restaurant and see people wearing shorts and tennis shoes alongside those in business attire.”
Like Anchor Environmental, DIS does not have a specified dress code but emphasizes that each employee should dress appropriately for the job.
“I think we are more of the mind that people should be comfortable,” Foulk said.
Sometimes, being comfortable in your attire not only helps you relax, but also helps your clients relax, Jensen said. And for some businesses, that is more important than simply putting on a tie.
“The work that we do as consultants is very social and dressing casual puts our clients at ease,” Jensen said.