George J. Downs Jr. is leading a quiet revolution in Pennsylvania.
The former CoreStates executive, who now runs his own financial institutions consulting company in Folcroft, is softly trying to spread the word that it may be time for banks to reconsider the American infatuation with casual dress. The fad, he says, has gone far enough.
"When I started in banking," in 1967 at Philadelphia-based Continental Bank, "dress was simple," he said. "Men wore suits and women wore dresses. Occasionally, you'd see a skirt and blouse, but mostly it was dresses for the women."
Now, he said, casual dress has become the norm. Branch employees will show up to work in jeans and sweatshirts, sporting tattoos and facial jewelry.
"People will go as far as you let them in a lot of cases. It's scary that in the back shop of some banks it's dress down all the time."
This year a bank client asked Mr. Downs to help formulate a dress code. The request sparked his interest, and his Downs & Associates began a formal study of bank dress codes that was issued in July.
The report gathered 20 dress policies from as many institutions, ranging in size from the smallest community banks to some regionals. The banks, which are headquartered in six states across the Northeast, are not named in the study.
But the results were surprising. "Everybody just does their own thing," he said. "They are all over the map. No one has heard of any central policy or code."
Some of the banks had very detailed policies that mandated hosiery for women and prohibited golf shirts for men. Others left dress to the discretion of group supervisors.
Letting managers decide what's best for their particular groups is the way attire is handled at Charlotte, N.C.-based NationsBank Corp., which has nearly 80,000 employees. "We have no formal written policy," said Jamie Pickrell, a spokeswoman for the $240 billion-asset company. "You can't define any group of people as bankers, because there are many different kinds of jobs at any big bank.
"There are a lot of people who have interaction with customers and plenty who don't," she continued. "We have departments that can dress in business casual every day, and we have departments where casual Friday is the norm.
"We want to focus on what the appropriate attire is for each operation- and let that be the call of our managers."
The same holds for the 35,000 employees at First Chicago NBD Corp. "We really don't have an articulated policy companywide," said Richard Johnson, head of public relations. "In the branches, you may get a casual Friday. In our First Card subsidiary, it can be casual all the time.
"On the other hand, there are corporate bankers who don't dress casually ever. It really varies from area to area."
This is anathema to Mr. Downs. He says leaving decisions about dress up to individual managers is "the worst thing you can do." The bank ends up with no consistent image to project to the public, and no unifying standards to create a team culture across the organization. Most employees want direction on matters sartorial, he maintained.
Mr. Downs said he prefers the approach taken by some of the smaller community banks in Pennsylvania. For instance, there is no casual dress at $350 million-asset Bryn Mawr Trust. Sixty of the 190 employees have been issued "corporate wear," navy and burgundy blazers and bottoms with matching accessories that "provide a consistent look for our customer contact people," according to Robert Ricciardi, executive vice president. Bryn Mawr Trust has been using corporate wear for the past three years with much success, Mr. Ricciardi said, and the company will soon by handing out an additional outfit in a new color, teal.
The tellers, customer service reps, safe deposit attendants, branch managers, and assistant managers have grown to like these outfits, which make them look like desk attendants at a Hilton Hotel, Mr. Ricciardi said. "It also takes all the guesswork out of what to wear," he added.
Dime Bank, a $136 million-asset outfit in Honesdale, Pa., has taken a different approach. Because the management wanted to provide a casual Friday for employees but didn't want employees looking less than their professional best, it issued sweaters and golf shirts imprinted with the bank's logo for use on dress-down days, which fall every other Friday and any day before a holiday.
Casual days are tolerated now at Dime, but employees must wear the bank- issued sweaters or shirts. Jeans and sneakers are off limits for bank officers, who are restricted to cotton twills, corduroys, or skirts.
"It just is so nice to dress a little more casually sometimes," sighed Eileen Daniels, an assistant office manager at Dime Bank. "It relaxes everybody, and the customers seem to like it.
"It makes everybody a little perkier," she added. "We don't feel that it takes away from our professional image."
For Mr. Downs the "corporate wear" solution is an acceptable compromise, but he is frustrated that so many banks feel they must acquiesce to having dress-down days.
Friday, he pointed out, is typically the busiest day of the week at banks, and the one with the most customer activity. It's the worst day for casual dress, he insisted.
"In the old days, if you were a branch manager of a bank you'd be involved in the Chamber of Commerce and the United Way," Mr. Downs observed. "When the stock market went down, customers would come in and ask what was going on. You'd be expected to talk intelligently.
"How you were dressed would give the public a feeling of security, trust, and control," he said. "How would you feel if you went into a butcher shop and the guy behind the counter was cutting up meat and had blood all over him, and was dressed in a suit and tie? Wouldn't you wonder about him?"
Mr. Downs has a simple solution. Instead of casual Friday, he proposes Dress Up Day. "You can create a peer sense of style and fashion, that says: Let's all be the best together.
"What's wrong with that?" Mr. Downs asked.