Looking dapper in gray pinstripe suit and pressed white pocket square, Robert Hitchings watched colleagues in T-shirts, sandals, and khaki pants stream out of Chase Manhattan Bank.

"Not very professional," said Mr. Hitchings, a manager of financial analysis for Chase in lower Manhattan.

But a manager's bane can be a lift for the rank-and-file.

"I love casual days," said Gail Gardner, a Chase customer service representative who was eating lunch outside. "We're all so sorry it's going to end."

At banks across the country, Tuesday was the first day in months when employees came to work in traditional office apparel, as policies that permitted "business casual attire" until Labor Day came to an end.

For many, the starched collars, neckties, and fitted skirts are a jarring reminder that summer is ostensibly over.

Mirroring corporate America, more and more banks are offering employees "casual summers" as well as "casual Friday" dress year-round. In some industries, the change has been easy and welcome. But in banking - a field seen as traditional to the point of being hidebound - executives remain uneasy with the practice.

Though many bankers view dress-down days as inappropriate, most acknowledge they must bow to reality: Casual attire is a policy that most employees have come to expect.

A study this year conducted by Levi Strauss & Co. found that 90% of office workers are allowed to wear casual clothes from time to time, up from 47% three years ago.

According to the poll, 85% of corporate human resource managers say "dress-down" days improve morale, and two-thirds of corporations say casual businesswear can be used as an incentive to attract employees.

"Absenteeism on Friday declined significantly" after dress-down days were decreed last year, said Anat Bird, chief operating officer of Roosevelt Financial Corp.

Ms. Bird, who initiated the policy, said: "The employees really appreciate it, and our clients, the customers, like it as well, because bankers can be intimidating, and talking to a regular person is easier when you're asking for a loan."

The only hitch? "I personally had to buy a whole new wardrobe just to keep up with it," Ms. Bird said.

But banks, true to their reputations as strongholds of double-breasted decorum, have been slower than their corporate siblings to embrace dress- down days. At most banks, the decision to allow workers to wear relaxed clothes depends on the sensibilities of a department manager.

"Banks have not caught on as quickly," said Sharon Corbitt, an American Bankers Association spokeswoman. "The industry is still a conservative bastion."

And what passes for fun when it comes to bank attire might be considered a tad stodgy at, say, a California high-tech company.

"The day that Central Bancshares changed its name to Compass Bancshares, employees were allowed to wear navy blue Compass Bank T-shirts, with its gold, red, and gray logo," said Ellen Layden, a spokeswoman.

"However, most of us wore smartly tailored trousers, suits, and the women with skirts. That was the only day that the bank allowed its bank employees a day like that."

Some senior bankers take a wry view of the importance of pinstripes and flout convention to make a point. Indeed, the CEO of NationsBank, Hugh McColl, sported a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap and a Budweiser T-shirt at a meeting in a Washington, D.C., lawyer's office to smooth the final details of his bank's acquisition of Boatmen's Bancshares.

But such a sartorial wink would be considered taboo in most bank settings. Indeed, some banks have completely resisted the trend toward relaxed business attire.

Bank of New York Co. forbids "casual day" because of the image the practice projects. And dressing down is unheard of at Citicorp. One group of corporate bankers gave a stab at dressing down on Fridays - and abandoned the project because they felt awkward.

"There is an unwritten policy of dressing properly, in a traditional way," said John Morris, a Citibank spokesman.

Mr. Morris said the policy was so ingrained that last month, when he met a Citibank colleague to watch tennis matches at the U.S. Open, the colleague wore a coat and tie - even though no clients or other business associates were present.

"I said, 'You mean you wouldn't feel comfortable putting on a sport shirt at the end of the day before going out?' and he said, 'You know, I really didn't feel right about it,'" Mr. Morris said.

At most banks, the casual dress policies are scattershot. Chase, for instance, prohibits casual attire in its midtown Manhattan headquarters, but allows some workers in satellite offices to dress down on Fridays or during the summer.

But not everybody who has license to dress down relishes the opportunity. Mr. Hitchings estimated that 10% to 20% of his department wore suits every day in the summer.

"You never know who you're going to run into," he said.

At J.P. Morgan, the gravity of proper attire was impressed on recruits in the corporate training program this summer. Twice, the trainees were allowed to dress down - on days they were taking exams - and both times they were given boxed lunches and forbidden from entering the employee dining room on Wall Street.

"There were clients coming in and out of the building," one Morgan trainee explained.

Such a policy may seem overly fussy to some, but others agree it makes good business sense.

"Customers want their bankers to look like traditional bankers," said Jerri Cowan, a former human resources director for Central Fidelity Bank of Richmond, Va., who now runs a human resources consultancy.

Other observers of the dress-down phenomenon take a kinder, gentler view. After all, most people who enjoy dressing casually have the good sense to don a suit for a meeting or presentation.

Nancy DiTomaso, who heads Rutgers University's Department of Organizational Management, said more casual dress rules at banks signal a loosening of hierarchy. "Dress-down is a symbolic representation of changes in the structure of authority," she said.

Mergers are affecting dress policies, too.

"The notion you want to portray is that the people who are coming in and taking over your life are really good guys," Ms. DiTomaso said. One way to communicate that, she said, is through nonthreatening garb.

West Coast bankers say they have slightly more wardrobe latitude than their eastern counterparts, but nowhere near what they would have at, say, a technology company.

"First Interstate was suit and tie - Wells Fargo is more relaxed, where business casual is more acceptable," said J. Scott Wisdom, a product manager who came to Wells Fargo from First Interstate after the banks merged. "We're not talking jeans and sneakers, but so far it's been all year round."

At First Interstate, employees who contributed to the United Way earned "casual day" stickers, redeemable for a day off from a suit. KeyCorp runs a similar program, with proceeds going to the Make-a-Wish foundation.

Though dressing down would seem to be an American idiosyncrasy, many foreign banks have instituted the policy in their stateside operations - much to the curiosity of executives from overseas.

Sanwa Bank, Deutsche Bank, Union Bank of Switzerland, and Banca Commerciale Italiana all have dress-down Fridays from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

"We do have guidelines, and a memo is sent around about what is appropriate," said Christine Fade, director of human resources in Deutsche Bank's New York office.

But not everybody catches on.

"We certainly have experienced people dressing down too much," she said. "Even though we say 'no shorts,' we do see people wearing shorts and calling them 'culottes.'"

Bankers say the concept of dressing down is a slippery one and that the line between casual and unacceptable is thin. Fashion consultants say the dress-down movement is taking a toll.

"My concern is that we will see this trend coming into a dress-down Thursday, and then a dress-down Wednesday," said Michael Renzulli, an associate professor at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

That, he said, "will change not only the image of companies, but also the fashion industry."

Even with designers rushing to offer bridge collections, confusion over the definition of "business casual" still reigns. Women in particular complain their wardrobes lack pieces that fall between "office proper" and "weekend wear."

"Certainly, there have been some concerns about what businesswear is," said Carolyn Schoenecker, a senior vice president of human resources at Fleet Bank.

"We place an emphasis on casual business, not dress-down," she said. "Spandex is for the beach."

Dominick Fontana and Sarah Yavorsky contributed to this report.

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