DOUG JAEGER took one look at Scott Mager's white shirt from Ralph Lauren and silk tie and said something he never expected to hear himself say to a coworker: "You're looking quite dapper today."
Was this a powertie encounter? An update of "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," Sloan Wilson's 40yearold critique of corporate culture? Hardly. Mr. Jaeger, 20, and Mr. Mager, 24, are Web page designers at an Internet marketing and design firm, Agency.com, which has turned a ritual of corporate life in the 1990's inside out. Unlike companies that have relaxed their suitandtie or blouseandskirt dress codes for "casual Fridays," Agency.com has "dressup Fridays." The men are encouraged to wear jackets and ties instead of the casual clothes they wear the rest of the week; the women, dresses or suits.
"Dressup Fridays" sounds like a throwback to a time before Agency.com existed the dressforsuccess 80's but the onceaweek dress code has not made it a stiff, stare hy or stuffy place. It is still not a place that brings to mind Jimmy Rushing's "Harvard Blues" ("I wear Brooks clothes and white shoes all the time"). Indeed, Agency.com's Friday look is a bit rumpled and decidedly not Paul Stuart or J. Press, though there is a sprinkling of jackets f from the A/X Armani Exchange.
The bosses at Agency.com (pronounced "agency dot com," as if it were a n address on the World Wide Web) say the idea is to show buttondown, mainstream clients that their yearanda halfold company has business savvy even if it does not have a long and venerable corporate history.
'This is a very interesting corporate tactic to excite people," said Michael Marsden, a dean and popular culture historian at Northern Michigan University. "It underscores the fact that most of our attire is costume. Whether we accept the fact or not, we are using clothing as a statement of our relationship to the world or our relationship to other people."
There is no question that casual clothes have become popular 9to5 outfits: only 35 percent of office workers wear "formal business attire" every day, according to the NPD Apparel Services Group, a market research company in Port Washington, L.I. Khakis have become a kind of uniform, with 69 percent of men and 59 percent of women wearing them.
But there has been a reaction against dress down Fridays. Traders at Citibank's headquarters at 399 Park Avenue gave up the once a week casual look. "The people decided it wasn't a good idea and dropped it," said John Morris, a Citibank spokesman. "The rest of the bank does not dress down. I think they felt a little selfconscious."
At Agency.com, dress up Fridays give the company a chance to do practice runs for new business presentations and client meetings and to make a statement about Agency.com. The company is fighting the notion that its young Web page creators are second class citizens in the high pressure worlds of advertising and marketing. "This industry is growing up," said one of Agency.com's owners, Chan Sub. "We used to be curiosities. We don't want to be a bunch of kids and computers anymore, and we realized there was a disconnect with the world we moved in."
That includes clients like Metropolitan Life and American Express. "They might think it's fun to meet two guys who dress poorly," Mr. Suh said. But he and his partner, Kyle Shannon, who founded the firm in January 199 5, fretted that Fortune 500 companies would have a different reaction as their business grew.
Agency.com has hired 40 employees in the last year and Mr. Shannon has bought a sport coat. He made the purchase last month while he was on vacation. "Part of the vacation was styling up," he said. "We need to say to people, we know how to play the game."
Even if it hurts. Jordana deMello, a marketing coordinator, wears chunkyheeled shoes from Joan & David on Fridays. "Excruciatingly painful," she said. "I usually wear sandals."
Dressup Fridays gave Ruth Thomas, an account executive at the company, one day on which to wear the skirts and blouses she wore four days a week when she worked at Time Warner and the J.Walter Thompson advertising agency. Agency.com's restoftheweek look, in fact, created a problem for her: "I don't have enough casual clothes to wear during the week," she said.
Mr. Sub, 34, had the opposite problem. "I used to have a suit," he said. "Suits. When I quit my last corporate job, I balled them up and put them in a Fed Ex box. Now, I can't find the box. I had to get new ones."
Dressup Fridays were Mr. Shannon's idea. The company's first office was in the Time & Life Building, a bastion of the corporate look four days a week and carefully pressed khakis on casual Fridays. After rubbing scruffy elbows with Time executives' studied casual look on dressdown Fridays, Mr. Shannon joked,
"Let's have dressup Fridays." He apparently did not realize that in the corporate culture, when the boss speaks, new employees hear exclamation points at the ends of his sentences. "By the second time I said it," he said, "everybody did it."
Joseph Weintraub, a professor of management at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass., said that that was an indication of where Agency.com was in its evolution from the days when Mr. Suh's office was big enough for a staff meeting. "Other companies are trying to reduce hierarchy," Mr. Weintraub said. "As they down* size and flatten the hierarchy, one way to equalize the playing field is to remove the suit and tie look generically, not as a male and female thing, so you don't have these status symbols that tell you this is management, this is non management."
Mr. Suh said that dressing up had proved to be more than a lark. "It was important for our staff to know there was another side to having a job," Mr. Sub said. "It's good for them to feel a noose around their necks. I worked in a corporate setting for, like, nine years. I had to wear a suit. It was a liberating experience not to have to do that, but it's a good thing to do it sometimes. It's a symbol, like a tribal tattoo, that shows you understand what the environment is."
Which Mr. Mager clearly does.
"I always kind of thought that once I got a real job, I'd wear a tie," Mr. Mager said. "It was a relief to get a job where you didn't have to wear a tie. But this is how we show the big boys we can stay in their league."
But staying in one's social league still counts. Mr. Jaeger dresses down after dressup Friday: at the end of the day, he changes into a Tshirt that he keeps in a file drawer to keep from feeling out of place when he gets together with friends from "casual Friday" offices. "And I wear khakistyle jeans, which can be confused with dress pants," he said.
Other Agency.com employees dress up, but not that far up. Don Westrich's Friday uniform includes a pair of black Converse AllStars. "I have a pair of white ones," he said, "for every day."