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by CHRISTINA BINKLEY | March 31, 2009


The other day, I got my coasts mixed up. I wore one of my New York dresses -- a trendy maroon wool jersey job -- to my Los Angeles office. The arched-brow compliments -- "My, you look nice today," -- said it all: I'd overdone it.

In New York, I'm always underdressed. Those who travel from coast to coast will recognize the dilemma. Even though we can buy the same shirts at the same stores in New York, Seattle and Timbuktu, important regional variations in dress codes remain for women and men. In fact, now that dot-com casual is over -- particularly on the East Coast, where more companies are enforcing dress codes -- some of these differences are becoming more exaggerated.

We are all influenced by subtle signals of power and confidence. Off our native territory, it's easy to flash the wrong sign. The more widely we travel -- and business travel is soaring these days -- the more ticklish things are.

My friend David Goldhill -- a native New Yorker who lived in Los Angeles -- shuttled for several years between the two cities as president of Universal Television Group. "If I wore a suit in L.A., I'd be the New York guy. If I didn't wear a suit in New York, I'd be the L.A. guy," says Mr. Goldhill, who is 46. "It's about wanting people who work with you to feel like you're part of their world."

Of course, neither coast has a lock on fashion: Parisians think all Americans dress clumsily. And the differences extend beyond New York and L.A. The Midwestern U.S. tends to be more conservative and preppy than either coast -- there's a little bit of Washington, D.C., in Chicago sensibilities. In the South, there's more focus on color for men and women.

But the clash between the coasts is particularly strong. People from the West Coast often fail to perceive the importance that Easterners place on dressing up. Shortly after a colleague of mine relocated from L.A. to New York, she wore a pair of neat khaki pants to lunch with a woman who works on Wall Street. "You're still dressing like L.A.," the woman chastised my colleague.

New Yorkers, for their part, often miss the subtle power signals being conveyed in Beverly Hills, where a man's single-breasted suit and tie indicates that he's not the most powerful guy in the room: He's a worker bee -- somebody's accountant or agent. Nothing wrong with that -- unless he's aiming higher.

"A blazer and an unbuttoned shirt makes a much better statement when you're lunching at the Peninsula," says Allison Storr, a New York consultant whose clients hire her on both ends of the country to help increase their social status, meet new people, or try on a new lifestyle. In Los Angeles, the Peninsula is a heavy hitters' hangout known for the posturing of its clientele.

Double-breasted suits are loaded with subliminal messages. A man wearing one in Manhattan looks smart. In the Silicon Valley or Southern California, the same look suggests he's trying too hard.

In the Northeast, the hedge-fund guys have been importing their own version of West Coast style -- they're the ones who show up in a Loro Piana sweater and Seven For All Mankind jeans. Yet for the most part, Boston, New York and parts in between are old-school. Rubber-soled shoes in the East say it's Saturday -- or you're not quite pulled together. Unless you're Sam Zell, who has the creds to make blue jeans his personal statement.

For women, trendy clingy fabrics and trapeze summer dresses can look on-the-mark on the West Coast but overly casual for an East Coast workday. In L.A., a woman decides to wear hose, whereas in Washington, D.C., she decides not to wear them.

These differing sensibilities are why Azzedine Alaia, a designer known for his sexy figure-hugging women's ready-to-wear, is bigger on the West Coast than the East, says Susan Dresner, a New York wardrobe-management consultant whose clients tend to be professional women. Ann Taylor is bigger in the East, she says, for the same reason. "New York is more smart, go-to-work," she says. "L.A. is more body-conscious."

Black clothing says "smart" in New York but "hipster" in parts of the South. Without understanding the nuances of wardrobe signals, Easterners struggle to distinguish when it's appropriate for a Californian to wear flip-flops. (Same as New York: casual only.)

It can be disconcerting to venture beyond our boundaries. Peter Low, chief executive of Griswold Co., which operates a brokerage firm on the New York and Nasdaq stock exchanges, makes very few departures from his daily uniform of Brooks Brothers suits. But "when I go to Chicago, I'll wear dark slacks and a navy blazer," says Mr. Low, 65. On a recent trip to a conference in Los Angeles, he skipped his normal spread-collar shirt for a more casual button-down.

Brian Koppelman, the New York-based producer/screenwriter behind Ocean's Thirteen, Rounders and The Illusionist, lives in two worlds simultaneously. In L.A.-style screenwriter mode at his office, Mr. Koppelman wears Air Jordan T-shirts and his favorite John Fluevog shoes. As a dad in Manhattan, he wears a suit to functions at his children's private school. "If I'm in the New York world that way, I will dress right so as not to embarrass my kids," he says.

As near as I can tell, the last restaurant in L.A. to require gentlemen to wear jackets was L'Orangerie, and it's closed now. This helps explain why Mr. Koppelman was warned to include wardrobe clues when inviting a well-known Los Angeles film producer to dine at New York's Cafe Boulud recently. When he proposed inviting the producer to join them, a mutual friend responded by email: "Love for him to come. Tell him to dress decently."


Filed Under: Workplace Issues