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Can casual get too casual?

It’s summer, when dressing down at work might raise a few eyebrows

By Kathleen Pierce
Globe Correspondent / July 21, 2011

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Backpacks, flip-flops, and shorts, the uniform of a thousand summer camps, long ago jumped the swim dock and surfaced in the halls of innovation. The new workplace issue, in these days of open-toe shoes, loud shorts, and obnoxious tees, is when is dressing down too down?

Cambridge’s thriving tech sector, Kendall Square, never a buttoned-up bastion, is looking more and more like Crane Beach than a place where game-changing ideas are being born.

“I try not to be too stuffy,’’ says Wells Riley, creative director for Web company Bionic Hippo.

He’s not kidding. He’s dressed in a bright blue T-shirt with a swimming hippo, striped shorts, and sneakers. “We are a young, spontaneous company, and I try to echo that in what I wear.’’

Jodi R.R. Smith, an etiquette consultant who coaches businesses on the power of professional protocol, including attire, says that approach can be fine, but only to a degree. And, she adds, a little extra grooming couldn’t hurt in the summer.

“We broadcast messages based on what we are wearing. So our work attire should say ‘I’m here and I’m ready to contribute,’ ’’ Smith said.

That means, leave the flip-flops at home, she said.

“It’s incredibly tough to be professional when I can hear you flap-flap-flapping down the hall. It’s like wearing a cowbell.’’ If you do cop a casual look at work this summer, Smith offers this advice.

“Make sure those shorts and flip-flops are your work shorts and flip-flops, not the ones you wear cleaning out the garage or going to the beach.’’ And if you are going to free your feet from their casings, get them in shape. “If your feet are disgusting you may not show them in the office. They must be clean with toenails cut and none of that cracked white stuff around the ankles,’’ Smith warns.

At the weekly tech meet-up Venture Café last week, the mood on Cambridge Innovation Center’s fourth floor was more spring break than coffee break. Rinda Ko, a 20-year-old intern at iQuartic, dressed in Banana Republic shorts, a tank, and argyle cardigan, sipped a smoothie with freelance Web designer Jeff Pfeffer in cargo shorts and a graphic tee. Pfeffer, 23, has never worked in a corporate environment and says he “probably wouldn’t want to.’’

Some attribute the laid-back style to West Coast tech zones like Seattle and Palo Alto, Calif., where coders have never had to don a suit. Others point to hoodie aficionado and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

But those with a memory longer than “The Social Network,’’ say casual clothes and bright ideas have been popular bedfellows for decades.

“Hackers and entrepreneurs have always dressed down. This goes way before Zuckerberg was born,’’ said Cambridge Innovation Center chief executive Tim Rowe, who points to Dan Bricklin, the inventor of the electronic spreadsheet as the ultimate dressed-down dude.

When the recession hit in 2008, the casual look started to disappear as people feared for their jobs, says Smith. “If people are not watching what they are wearing,’’ she said, “they should be.’’

Not all entrepreneurs have snuffed out the corporate look entirely. Former IBM sales rep Steve Schultz, 51, ditched his neckwear when he moved into the CIC, but he still dresses up.

In one day he might be pitching CPAs and start-ups, networking in coffee shops and on yachts. “My battle armor is the sports coat because it fits in both worlds,’’ said Schultz, of Supporting Strategies. “I get what software entrepreneurs are doing, but they are not going to boohoo me for wearing a coat.’’

Kathleen Pierce can be reached at kmdpierce@gmail.com.

business casual (Kathleen Pierce) Jeff Pheffer (left) and Rinda Ko in their summer office wear.