Until the 1990s you knew what to wear to work. Brokers looked different from pinstriped, wing-tipped bankers, but definitely not like the too-slick caricatures in the 1980s film "Wall Street."

Women brokers endured severe, dark "dress for success" suits with floppy bow ties before graduating to softer tailoring and more color choices.

Then came the business casual revolution. Now it's less clear what clients want to see when they meet with their broker.

Fashion History Perhaps the Internet era with its scruffy CEOs changed the image of professionalism. But there were other catalysts along the way. In 1992, Levi Strauss distributed a "Guide to Casual Business Wear" and how-to kits to human resource directors at more than 30,000 companies. In 1995, IBM adopted a business casual policy.

So by 1999, the Bureau of National Affairs reported that more than 80 percent of companies surveyed offer some kind of casual-dress policy, with 49 percent offering it on a regular basis.

Wall Street began to go casual in 1997. The New York Stock Exchange allowed business casual for floor traders. This past summer, Merrill Lynch tested business casual in its corporate headquarters for a week, approving year-round business casual for some divisions. Early this year, J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs told their investment bankers they could ditch their suits.

"I see groups of guys marching to work on Wall Street in Dockers and golf shirts," says Andrew Kozinn, owner of Saint Laurie Merchant Tailors in New York. "I'm hearing from my clients that before any meeting, they have to find out who will be there and where the meeting will be held to determine how they should dress."

Diverse Dressing Business casual hasn't reached most retail branches of the major firms--officially. None of the firms interviewed for this story allow year-round business casual for brokers. But branch managers usually have discretion to interpret firm policies and some use it.

"Our president has said he doesn't support business casual even on Fridays," says a wirehouse branch manager in California. "My posture is if we're professional, it doesn't matter if we wear business casual or suits." So polo shirts and khakis are standard attire in his branch, the manager says.

Salomon Smith Barney's Arizona brokers are more formal than their Nebraska peers, says manager Cheryl Clark. When she was an assistant manager in Omaha last year, sport coat and tie was the rule, with occasional high-quality country club attire on Fridays before an afternoon of golf.

As manager of the Tucson and Tempe branches, Clark now only sees suits and ties in the midst of a community noted for its casual wear. She chalks it up to different attitudes of regional management.

It's no surprise that First Union Securities' Bellevue, Wash., branch has embraced business casual. In Microsoft's backyard, many brokers work with clients from high-tech firms who'd be hard-pressed to wear a sport coat.

"My idea is we should reflect the community and strive for an environment that's comfortable to work effectively," says Steve Holloway, Bellevue's branch manager.

Still, it takes work to keep the branch professional, Holloway says. "We have a couple of brokers who really want a more formal atmosphere," he says. "I don't want to make any hard and fast rules, but we try to be sensitive to each other's clients. We ask, 'If your best client were coming in, how would you feel if the broker next to you were wearing Levis?"

Image Confusion The business casual movement brings unanswered questions about its impact on productivity and client perception. At Raymond James, for example, a few brokers and clients complained about improper dress after the firm allowed business casual on Fridays in the branches, says Marketing Director Larry Silver. The firm has had to more clearly define proper dress.

"There's the sense that people feel more comfortable in business casual and that business casual is a perk you can offer in recruiting, but no one can say casual dress improves business," says Auke Hempenius, wardrobe consultant at Mettlers, an upscale menswear retailer in Sarasota, Fla.

Indeed, no independent research has yet been completed on whether dressing down affects productivity. A study is under way at Indiana University in South Bend by Timothy Franz, an assistant professor of psychology.

Sherry Maysonave, an image consultant in Austin, Texas, has championed business casual in her book "Casual Power," but even she's not a fan of dressing down for brokers.

"Anyone handling money must maintain a professional image even when their clients don't," Maysonave says. "Even when they're casually dressed, my clients expect their attorneys and financial advisers to still be in formal dress. The broker is handling their serious money; they don't want him in a golf shirt and khakis."

A wirehouse broker Maysonave has worked with refused to retire his suits because he started seeing all the lower-level employees going casual. "He says that wearing a suit now sets him apart," she says.

Wearing a suit is essential when dealing with large accounts, says Patricia Ternes, a rep in Dain Rauscher's Phoenix branch. "When clients come to see me, the whole image is important to them. They're seeing I respect my profession enough to dress up. I had a guy worth 10 million dollars come to meet me wearing jeans and a polo shirt. But he sure doesn't expect to see me look like that." As head of the firm's Association of Women Brokers, Ternes says business casual hasn't been an issue for women in the branches. All of them wear suits.

However, there are other brokers who don't even own suits, including Walter Meranze, a top producer handling nearly 1 billion dollars at Prudential Securities in Newton, Pa. For years Meranze has worn a shirt and tie with corduroy pants. For new client meetings he'll grab a sport coat. When the weather warms, Meranze sheds the pants in favor of khaki shorts--but keeps the tie. "Since I sit behind a desk most of the time I figure as long as I don't stand up, it doesn't matter what I wear on the bottom," he says.

Meranze and his partner once had to fly on short notice to meet a CEO of a major company at his office. Meranze discovered he'd forgotten to pack pants. "I had a tie and sport coat, but only my khaki shorts," he says. "I told my partner if I walked in close behind him and sat down quickly at the conference table, the CEO might not notice."

When they all were seated, the CEO asked Meranze to stand up. "I see you like to be comfortable," the CEO said. "Not only that, but I forgot my pants," Meranze said. Naturally, Meranze got the business.

"How I dress has never hurt me because I don't try to prove a point," Meranze says. "I'll wear the proper costume when I need it to work for me."

The way Kozinn sees it, business casual on Wall Street and among brokers is a fad. "The wirehouses are afraid of alienating Silicon Valley types bringing them Internet business," he says. "The minute that stops making them money, they'll move to something else and the casual look will wane."

This survey of wirehouse and independent brokerages shows there's not much clothing variety allowed--unless you're not a broker.

Edward Jones Retail brokers: Must "dress in a manner that leaves the customer with the impression we maintain a professional business environment."

Other divisions: Same as retail brokers.

Exceptions: Casual Friday in the branches during the summer. Guidelines include no boots or miniskirts.

Linsco/Private Ledger Retail brokers: Formal business wear year-round, Monday through Friday.

Other divisions: Same as retail brokers.

Exceptions: Business casual allowed the day before a three-day weekend.

Merrill Lynch Retail brokers: Formal business wear year-round, Monday through Friday.

Other divisions: Corporate headquarters employees--business casual Friday only and Monday through Friday during the summer. Divisions with no regular client contact--business casual year-round, Monday through Friday.

Exceptions: "If a client has a business casual policy at their company, we allow our corporate people to dress business casual when meeting with the client."

Prudential Securities Retail brokers: Formal business wear for client meetings, and branch managers determine appropriate in-office dress code.

Other divisions: Division heads determine dress code.

Raymond James Retail brokers: Formal business wear year-round, Monday through Thursday, business casual on Friday. Business casual is defined as collared shirt with sleeves, long shorts only, jeans, no spandex and no sandals.

Other divisions: Most divisions--formal business wear Monday through Thursday, business casual Friday. Divisions with no regular client contact--business casual year-round, Monday through Friday.

Salomon Smith Barney Retail brokers: Must "look professional" year-round, Monday through Friday.

Other divisions: Same as retail brokers.

Exceptions: Regional directors have discretion to change the dress code to suit resort or retirement community-based branches.

Take a tip from these fashion mavens on how to dress down appropriately.

How can you keep a professional look, yet loosen up a bit? Here's what the experts advise:

Tailor Andrew Kozinn: Wear a well-made cashmere sport coat over a high-quality knit shirt with jeans and expensive loafers.

Retailer Auke Hempenius: Aim for "informal elegance." Make a sport coat (in a small pattern) the centerpiece of an outfit. Add a long-sleeved knit shirt in wool, cotton or cashmere and microfiber slacks. Wear high-quality loafers. For a sport-coat alternative, try a quality vest over a mock turtleneck.

Image consultant Sherry Maysonave: A sport coat with a long-sleeved shirt and hard-soled shoes can present a professional image, but only if you're "exceptionally well-groomed."

Things to avoid: draping yourself with status symbols, like a Rolex with diamonds; wearing black, unless you mainly want to appear powerful; and sporting suspenders, unless you want to convey a conservative image.

For women, jackets add power, as long as they're tailored, not soft and unstructured. Bright colors are fine. A sweater set can be a good jacket alternative, but make sure it is long-sleeved. Don't wear backless shoes and make sure to wear hosiery and makeup.