What to wear, what to wear? Don't laugh. That's a serious question automotive salaried staffers are asking themselves increasingly these days as once-rigid workplace dress codes give way to the casual look.

For some it probably was easier to select a business outfit from the closet; not much choice was involved. Now, thanks to the "dress-down" wave that's sweeping automotive offices, salaried folks suddenly have a wide range of options. Indeed, sociologists may be forced to invent a new term to replace "white collar" in describing salaried workers.

The new dress code doesn't include cutoff jeans or paint-splattered smocks but, rather, tasteful leisure clothing for everyday work and business attire as usual when that's appropriate.

The dress-down movement is as symbolic as it is the result of indulgent management. Its roots are traceable to the egalitarian movement that began permeating the industry in the early 1980s, leading to the current "teamwork" and "empowerment" frenzies. The idea: To reduce or eliminate class distinction regardless of one's rank, salary or corporate position.

The arrival of Japanese automakers on the U.S. scene also contributed to the trend. They pushed workplace equality in many ways, including the practice -- since adapted in many U.S. Big Three facilities -- of everyone from president to janitor referring to fellow workers as "associates." ironically, although business attire is taboo at most Japanese manufacturing facilities, all of the associates dress the same in identical work uniforms. And in their business offices, formal apparel generally remains the standard.

Not so at the Big Three. General Motors Corp. President John R (Jack) Smith Jr., for example, wears colorful crewneck sweaters even when he's being photographed for news articles -- something his predecessors would never have dreamed of doing.

After starting with one "dress-down" day per week in some facilities up to a decade ago, GM and Ford Motor Co. recently adopted casual-dress policies covering the entire work-week. Chrysler Corp.'s headquarters staff is on a two-day dress-as-you-please schedule, but is expected to go full-tilt later this year.

The swing to breezier workplace attire is said to do everything from relieving stress to boosting productivity. But not everyone likes it. An executive of Dallas-based Neiman Marcus, the ultra-swank department store where extravagance knows no limits, is not completely sold on the shift.

"If you have an open-door policy of anybody wearing anything they want, then you don't have the look or the stability of a work force that represents your company well," explains Colby L. McWilliams, a vice president at the posh retailer.

"Once you open it up to casual wear," he says, "you open it up to men not wearing socks or wearing beat-up shoes. Men don't take care of their casual wardrobes as they do their suits. If I were doing business with someone other than an auto mechanic, for example, I would want them to dress appropriately."

The new dress code -- or lack of it -- applies equally to both sexes. M.J. Burns, fashion director at the Detroit-area Hudson's department stores, says men need the most direction because women always have been more receptive to change and look for directions in fashion. Major department stores are just beginning to send teams of models to auto companies to stage "casual business fashion seminars." Jacobson's Inc., based in Jackson, MI, with stores in metropolitan Detroit, staged a fashion show of sorts for Chrysler finance people at the American Center in Southfield, MI, this spring. Four of the models were Chrysler employees. Earlier this year, Hudson's visited Chrysler employees in Sterling Heights.

Detroit's Big Three report no abuses of informal policy. GM does not have a specific dress code, but there is a tacit understanding of guidelines. Taboos include shorts, sneakers and sweats -- and no tank tops. Men are expected to wear shirts with collars, decent shoes and slacks. Women are expected to wear appropriate hosiery and shoes; slacks are an option.

GM actually launched casual days a decade ago, but it was on a spotty basis with a Friday-only policy and based mainly on the reward principle, such as achieving a given sales goal. "Today, some units still stick with Fridays," says Richard Huber, executive director for human resources management at Gm's North American Operations (NAO), "but some sections leave it up to the employee to dress casual on any day." Like all other companies, GM insists employees wear business attire in dealing with people outside the company.

He says casual wear never would have flourished under Chairman Frederic C. Donner in the '60s and "probably not under (chairman) Roger Smith in the '80s. Jack Smith goes casual on Fridays, and you might say he formalized informality."

Ford has been on a five-day-a-week schedule for casual wear since the Midwestern hot spell last summer. "It really started in a big way with the study team on Ford 2000," says David W. Scott, vice president for public affairs, referring to Ford's globalization effort that kicked in five months ago. "Management said it's crazy to go informal one or two days a week. We ought to empower people to dress in what they feel is appropriate every day."

Mr. Scott recalls that a major Ford 2000 conference last November in Florida ended with 1,800 employees signing a "Wall of Commitment" to the new scheme. "Edsel Ford arose and said his father, Henry II, would have signed the wall, and probably would have dressed casually as well."

Chrysler maintains mostly a Monday and Friday leisure-wear schedule at its Highland Park, MI, headquarters, with labor relations folks dressing casual every day. Departments such as engineering, design and purchasing at the Chrysler Technology Center in Auburn Hills, MI, dress casually every day.

Paul Smuts, executive director of corporate personnel, comments on the Monday/ Friday casual slate: "Part of the reason for only two days was the weaning away of some of us old dinosaurs from where we grew up when every man wore a shirt and a tie," the 31-year veteran says while sporting a color-splashed sweater.

Chrysler's dress-down program started under ex-chairman Lee A. Iacocca, although the fancier of Italian shoes and blue shirts with white collars would never himself go casual. Mr. Smuts points out that comfortable clothes are not a policy but an attempt to boost morale and productivity.

Overseas operations of the Big Three generally adhere to formal dress codes. That's also true of Asian and European car builders abroad but not in the United States. Volkswagen has gone full-time casual. Nissan, Honda and Mazda are on a Friday-only schedule. Toyota dresses down every other Friday.

Major suppliers would never call on customers in anything except a shirt, tie and suit (males) or business dress/suit (females). But inside their own domains they are relaxed. Rockwell Automotive switched to full-time casual early last year. Robert Bosch Corp., Eaton Corp. and Siemens Automotive are in a Friday-only pattern. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. has not set policy, but some departments go casual on Fridays.

While the business-casual trend mainly affects male employees, women also find resistance to wearing pants or short skirts is markedly down. M.J. Burns of Hudson's advises that skirt lengths can rise just above the knee and that anything higher is unacceptable. She also rules out sweats, silhouettes and sleeveless garments. All of the department store fashion experts concur that the showing of too much skin is not proper for either sex.

Business casual is subject to a variety of interpretations by department store clientele. Saks Fifth Avenue's Cheryl Hall, regional fashion director based in Troy MI, offers this definition:

"It's a new term like miniskirts was in the '60s. It means you are dressed for work in a manner that formerly was not business attire, but it is not what you would wear on weekends. You are not wearing sweat pants and an old T-shirt. No fuzzy slippers. And you are wearing a matched set of clothing like a jacket and sweater meant to be worn together."

Most clothiers report casual sales are booming, but have not experienced a notable decline in suits -- although ties have definitely slipped.

Despite this big swing in fashion, there are a trio of bastions that still insist on a jacket and tie. Buick heads the list of nonconformance. Others are Gm's EDS Troy headquarters, retaining the rule of founder Ross Perot, and the Detroit Athletic Club.

So what happens to the suits that people aren't wearing? Apparently people are keeping their old suits and wearing them in combination with other slacks or sport coats. Brian Kose, Detroit district manager for the Purple Heart Service Foundation, more or less confirms it. US says he hasn't seen a huge influx in donations of old suits -- at least not yet. "And," he says, "we need good quality suits."