24 July 2015 •

What can I wear to work?

Deciding what to wear to work isn’t as easy as it once was. Times are changing. Men in suits and bowler hats twirling umbrellas were once the common sight on the footpaths of Britain during rush hour, but nowadays this is a scene largely consigned to memory and cheesy films. Stroll down the street at 8am in any city centre in present weekday Britain and you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve come out for the Boxing Day sales. In most places I have worked, the expectation was always for a suit and tie regardless of the day, the occasion or the weather. But now it does appear that there is a far more relaxed attitude to what is expected of us, particularly in more creative industries – jeans and t-shirt are often to be seen.

A recent survey revealed that more than a third of respondents said they no longer regularly wore a suit to work. Often those that do wear a suit still forgo the tie. Contrast that with Italy for example, where fashion at work is as fundamental to Italians as wearing bed wear to the supermarket is in the UK; in the summer it is not uncommon to see Italian gents looking stylish in tailored shorts, slip-on shoes and a shirt. Why don’t we really see that in the UK?

 

Historically, there has always appeared to be a difference in expectations over what one should wear to work based on gender too. Whilst the suit, shirt and tie combo has traditionally been the expectation of men, there doesn’t really seem to have been any hard and fast rule for women. I have worked in offices where men stifled by their suit, gaze with envy at their female counterparts seemingly unhindered by any kind of dress code (unless you work for big corporates like Barclays). A colleague of mine knew someone who asked his female HR representative if he could come to work in a tailored shorts ensemble to be told definitively, no. The next day she turned up to work in a little summer dress and flip flops. Why is that ok and not the shorts combo? Apparently the chap in this anecdote did own a monstrously hairy pair of matchstick legs…

We recently interviewed a candidate for a position here at Elevate2 on that fateful day when temperatures reached 37 degrees in London. The day prior we emailed him to say there was no need to dress in a suit and tie; just wear whatever he felt comfortable in. Melting your way through an interview doesn’t benefit anybody, and you’re far more likely to have a productive interview if the candidate is at ease.

We are traditionally a far more conservative nation I suppose, and that might play some part. We are used to seeing celebrities being adventurous with fashion – David Beckham and his sarong (before he became a walking tattoo) – although we’re not so outlandish ourselves. But even celebrities aren’t exempt from protocol; Lewis Hamilton recently fell foul of Wimbledon etiquette and was refused entry to the Royal Box for not wearing a jacket and tie – the required formula. To some these rules on dress are archaic with no place in modern society, to others Hamilton is a twit and should be refused entry for whatever reason you can find.

There are some quite high profile exponents of a more relaxed dress code. Sir Richard Branson has started a lifelong campaign to rid business of the tie. He sees it entirely superfluous, and even carries a pair of scissors in his pocket to cut offending ties off! He says, “Why was the tie ever invented? Everyone in business looks and dresses the same. I’m sure they only exist because bosses, after being forced to wear ties all their life, are determined to inflict the same fate on the next generation.”

This idea is based on the concept that if we’re not restricted or confined by the clothing we are forced to wear to work we will perform better and make better decisions by being more innovative. Is this right? Well, not according to one study by California State University, which actually found the converse to be true. They performed cognitive tests with students and drew conclusions based on the formality of their dress. What they found was those dressed more formally displayed more abstract thinking than those less so. They concluded that the suit wearer simply felt more powerful and behaved accordingly – maybe Sir Richard should save the scissors for his hair, and not the ties after all.

For some, choosing what to wear for work can sometimes have them reaching for the paracetamol. Depending on your line of work there may be guidelines that govern how you must dress which may be influenced by health and safety, or merely just the preference of your line manager/company owner. There might be a uniform that you must wear. Within retail this makes staff identifiable to customers and helps to avoid embarrassing encounters between fellow customers due to mistaken identity. Some embrace the uniform as it helps them feel part of something bigger than themselves, and it removes the headache of deciding what to wear each morning. This would probably suit me; I get really anxious even if I can’t find Wednesday’s pants and have to either extend Tuesday’s another day, or bring forward Thursday’s. Either way it’s quite debilitating.

 

If you’re not ready to embrace fully this modernistic approach to company dress you could opt for a dress down day. A previous employer of mine allowed informal wear on the last Friday of each month.  You could monitor this to see the affect it has on morale and productivity and maybe introduce it to every Friday if the results are positive.

But whatever you choose to wear to work, ‘one size’ does not fit all. Some people enjoy a uniform, others like getting suited and booted, others prefer the atmosphere that accompanies dress down. So a good balance works well; consider your industry, how you want your company to be perceived internally and externally, consider the employees wishes, be sensible and most importantly… if you’re a man, save the dresses for the weekend!

 


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“There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us, and not we, them; we may make them take the mould of arm or breast, but they mould our hearts, our brains, our tongues to their liking.” – Virginia Woolf

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