Workers get shirty when the dress code is ditched
Hawaiian shirts? “Traditional work dress codes are changing. What’s bothering people is when companies ditch them without providing guidelines about acceptable alternatives.”
Dressing for work used to be easy. It was obvious what you were expected to wear and you couldn’t go wrong in a suit. If in doubt, you turned for guidance to the old adage: “dress for the job you aspire to”. Apply that rule today and you could end up in a T-shirt and cargo pants with a side order of a baseball cap worn back to front.
Having a dress code at work has an impact on how people feel about being there. It also underpins corporate culture and communicates an organisation’s image to the outside world. Traditional work dress codes are changing. What’s bothering people is when companies ditch them without providing guidelines about acceptable alternatives.
“Dress codes are a minefield because they vary so much by organisation and role,” says Frances Jones of Image Matters, who has 20 years’ experience of advising individuals and companies how to look good. “People often struggle with ‘smart casual’ but a broad definition for men is chinos worn with formal shoes (not trainers) and either a long-sleeved shirt or a polo shirt not a collarless T-shirt. For women, it can be a dress or a good quality blouse or top worn with a skirt or trousers.
“If you have doubts about something, it’s probably not suitable and you shouldn’t look as if you’re dressed for a day off. A long-sleeved shirt always looks more professional as do formal shoes rather than runners.”
Jones says some people confuse dressing down with skimping on personal hygiene.
“You get people skipping their shower or lads who think it means not having to shave. In fact, dressing down should mean grooming up, as how you present yourself is more of a challenge but still says so much about you as a person, about your attitude and your interest in your job.”
Asked about interview attire Jones says, “Ask what the dress code is. If in doubt, stand outside the organisation and see what the people coming out are wearing. Dishevelled/stubble is never a good look. Smart casual will be acceptable for some interviews but don’t push it by wearing jeans unless you’re sure that’s okay. For women, be a bit careful about wearing a cardigan rather than a jacket, especially for senior roles. It could be interpreted as too casual.”
The erosion of formal workplace dress codes began with dress-down Fridays in the United States. The practice really took off in the 1990s although its origins go back to the 1960s when a Hawaiian clothing company dreamed it up to sell more shirts. Levi’s then launched a campaign to define its jeans as the epitome of business casual.
Our dress code was changed overnight with no clarity around what ‘more casual’ means
On this side of the Atlantic, however, denim was not acceptable until recently (and is still not in many companies), but otherwise people could swap their suits for a more casual ensemble on a Friday. Now, mainly thanks to the laid-back clothing culture of the tech giants, dress-down Friday has become the everyday norm and not everyone is happy about it.
“Our dress code was changed overnight with no clarity around what ‘more casual’ means,” says one senior manager in the IT systems sector. “The executive team now has no idea what to wear although the boss is sticking with a suit and tie.
Good for business
“We travel a lot to meetings around Europe and our counterparts there still dress formally. There seems to be this idea in Ireland that if companies start acting hip by dressing like Google or Facebook, we’ll suddenly start thinking like them and this will be good for business. A lot of Irish people have lost the plot when it comes to dressing appropriately for work. Our overseas staff dress much better. It’s become a very thin line as to what’s acceptable.”
What is emerging from this clash of cultures is a two-tier dress code. Those in certain sectors and anyone in a client facing position still needs to wear a suit. Those with no client contact do not.
Increasingly, companies are providing dressing rooms where employees can keep their suits in case they need to meet a client.
“Clothing that doesn’t support your professionalism should be avoided,” Frances Jones says. “This means anything not appropriate to your industry/sector, reminiscent of beachwear or in loud, flashy colours. Avoid clothes that don’t fit properly – too big, too small, too short. If you struggle with dress-down Fridays or prefer a more informal look, always opt for the smart end of casual.”
One thing that has not changed, however, is the use of dress as a differentiator by both men and women aiming for the top. Highly motivated career types still resolutely dress to impress. To paraphrase Mark Twain: reports of the imminent death of the power suit are greatly exaggerated.
Frances Jones’ tips for getting your work look right
– Spend the most money on the clothes you wear most.
– Go for the best quality you can afford.
– Always check your clothes for stains, loose hems, or any visible signs of wear and tear.
– Invest in good shoes as they finish off any outfit. Ensure they are polished and in good condition.
Previously published in The Irish Times.
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