The work dress-code nightmare

The subject of what to wear at work is never far from the news. Some people were banging on about it on BBC1’s breakfast news programme yesterday. I’ve no idea who they were as I was in the gym at the time.

Grumpy Old Man and design critic Stephen Bayley wrote a shameless plug for his new book an article about dressing to impress in Sunday’s Observer. He says:

Lord Chesterfield advised his son: ‘Dress is a very foolish thing; and yet it is a very foolish thing for a man not to be well-dressed.’ And Jay McInerney says of life today in meritocratic Manhattan: ‘You won’t be judged by your accent… but you will be judged by your shoes.’

This is nothing to do with Church’s or with Prada but with attitude and style – style being the dress of thought, the feather that makes the arrow fly straight, not the feather you put in your cap. It matters because somebody who does not care about their appearance will care about little else. But we are locked in a game of continuous evaluation from which there is no escape to a value-free neutrality.

Now I don’t know about you, but this scares the shit out of me. I have never been much good with clothes and the thought that there might be smart-arses like Bayley out there, checking every nuance in my dress sense, or lack of it, and using it to make judgements about me, is just depressing.

That said, Bayley’s advice on outfits for specific occasions was a joke. (Isn’t this what they call Viral Marketing, where you do or say something so ridiculous that it is bound to attract attention to your new product?)  Alas, you can’t see his suggestions in the on-line version of the article but I don’t think he will get many takers for his ideas.

For a meeting with the bank, to borrow five million, he suggests turning up barefoot, wearing a flowered shirt and jeans. It would guarantee you attention, I suppose, but I wouldn’t fancy walking off a chewing-gum strewn City street without shoes. When going on a first date, he suggests turning up in smart trousers and loafers, teamed with a black t-shirt and Brando-style motorbike jacket. On most people, this would look fairly stupid but on fifty-something Bayley, it looks ridiculous. He might just get away with it if he arrived on a mid-life crisis Harley Davidson but if his date saw him getting out of his Audi A8 dressed like that, I reckon she’d just scram.

Mind you, I’m no expert either. I went to one of those image consultants a few years ago, after my mother, sister, ex-girlfriend, wife and a couple of female colleagues suggested it. I find that, if enough people are telling you the same thing, it is worth considering the possibility that they have a valid point. As you might expect, I was very sceptical at first but, having seen our female consultant hold up different colours against me and the other male participants, even I had to admit that there was something in it. Colours that suit some people really do look disastrous on others. Now, armed with a chart showing ‘my colours’, I can walk into a shop and immediately rule out three-quarters of the clothes on show. If nothing else, it makes clothes-shopping, which I have always loathed, a lot easier.

I’m not alone though. I reckon most British men have a problem with clothes. When, during the 1990s, Britain caught the dress down Fridays disease from the US, the City was suddenly full of people dressed like Tim Nice but Dim; blazer, rugby shirt, jeans and loafers. Yes, people really did go out looking like that.

Dress down Fridays soon got out of hand and company bosses, in blind panic, began to introduce rules to prevent some of the wilder excesses. That’s when terms like ‘smart casual’ and the even more ridiculous ‘business casual’ came into vogue.

My heart sinks whenever I see the invitation to a course or conference with the dreaded instruction ‘Dress Code – Business Casual’ on it. It’s a bloody minefield. One person’s ‘business casual’ can be another’s ‘downright scruffy’. Attitudes vary according to age, nationality, company culture and a whole raft of other variables. You are almost certain to get it wrong.

I have noticed that recently, some companies have played safe and gone for the suit-without-a-tie look. Male employees in these organisations tend to wear slightly less formal suits with a business shirt but no tie. Come on folks, this is hardly ‘casual’ at all. People dressed like this look like stuffy business types who have taken their ties off and shoved them in their pockets in a desperate attempt to look a bit hip and wacky.  You often find this style of dress in old established companies trying to chase younger markets; an apt metaphor for the problems that they face.

But the final word on corporate dress should go to a friend of mine who used to work with me at an evil City firm. The company had been offering image consultancy to the female staff for some time and the bosses, realising that this might leave them open to litigation, decided to offer it to the men as well. I asked my friend, a straight-talking Australian, if he planned to take up the offer and he replied:

The day I go and ask some fackn’ woman to tell me how to fackn’ dress at work, is the day I fackn’ retire!

I guess he won’t be buying Stephen Bayley’s new book either.

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1 Response to The work dress-code nightmare

  1. Pingback: More dress code angst « Flip Chart Fairy Tales

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