Dress To Impress

18th March 2011

Are the days of the business suit numbered? Heather Harris finds out…

Q. What’s the definition of optimism in a recession?
A. Ironing five work shirts on a Monday morning.

Okay, so it’s not the most hilarious joke ever circulated but it has given many a worried banker a wry smile – and it also illustrates perfectly that the popular image of the British working man still sees him with a collar as stiff as his upper lip.

Lunchtime in the City of London (now that eating in the hours of daylight is no longer frowned upon), remains a relatively denim-free zone. As men and women emerge blinking into the sunlight – i-Phone glued to one ear, BlackBerry to another – the colour scheme is strictly monochrome. Black is the new flesh, as women’s legs are shrouded in dark trouser suits or wrapped, Kate Middleton style, in thick opaque tights.

Jan Ibbott, local founder of the Women In Business Network, observes, “We have many female solicitors and accountants and they are usually dressed in trouser suits, which to me is appropriate to their company culture and professional standing.”

Certainly, in the most recent series of BBC’s The Apprentice it was the women who wore the trousers, both figuratively and sartorially, as they appeared in the boardroom in a succession of uninspiring black two pieces. And the one lady who dared to don a red beret, with matching lips, was fired as fast as you could say ‘sartorial suicide’.

Ever since Adam and Eve first decided that there was a chill in the air in the Garden of Eden, and that perhaps a few layers were needed, clothes have been a psychologist’s passion. Witness the number of weighty tomes and earnest documents devoted to what our clothes say about us. As the snappily titled Clothes Psychology: What Your Clothing Tells Others About Who You Are and Who You Want to Be states, ‘It may be true that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but people still do. And in the case of us humans, that cover is your clothing and others are looking at it to help gauge an impression of who you are.’

So the City slickers, the Apprentice wannabees and the ‘I’m going for a corporate job interview’ types all want to convey an air of professionalism and seriousness, and dress accordingly. And it’s still largely true that, as Bridget Allen, a senior level fashion industry expert, states, “A smart business suit exudes confidence and success.”

But what happens outside the world of the bowler hat and brolly? My husband, an accountant from the moment he was born (smack on his due date and weighing the perfect amount), still remembers his 1990s Narnia moment… He decided to step from his corporate world, through his monochrome wardrobe, and into the world of leisure. Arriving for a job interview with a top hospitality company in his favourite Austin Reed suit, he was greeted by his prospective boss… clad in black polo neck and jeans.

“I knew from that moment I’d never get the job!” he admitted, as he arrived home, kicked off his shiny black lace-ups and undid his navy tie.

Back then stereotypes were still standing and most jobs had an obvious ‘uniform’. Many companies actually imposed formal dress codes and we all happily conformed, secretly relieved at not having to make a decision on a Monday morning.

But then Wall Street seductively undid its top button and we were powerless to resist. The American Financial Services industry introduced the concept of ‘Dress Down Friday’. Cary Cooper, a professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School, explains, “The objective was to let staff get on with paperwork on a Friday and wind down for the weekend. It led people to question why they needed to wear a suit in the first place.”

Many British companies followed suit – and ditched said suit from their dress code. But as a nation we struggled. Outwardly we pretended to embrace the fashion opportunities this offered, but inwardly we were a mass of insecurities.

What if we were unexpectedly visited by a client and he or she was wearing a suit? What if we dressed down but everyone junior to us decided to dress up? Can a man over 50 wear chinos? Does my bum look big in this?

Emergency suits and ties were kept hidden in office wardrobes in case of a Friday fashion faux pas. We dipped our toes in the world of casual dressing by buying colourful socks, and even more colourful ties, that hinted at a hidden personality without blowing the professional image.

And we convinced ourselves that we were becoming more ‘smart, casual’. As recently as January this year, online bank First Direct carried out a survey into British work life and found that ‘Just 10 per cent now wear a suit to work on a daily basis, with 37 per cent only wearing the formal attire when they have an important meeting.’

The survey also revealed that 10 per cent now proudly bare their tattoos (perhaps this is the suit wearers’ hidden act of rebellion?) and 2 per cent wear braces (on trousers, not teeth).

As Paul Say, First Direct’s trendy Head of Marketing (think coloured glasses and loafers), explains, “The research shows in terms of appearance, British employees are becoming ever more liberated. A third of workers say a casual dress code would boost productivity, and nearly two thirds feel it would ultimately make them happier”.

Paul Say himself is clearly not unsympathetic to the viewpoint. “Although formal attire is appropriate in some industries,” he observes, “perhaps it is time to start encouraging self expression and colour within the workplace.”

But before we all reach for our flip flops, however, it should be noted that this survey was conducted among 2,000 workers, across all industries, aged 16 and above. Arguably, it could be a case of ‘well they would say that, wouldn’t they?’. What teenager would admit to a secret longing for pinstripe; what woman worth her weight in stilettos would confess to a secret longing to wear skirts and heels to the office, rather than the current masculine trend?

Only the Swiss banking giant UBS dared to stick its neck-tie out and suggest that the old ways were the best. Their 44 page dress code, published last December, covered everything from the colour and size of suits to the length of employees’ toenails and even added in dietary tips such as advice not to eat onions and garlic.

Shirts must not be ‘too tight’, according to the guide, while underwear ‘must not be visible against clothing or spill out of clothing’. Footwear featured too: ‘Women should not wear shoes that are too tight-fitting as there is nothing worse than a strained smile’.

The subsequent level of criticism for UBS’s sartorial values was far greater than it was when the company lost 21BN Swiss francs in 2008. When it comes to bad decisions, UBS has been mocked in headlines around the world more for its fashion sense than its financial dictates.

I have to admit, though, that it all seemed common sense to me, as it did to the respected Financial Times journalist, Lucy Kellaway, who admitted to ‘marvelling at the wisdom of the advice’.

When it comes down to it, there’s something about a smartly turned out, mint-breathed, comfy-shoed ‘booted and suited’ employee that makes me proud to be British. Historically, we’re not a casual nation, and no matter how laid back we pretend to be, I’m sure that future generations will still want to pull their (black) socks up and put their best shiny foot forward as they head off to work.

After all, it’s in our jeans…

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