Struggling with style

SUMMER’S ARRIVAL in the northern hemisphere brings the arrival of a dilemma that plagues every office worker. What does a casual dress code mean in practice? The happy medium between looking like Kim Kardashian or Hagrid the giant is hard to pin down.

Goldman Sachs has just implemented a “flexible dress code” although the executive memo noted gnomically that “casual dress is not appropriate every day”. Besuited corporate clients might not take kindly to investment-banking advice delivered by someone wearing a tank top and ripped jeans.

It makes sense that banking would be one of the last bastions to fall to the advance of casual workwear. You want the people who look after our money to appear sober and respectable. For similar reasons, bank headquarters have deliberately been built in a grandiose style to emphasise the institution’s financial solidity and historical roots. Depositors might hesitate about handing over their savings to people working under a railway arch.

For men, the move to casual dress seems entirely positive. Few people will mourn the demise of the tie, a functionally useless garment that constricted male necks for a century. The tie’s origins date back to the 17th century when mercenaries hired by Louis XIII of France wore a form of cravat. The modern version of the tie emerged in the 1920s and was popularised by Britain’s Edward VIII who, when not flirting with the Nazis, developed the Windsor knot. It became standard office wear for the next six decades. In the 1990s ties started to go out of fashion because technology titans and hedge fund managers refused to wear them—and were rich enough to ignore social convention. As a prank, Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder, once turned up at a meeting with a venture capitalist in his pyjamas.

The jacket, by contrast, is a much more useful garment, replete with pockets to house wallets, spectacle cases and travel passes (or, these days, mobile phones). So the default work garb for men, when meeting clients, is jacket, open-necked shirt and dark trousers (denim excluded).

On days without meetings, men can slob out in t-shirts (though not too garish) and jeans, and no one will think the worse of them. Arriving in shorts or without socks is another matter entirely. But dressing in the morning is a quick-and-easy process. Steve Jobs was famous for wearing the same outfit—black turtleneck, jeans and sneakers—every day.

But what works well for men does not apply as easily to women. Karl Stefanovic, an Australian TV presenter, wore the same blue suit every day for a year and no one noticed. By contrast, his female co-presenters received constant comment on their appearance. Even the Duchess of Cambridge (Kate Middleton) gets snarky comments when she wears the same clothes twice.

Women’s workwear seems to have become less formal over time. A survey by Euromonitor found that sales of women’s suits fell by 77% in America between 2007 and 2016. But many women worry that they will be judged as unprofessional (unlike their male colleagues) if their clothes are deemed to be too scruffy, or too revealing. It can also be tough choosing clothes that are suitable for both inside and outside conditions. Air-conditioning systems in offices are often designed to suit the male metabolic rate, which can cope with colder temperatures than the female body. The result may be that women have to bring an extra layer to wear within the office.

As for formal meetings, although men have abandoned the tie, many women feel obliged to wear high heels. These give many women a sense of empowerment and femininity (not to mention extra height). But in health terms, heels can seem like the Western equivalent of the ancient Chinese practice of foot-binding: bad for women’s feet, ankles and backs and designed to limit their mobility. Britain’s Parliament held a debate after a woman was sent home from her job as a receptionist for refusing to wear high heels (it was inconclusive).

Companies understandably want workers who deal with the public to look respectable. No one should be expected to turn up at the office as if dressed for a wedding. Nor should workers wear clothes that wouldn’t be appropriate if visiting a prudish grandmother or a child’s teacher. The most important item to bring to work is a dose of sartorial common sense.

This post was originally posted at https://www.economist.com/business/2019/04/28/struggling-with-style.

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