London Fashion Week, every week: Work-wear-woes…
‘Smart casual’ ‘office attire’ ‘relaxed corporate’ ‘creative-smart’ ‘business casual’ ‘formal’ ‘conservative’
If, like us, these terms have the effect of leaving you puzzled and confused then you’re among a strong majority. So much so that there is an entire industry of professional ‘Image Consultants’ built around what we wear to work. The concern with how we are perceived, what people will think of our presentation, how to be viewed as the next to be promoted, is astonishing in its prevalence. We all know that first impressions are the hardest to undo when it comes to work colleagues / interviews, so it makes sense to ensure you’re as prepared as possible both in terms of your research and wardrobe, to make the best possible start.
Still, everywhere is different, so how do you navigate it? We work with a number of high profile Private Equity firms, for example, that are chalk and cheese in terms of their dress-code ranging from jeans and t-shirts, to fully-bespoke Italian suits, as the norm! While most work places come with their own perception of what is appropriate and expected, we are individuals and have been hired, at least in part, due to who we are not just what we’ve done. Surely becoming a soldier in an army of black suits reduces us to office robots incapable of individual expression?
There are volumes written on how to dress for success; impress in the workplace; nail the interview; and manage your daily work-wear dilemmas, but still, dress codes are cited as being among the most confusing aspects of the daily routine. A quick Google of ‘office attire’ gave insight in to why this is such a minefield. Wikipedia – our ‘go to’ for most things, failed spectacularly to give clarity with the definition below:
“In a corporate office, appropriate clothes are clean, business casual clothes such as a dress shirt, polo shirt, and trousers, or other similar outfits. Suits, neckties, and other formal wear are usually only required in law offices and financial sector offices.”
Hmm… A dress shirt or a polo shirt? Very different pieces of clothing for very different office environment! Could you see someone turning up at a Corporate Board meeting with a polo shirt on and feeling relaxed as they scanned the room? Suits and polo shirts: Perhaps this is an example of what you’d find at #LFW but not in the real world!
Notable by its absence is any indication of what ‘office attire’ may mean for Women!
Harper’s Bazaar gets the gold for suggesting a 7 day capsule wardrobe that starts off with our favourite Monday outfit: Balmain Shirt, Givenchy Skirt, Dior Bag, Laboutin flats… well, who wouldn’t want to start off the week in such style?! For those of us with slimmer wallets, this will remain firmly on the ‘if I win the lottery.. .’ list. Still, it does give thought to what is remarkably common yet still a mystery to many – the Appropriate Outfit!
We meet with a number of people each week who nail it, and others who need some gentle persuasion to present slightly differently. We don’t want to create an army of robots, but it is important that your personality is an aspect of how you dress – not to have it land, screaming, in the face of your interviewer / team / boss and overpower what you are achieving.
Kelly Hoppen writes in her September article for HuffPost that it is winter she favours over summer for styling as it is easier to incorporate personal touches, splashes of colour, and a mixture of textures, when layering. Staples of black, navy, sand, and taupe can be used again and again but brought to life differently when teamed with a bolder colour, such as burnt orange, and gold, silver or rose gold accessories. Subtlety is key to making your outfit work for you without standing out for the wrong reasons!
Faced with so much advice, we turned to the champion of British Etiquette that is Debrett’s for guidance. Obvious, at a very basic level, is the advice to ensure your dress fits; not just you, but the environment you’re going in to. ‘Smart is strategic and professionalism loses impact without professional-looking clothing to match’. Advice in a nutshell!
More recent research has been done to discern the effect on our brains and personality that dressing ‘corporately’ and smartly produces. The study comes from California State U. & Colombia Business School, and finds that students who were asked to come to a cognitive test wearing ‘clothes you would wear to an interview’ performed significantly better than their peers in casual wear. Without going in to too much detail, the study continued along these lines substituting a doctor’s coat for painter’s overalls, and so on. Each time demonstrating higher results in attentiveness and testing for those in the more ‘formal’ item, proving that the effect of seeing someone in formal office-wear is not just restricted to the external person, but also changes how we perceive ourselves and ultimately how well we perform in these situations. They predict, interestingly, a trend towards greater emphasis on the formal-wear perception increasing in stature and professional-power, as our societies become less formal day to day.
Today, formality is still a given in roles where you deal with client’s money, where traditional and conservative styles are favoured above all else. Elsewhere it can be a minefield. The key point to remember is that the hiring manager needs to visualise you in the position that they are trying to fill, but you need to be memorable enough to get it.
The lesson to take away: Dress for the job you want but ensure you focus your efforts on what would work one-level up from where you’re interviewing for.