A few years ago the City, followed by businesses across the country, abandoned the suit and embraced ‘dress down’. Firstly, it was ‘dress down Fridays’ and then gradually dress down became the norm from Monday through Friday. But clothes are always cyclical and the suit never really died. These days, many companies adopt a ‘modern professional’ dress code which expects employees to wear whatever is deemed appropriate for the activities they are involved in each day. But ‘deemed appropriate’ by whom? Whilst the really smart ones will know how to get the ‘suited and booted’ look right for external meetings with clients and the ‘business casual’ look spot on for internal meetings, for many it’s a mystifying labyrinth of unwritten rules that leaves them confused and bewildered!
Without proper guidelines and direction, as was common in the past, standards slip and bosses start to feel uncomfortable about an ‘anything goes’ culture. They may be more tolerant, with smart casual being acceptable in many environments, but they still expect a business-like look. Whilst most staff can manage to look reasonably professional in their jackets and suits, when it comes to dress down it’s a different matter. Any employee who wants to go places should know what smart casual (or business casual) should look like.
Dress down allows more individual choice, which is where the problems creep in. People don’t intentionally disregard policies – what employees wear can be attributed to their own individual style personality, job profile and age and this leads to some amazingly inappropriate choices. However, companies should be able to trust employees to dress appropriately – it’s all part of being able to do the job properly. One City firm sent a memo to its employees stating that anyone reporting to work improperly dressed may be instructed by their manager to return home and change their clothes, with further action and possible termination not out of the question!
The fundamental benefit of dress down for staff is that it allows freedom and choice, enabling them to express their individuality. Comfortable, happy workers should be more productive so in theory employers like dress down too. However, there are staff at all levels who find all that choice just too much of a good thing. It was all so easy before but now every occasion requires thought, planning and a different dress code.
Whilst it might seem churlish to single out British men, a quick look around any city business district anywhere in the UK will show that chinos with a crumpled casual shirt is the uniform that many have simply substituted for the suit. An alternative is the faded logo-emblazoned T-shirt with scruffy combats, denim or corduroys. And when it comes to shoes – don’t even go there! British women aren’t guilt-free either – with underwear showing and too much flesh exposed being the most common crimes.
So how should dress down be properly interpreted? A simple definition of ‘business casual’ is ‘A comfortably relaxed version of classic business attire, with no sacrifice of professionalism or personal power.’. Propriety, quality and co-ordination are the watch-words of dress down. Clothes should never be distracting and therefore they should suitably cover you (legs, arms, chests, cleavages, midriffs or any other body part that might otherwise get exposed). Exposing too much diminishes credibility faster than anything else – you have been warned!
You should also expect to spend as much on your business casual wardrobe as on your formal suiting – the quality of construction, fabric, finish and attention to detail should be no different from that of a formal suit. It is simply the colour, fabric type and style details that will make a jacket, skirt or pair of trousers look casual rather than formal. The many and varied versions of cotton, linen, silk and lightweight wool, often mixed with clever new fibre technology, gives you a wide range of fabric choices for business casual clothing. Clothing structure will also affect how formal or casual a garment looks. In general, the more tailored or ‘structured’ a garment, the more formal and authoritative it will look. For business casual looks garments can be more softly structured, for example a soft collar rather than a sharp collar or a softly tailored jacket rather than a sharply tailored jacket.
Co-ordination is also a vital element of business casual, although you can select lighter shades and more colour and pattern than for formal dressing. Whilst it is hard to get it too wrong with a suit, with business casual you have to THINK about what goes with what! That means you have to know what suits you, including the colours, styles, proportions and details that will work for your individual colouring and physique. Your outfit should look so well put together that your clients, customers and colleagues can all get on with the job in hand, instead of being struck dumb by the amazing colour combinations you’ve selected that day.
Another ingredient of more casual dressing is fashion and, whilst in some creative industries it might be vital to look as fashionable as you can afford, in others it will be perceived as shallow and not conducive to the business environment. It’s more important to ensure you are ‘current’ as this implies that your thinking and ideas will be current too. Regularly update your wardrobe so that it looks relatively ‘of the moment’ without looking overtly fashionable and that way you’ll attain the right ‘modern classic’ look that works for business casual.
Consistency is also vital with business casual. You can’t look fantastic one day and like a dog’s dinner the next without ruining your credibility. You’ve got to look good every day – that way you’ll give consistent messages of your personal ‘brand values’. Decide in advance how you want to be perceived and then ensure that your business casual look echoes this message. For example, you can still achieve an authoritative look using colour – simply select the darker shades or clothing combinations with more contrast from your business casual wardrobe in order to create a stronger look.
Whilst for many the advent of dress down throughout the week has meant a whole new wardrobe, it’s best not to view formal and casual as two separate wardrobes. ‘Modern professional’ has many nuances and you should develop a flexible wardrobe that allows you to slide seamlessly from formal, through relaxed business, to business casual, making minor adjustments to your look to suit your working day and lifestyle along the way.
Think of your wardrobe needs as a sliding scale with formal business at one end and casual at the other. Just below formal business will come ‘relaxed business’ – a suited or jacketed look that’s not so sharp as ‘formal’. Below that is ‘business casual’ – still smart and polished but using casual garments and accessories. These are the three looks you need in the workplace. Below ‘business casual’ comes ‘casual’ – an entirely different thing! Casual is denim, trainers, t-shirts, combats, flip-flops, Timberlands, chunky sweaters, fleeces…need I go on? If it’s in this last category, it shouldn’t be worn for work. And that’s where all the trouble started…. employees wearing their ‘casual’ clothes to the workplace.
So spend some time shopping for your business casual wardrobe, just as you would for your formal suits. Learn to enjoy putting different looks together and you’ll feel confident whatever the dress code – the suit may not be dead but there’s no doubt that dress down is here to stay!
Top Tips for Dress Down
- Aim for more softly structured garments for business casual
- Go for lighter shades and an increased use of colour
- Budget to spend as much on your business casual wardrobe as your formal office attire.
- Avoid distracting clothes and exposing too much flesh
- Regularly update your wardrobe to keep your clothes ‘current’
- Aim for consistency to retain your credibility and personal brand values
- Develop a flexible wardrobe that can adapt to various work scenarios
- Don’t confuse business casual with ‘casual’ – save fleeces and trainers for the weekend!
Lyn Bromley MFIPI, ACMA – Managing Director, First Impressions
Lyn Bromley is Managing Director of First Impressions Training Ltd and a Master of The Federation of Image Professionals International. (FIPI) She is also Membership Director of FIPI and a leader of Achiever’s Academy for Women.
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