Changing trends of business attire
There have been so many changes in both personal and business life over the last few years, that it’s hard to keep track of what aspect of life did not change! However, I would like to focus on one particular area, which on the surface can appear to be relatively insignificant, but, I would argue that it symbolises the seismic shifts that have taken place in recent years, (and have been exacerbated by COVID and the associated WFH culture). I am referring to the ever-increasing blurred lines between business and leisure wear.
Allow me to start at the beginning. It used to be ever so very easy!
Casual wear was what you wore between the hours of 18:00-23:00 during the weekdays and all weekend (assuming that you were not going out somewhere fancy – at which point you would need to change into more formal attire).
Business wear was a formal suit and tie for men (typically dark blue suite and white shirt, occasionally if you were feeling adventurous you could go for a light grey colour suite option), and for women, it was slightly more complex, but I seem to recall a similarly dark ladies suite (with more flexibility on the colour for blouses etc). It was simple, everyone knew the rules (here I am referring to Western Europe in general and the UK in particular), it was like this for decades and everyone got on with it, even if you did not like it.
If you were involved in International Business, you would come across colleagues from N America, and they would always be exotically dressed typically in what they referred to as “Polo Shirts”, (we in Britain would call them T-Shirts), and “slacks” (beige trousers). Also, I seem to remember that nobody had learned how to tie a shoe in the US, because it seemed normal to wear slip-on brown leather shoes (similar in style to golf shoes), but never lace shoes.
We Europeans could “forgive” our American friends for not knowing better and were suitably content in our emotional superiority that they just didn’t understand the rules!
Travelling in Asia or Africa was of course another matter altogether, and it seemed that the humble tie was completely forgotten, (I assume that there had been no lessons on the finer art of making a good tie), however, I seem to recall that our friends from these places still had the decency to keep to the dark suite rule.
It was a strange time (especially if you, like me, travelled internationally for business), but we all accepted our roles. However, I was always uneasy with the notion that your appearance somehow determined your status / ability to do the job / social standing etc… And then something a bit odd happen around 15 years ago…….
I had travelled to one of the Nordic countries to meet with a buyer for a major Consumer Electronics Retailer. Well, I was introduced to someone who I assumed was either a student or an employee’s son, because he was dressed in a ripped t-shirt, shorts and flip flops (“thongs” for our Australian friends – which is a whole other subject in itself!).
During the discussion, it slowly dawned on me that this student, was a major buyer for a key retailer. I was shocked by his appearance. However, I learned an important lesson, and from this moment onwards, I almost never wore a tie in meetings (but still had the obligatory dark suite).
Skip forward to today……
I almost never wear a suit (even though I have them all lined up in my wardrobe ready to go), rarely wear a shirt, and have probably forgotten how to make a good tie.
However, there are still some simple rules to keep to for business attire:
- The standard mode seems to be “smart casual” which means jeans, Polo shirts and sneakers are all acceptable.
- “Formal mode” is basically “smart casual” by adding a suit jacket / blazer and leather shoes to it.
- Beachwear and flip flops (sorry Oz) should be avoided altogether with the exception of video conferences where T-Shirts and Shorts are acceptable.
Whilst things have probably changed forever, I do believe that somehow keeping a minimum standard is psychologically important from a working mindset perspective.
An Internet start-up billionaire who is in his late twenties is allowed to wear anything but the rest of us should aim for the primary task first and then copy the style.
Wear what suits you and what makes you feel comfortable but keep in mind that sometimes you have to dress in the way that your counterpart keeps face and you fit into the complete scene. You should want to avoid that you embarrass your partners or that by looking at you, your chances for initial discussion are gone just because of your attire.
Finally, it seems that my American friends might have had the right idea all along!!