Is it really OK to dress down at work?
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Workplace dress codes have metaphorically loosened their ties, poured themselves a drink and put their feet on the desk. But what does dressing more casually mean for our professional lives, beyond being able to concentrate in comfort? Does that hoodie channel tech-titan-in-waiting or give off the vibe that you are playing Animal Crossing under your desk during seemingly endless Zoom calls?
Jonathan Kewley, who chairs the tech group at law firm Clifford Chance, tells me over Zoom that the pandemic has visibly accelerated the process of wardrobe casualisation, and that the company has embraced it.
“When the pandemic happened, some of the grandest private equity houses, banks and hedge fund managers and the traditional gatekeepers at Wall Street are there on Zoom with their kids in hoodies,” he says. “There was a degree of familiarity. You can’t say all banks or hedge funds will be like this, but there has been an overall relaxation. It’s part of the blended life.”
When we speak, he wears a double-breasted APC blazer with gold buttons over a T-shirt, a look that’s more yacht party than typical lawyer. He describes the surprisingly “joyful eclectic fashion” adopted by colleagues before the UK’s most recent work-from-home directive: no suits but plenty of Steve Jobs-style roll necks, cool jumpsuits on women, more knitwear, sweatshirts and a move from monochrome to bold prints and patterns.
Kewley shows me a team photo from December of men in polo collar knits, fresh sneakers and Chukka boots, and women in separates from checked trousers to bright blazers and jeans. He observes: “Some people want to dress in a powerful way; some want to reflect the fact that they live in Hackney and do pottery at the weekend. There is a desire to be themselves, not put on a game face.”
Practicality aside, Kewley feels strongly that it’s “indicative of a profound cultural shift. It’s not superficial. Being able to express yourself through dress is linked to having a more progressive, diverse workplace. You can’t do that if you are telling people they have to look the same.”
His colleague Laura Yeates, head of graduate talent at Clifford Chance, also believes that relaxed dress codes help foster a more inclusive workplace. She says that around five years ago, the company changed its approach to dress codes for graduate recruitment events as many students “would self-select out due to not having traditional formal office wear”.
She adds that dressing more individually is in line with bringing your whole self to work, and that it “breaks down the barriers that mean people adopt a certain persona when they go into an organisation. People are feeling more comfortable interpreting what professional wear means to them.”
Allowing people to use their judgment builds trust. Just as companies offering unlimited holiday don’t necessarily find that staff decamp to the beach with an inflatable flamingo full time, relaxed dress codes don’t automatically foster scruffiness.
They are also more economical. With hybrid working and working from home directives, it no longer makes sense to have lots of expensive clothes languishing in a wardrobe providing a designer feast for moths. Across the board, professional women are swapping plain suits or dresses for separates that they can wear outside the office, and get more mileage from. Marine d’Hartoy, investment director at Stenham Asset Management, notes that “with going into the office less often you can have a smaller wardrobe of a few more expensive items.”
While employees might be more casual on Zoom or for internal meetings, client meetings can be a different story. Clifford Chance’s Kewley acknowledges “there are some guidelines. Our huge client base now is big tech companies on the West Coast who have always been progressive, but there will be clients where it’s appropriate to put a suit on and that’s respectful of them.”
Stenham’s d’Hartoy says that when she and her colleagues have been in the office during the pandemic many have worn jeans, which they never would have worn before. However, for external meetings her team “are supposed to dress professionally; [being scruffy] would not be acceptable”.
She says that in asset management people tend to tailor their outfits to clients and the occasion: “Before you meet a client you have usually had a lot of conversations and researched them. If you still have doubts about their style, then you dress up. With, say, traditional families from Switzerland, or older people, you wouldn’t wear jeans and sneakers, you’d wear a dress or suit. We have clients who are tech entrepreneurs and they actually prefer you to be dressed like them. Being more casual can be a way to get along and also remove some of the negative associations of people from the financial industries.”
Oliver, a 30-year-old consultant in London, says his managers only care about dressing casually “if we are more casual than the client. If they are in finance, a bank or a PE fund, they are normally dressed quite well. Or at least in a [collared] shirt.”
Without the reliable norms of suits and dress codes, striking the right note can be risky. De facto uniforms, like the calming certainty of the prix fixe menu, remove decision paralysis. “It’s one thing if you are going to a meeting in Paris, another in Milan,” says New York- and London-based executive recruiter Karen Harvey. “Do your research, look on social media. You don’t want to overdress because people read that as a cultural miscue.”
When we spoke she was on her way to a meeting with a fashion brand chief executive for which she had worn navy slacks and a sweater from The Row. “We live in a new world order,” she says. “I don’t think it’s so much about dressing down or dressing up, everyone has become more accustomed to thinking about how to feel and look good. Whether it’s on Zoom or in person, fashion has a huge role to play in the new lifestyle and I think we are still in flux.”
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