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Business casual – the deterioration of sartorial standards in the workplace

I have been in management roles in the manufacturing sector for many years; to me dressing for work has always included a shirt with an actual collar that could support a tie, which should be worn with a suit. This stemmed from my first management role in a business that was steeped in tradition. The company was responsible for printing the large majority of the world’s banknotes and the middle to upper echelons of management consisted of men with double barrelled surnames and accents straight out of a Pathe News broadcast, to wear anything other than a suit and tie was incongruous, to say the least. So, this grounding in work attire is natural for me; dress appropriately, as they used to say.

Appropriate workwear

About 25 years ago I made my first business trip to the US and was surprised, yet unconcerned, with how differently my US colleagues dressed, after all, this was their work environment and not mine. About a year later I was in conversation with a US colleague and he used the phrase “business casual”, I innocently asked what this referred to, as this, to me, was a complete oxymoron. It turned out that their work attire actually had a name, an irksome one at that! Today, this way of dressing has gained acceptability in the business world, I’ve often witnessed senior executives expatiating on company results/performance/stock value dressed as if they’ve come straight from the potting shed after planting their Geraniums!

A young company exec genning up on the stock results, pre conference

If there is one thing that has cemented the success of American apparel producers, it’s not the hip, young, preppy types that strut around in their label festooned polo’s and chino’s, it’s more the hip replacement, middle aged, once preppy businessmen who dress for the golf course in work.

In the beginning, I see that it might have made sense. Maybe the reason stemmed from the prevailing sense of mistrust in a period when greed was good and anyone with a tie had “corporate b*****d” metaphorically tattooed across their forehead; dressing down became the way that the business world could regain trust and conquer the perception of greed, for Gordon Gecko would never be seen in a polo shirt, with or without red braces. But does “dress down Friday” really convey a sense of honesty, sincerity and humility and does dress down everyday then propagate those personal characteristics throughout a whole working week? Hardly..

American businessman on their way to a conference

In business today, the slothful attitude to all matters sartorial is something I find frustrating. It’s only a few years ago I that reluctantly stopped wearing a tie, to me the uniform of business prepares me for business. Even the term “business causal” shows, in those two words, a laissez faire attitude to something that should be taken with an appropriate level of seriousness, doesn’t it?

Pleasingly; although the inexorable Americanism of business dress is reaching further east, on the continent of Europe, shirts, ties and suits are still perfectly acceptable forms of dress. The SVP of Sales, in a corporation that I recently worked for, always wore a suit and tie, he had high sartorial standards which conveyed a sense of professionalism that he delivered on. Conversely, at a meeting a few years ago with the President of the same company, he told me, very directly, NEVER to wear a tie to a meeting with him again. It’s fair to say that his wealth wasn’t “squandered” on tailors (or mirrors, I may add).

When I worked in the Middle East, there was a sartorial culture clash. All of the Saudi’s who had managerial or administrative positions, wore Saudi dress; the robe (thobe), the headscarf (shemagh) and the band that keeps the scarf in place (iqal), all accompanied with sandals (mostly), and actually, while it isn’t the safest form of dress to wear in a work environment (those robes and scarves do present a risk), at least they were dressed to a standard appropriate to their position. In this organisation with several sub businesses, there were two other sartorial camps, as it were. The one, more colonial in nature, saw managers and admin wear ties whereas the American influenced business all dressed casually. The appearance of my management team, suits and ties at all times, gave an edge to how we were perceived, we were regarded as being “more professional” than some of the other businesses within the group.

On our way to work – Riyadh

Will the time ever return when a suit and tie will be a normality throughout business once again? It’s debateable. With American led businesses I think the answer, in the medium term, is a categoric “NO”, the business casual era is now the norm, very senior and influential executives dress down to obfuscate their wealth or influence and the IT crowd never had a sense of style in the first place. In Europe the tendency for dressing down does seem to have reached a plateau and I see that European headed business often encourage, through peer leadership, a smarter, more business like attitude to appearances.

As for myself; I’m a bit of a sartorial addict anyway. I have only a limited number of clothing retailers that I wear. My suits are all selected from Savile row cloth and made by my trusted tailor, my shoes are all hand made by English manufacturers, my shirts are also hand made in the UK. This “uniform” will last me throughout my working career and will always look professional, dressing down to me is to dispense with a necktie.

© Andy Collinsson 2020

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