Inspired by a piece I read recently in an English broadsheet, I decided to take a look at the subject of office wear and appearance – and the conventions thereof. I began by analysing my own admittedly limited experience.
My very first brush with my superiors at work was not, strangely enough, because of my sartorial tastes. It concerned my hair... or to be more specific, its length.
After completing my studies in the late 1960s I began a job with a Canadian company in a small town 60 miles west of Toronto.
On my first day I turned up for work in a suit and tie and felt almost squeakily conventional. But, at the end of day one, the office supervisor sidled up to me and whispered: “Er, before you come in tomorrow... would you get your hair cut please.” It was not a request, it was an order.
However, as my hair at the time was comparatively short – and since I did not wish to look like a convict or a sufferer from some nasty disease of the scalp, I checked myself out in the mirror and decided not to comply. Bad move: Next day there appeared in my pigeonhole a note in red ink from the big boss... the supreme leader. It was short and to the point and read: “Get a haircut after work today.” Then his spidery signature underneath.
I suppose we are at least two generations away from seeing is-sur avukat entering the law courts in velvet jacket, pastel coloured shirt and bold cravat
Again, after checking that my crowning glory had not sprouted a metre or so in a night, I decided that it was both neat enough and short enough, so I ignored this as well. The next stage was a direct: “See me” summons, school headmaster style, from the big boss and a face to face confrontation across his desk.
I should explain that in the meantime I had checked out the hairstyles of the rest of the office’s male employees.
To a man, these comprised a look that nowadays seems to be adopted by prematurely balding men in their 20s and 30s: namely shaved back and sides with about one centimetre of hair left on top of the head. I decided this was not for me and if my refusal to subject my thatch to this extreme cut meant the sack, then so be it.
And it was with this resolute attitude to the fore that I faced the big boss that afternoon – after working hours, naturally. I remember he looked balefully at me, sighed deeply and said: “I am asking you to conform to company policy and get your hair cut in the manner of the rest of my male employees.”
Incidentally, this was the first time the work ‘asking’ was used; prior to this I had been instructed or told to comply.
Anyway, once again I decided to ignore the request, even when it could have meant dismissal. And as luck would have it, no more was said about the haircut... apart from a few snide remarks from one or two of my more moronic work colleagues. The hair crisis was over and done with in less than a week.
At the other extreme, I once worked for a northern English advertising agency where there was positively no dress or hair code. The only thing the boss insisted on was that staff should be clean.
They could wear what they liked and they sure did. One female designer – with exceptional legs – used to turn up in the shortest shorts I have ever seen.
Not only could you see her hip bone... you could almost see her armpits. Yet, she was exceptionally good at her job and also a real sweetie, so her dress sense was completely irrelevant.
My father was an accountant and wore suits everywhere.
His idea of casual wear was to loosen his tie. Professional men in general have always been a bit tight cheeked about their schmutter.
Doctors, businessmen, computer geeks... all tend to dress conservatively – and, with the exception of the last mentioned, have always done so. And I don’t see a change any time soon.
Similarly female professionals have also tended to be rather sartorially austere... but usually with a lot more style. I can’t vouch for it with chapter and verse, but I reckon business attire has changed very little since the 1940s.
To back up this point, even today some conventions linger when it comes to work apparel.
A male lawyer, for instance, has a proscribed uniform of dark two-piece business suit and quiet tie, plus an aura of understated pomposity (unless he happens to be a certain renegade ex-MP, where his pomposity is anything but understated) that says: “I have done six years studying law and now I am a fully qualified lawyer.
“Consequently I am superior to you and everybody else... so there!”
I suppose we are at least two generations away from seeing is-ur avukat entering the law courts in velvet jacket, pastel coloured shirt and bold cravat.
But I hope I’m still around when it does happen.
So does what you wear to work matter? Yes, for certain professions of course, it does.
A construction worker shouldn’t dream of entering a building site without a hard hat and industrial boots.
Just as someone who prepares food should never do so with filthy hands and wearing an overall splattered with grease and gravy stains.
But the office is slightly different; any firm that has direct contact with the public should make sure its employees are at least neatly and cleanly turned out.
Speaking personally, the one freedom I treasure above all others, now that I work full-time from home, is that I no longer have to dress the part.
I can be at the computer dressed in anything from shorts and a T-shirt to a rather tatty dressing gown and slippers... and nobody gives a damn... least of all me.
Of course there will always be those who claim that in order to succeed in one’s chosen career, it is essential to turn up in a conventional dark suit and tie.
Oh really? Just go and tell that to Richard Branson.
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