Is it really okay to dress for work?

Workplace dress codes metaphorically loosened their ties, poured themselves a drink and put their feet up on the desk. But what does dressing more casual mean for our professional lives, beyond being able to concentrate comfortably? Does this hoodie channel the waiting tech titan or give off the vibe you play? animal crossing under your desk during seemingly endless Zoom calls?

Jonathan Kewley, who chairs the technology group at law firm Clifford Chance, tells me on Zoom that the pandemic has visibly accelerated the process of wardrobe casualization and that the company has embraced it.

“When the pandemic happened, some of the biggest private equity firms, banks and hedge fund managers and traditional Wall Street gatekeepers were there on Zoom with their kids in hoodies,” he says. . “There was a certain familiarity. You can’t say that all banks or all hedge funds will be like this, but there has been a general easing. It’s part of mixed life.

When we speak, he’s wearing an APC double-breasted blazer with gold buttons over a T-shirt, a look that looks more like a yacht party than a typical lawyer. He describes the “cheerful eclectic fashion” surprisingly adopted by his colleagues before the latest UK work-from-home directive: no suits but lots of Steve Jobs-style turtlenecks, cool jumpsuits for women, more knitwear, sweaters fleeces and a shift from monochrome to bold prints and patterns.

Kewley shows me a team photo from December of men in polo-neck knits, cool sneakers and chukka boots, and women in plaid pants, blazers and bright jeans. He observes: “Some people want to dress powerfully; some want to reflect the fact that they live in Hackney and make pottery at the weekends. There is a desire to be themselves, not put on a playful face.”

Leonardo DiCaprio as stockbroker Jordan Belfort in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ (2013). The polo shirt is being taken up by more and more men in the office as wardrobe rules ease © Alamy Stock Photo

Practicality aside, Kewley believes it “indicates a profound cultural shift. It’s not superficial. Being able to express yourself through dress is linked to a more progressive and diverse workplace. You can’t do that if you tell people they have to look alike.

Her 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 about five years ago the company changed its approach to dress codes for graduate recruiting events because many students would “self-select because they didn’t have traditional office”.

She adds that dressing more individually is about putting your whole person into it, and that it “breaks down the barriers that make people take on a certain personality when they come into an organization. People feel more comfortable interpreting what workwear means to them.

Allowing people to use their judgment builds trust. Just as companies offering unlimited vacations don’t necessarily find staff heading to the beach with a full-time inflatable flamingo, casual dress codes don’t automatically promote negligence.

They are also more economical. With the hybrid work and work-from-home guidelines, it no longer makes sense to have a lot of expensive clothes languishing in a wardrobe providing a designer feast for the moths. On the whole, professional women are exchanging plain suits or dresses for separate pieces that they can wear outside the office and get more out of it. Marine d’Hartoy, chief investment officer at Stenham Asset Management, notes that “by going to the office less often, you can have a small wardrobe of a few more expensive items.”

While employees may be more casual on Zoom or for internal meetings, client meetings may be a different story. Clifford Chance’s Kewley acknowledges that “there are certain guidelines. Our huge customer base now consists of large West Coast tech companies who have always been progressive, but there will be customers who are suitably appropriate and respect 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 would never have worn before. However, for external meetings, his team “is expected to dress professionally; [being scruffy] would not be acceptable”.

Informal shared workspaces such as WeWork and the pandemic have accelerated the casualization of the workplace wardrobe
Informal shared workspaces such as WeWork and the pandemic have accelerated the casualization of the workplace wardrobe ©Getty Images

She says that in asset management, people tend to tailor their outfits to the clients and the occasion: “Before meeting a client, you’ve usually had a lot of conversations and research. If you still have doubts about their style, then you dress up. With, say, traditional Swiss families or elderly people, you wouldn’t wear jeans and trainers, you’d wear a dress or a suit. We have customers who are tech entrepreneurs and they prefer you dressed like them. Being more laid back can be a way to get along and also eliminate some of the negative associations of people in the financial industries.

Oliver, a 30-year-old consultant in London, says his managers only bother to dress casual “if we are more casual than the client. If they are in finance, a bank or a private equity fund, they are normally quite well dressed. Or at least in a [collared] shirt.”

Without the reliable standards of costumes and dress codes, finding the right note can be risky. De facto uniforms, like the soothing certainty of the prix fixe menu, remove decision paralysis. “It’s one thing to go to a meeting in Paris, another in Milan,” says Karen Harvey, an executive recruiter based in New York and London. “Do your research, look on social media. You don’t want to overdress because people read that as a cultural fallacy.

When we spoke, she was on her way to a meeting with the CEO of a fashion brand for which she wore navy blue pants and a The Row sweater. “We live in a new world order,” she says. “I don’t think it’s about dressing up or dressing down, everyone has gotten used 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 changing.

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