If you'd told me a couple of years ago I'd be writing a column on office dress codes, I'd say "Darned right I'll write one… freedom to the masses and death to the inventor of the necktie". (After all, the Old West expression "neck-tie party" as a euphemism for hanging is not coincidence). But after a couple of years of "business casual", I have a confession to make: I'm going back to wearing my big-boy clothes.
Please note, I'm going to be talking here about men's clothes. It's not that I don't acknowledge the challenges for women to meet business standards - and I know there are double standards and challenges there – it's just that I've just never worn a skirt- above or below the knee, slit or not- at least not that I'll admit to in these pages.
This change of heart is somewhat disturbing for a couple of reasons. First, I've always thought of myself as something of a rebel, and the coat and tie are perceived as a universal symbol of corporate enthrallment- who needs a reminder that I'm working for someone else?
Secondly, I've always maintained I'm the same person whether I'm dressed up or not. It turns out neither are necessarily true.
To the first point- yes it could be seen as acceding to commands from on high and mindlessly adhering to a professional code dictated by someone else, stifling personal expression and (before I discovered that my shirt size is about ¾ of an inch bigger than I thought it was) forcing my eyes to bulge out like a bullfrog in heat.
I've also found, though, that as a manager people respond differently to me when I'm dressed the part. A dress code is (not just) about restricting my expression- it's also a code to other people how they should respond to me. I'd like to be treated as a professional, thank you.
Shallow - you bet. It's also true and I suspect you know it, even if your soul cries out in righteous indignation.
I can rationalize anything, but one good point of dressing up is you can always dress down as the situation commands. If I'm in a meeting and I have the only jacket and tie in the room, I can always casually take my jacket off, or remove the tie. I'm consciously (and visibly) adjusting to the group norm.
But walking into a meeting tie-less and then emerging with one on when I realize I've miscalculated reeks of desperation and social awkwardness. There will be plenty of time in the meeting for people to question my judgment based on what comes out of my head, no need to start behind the eight ball.
Business casual sounds like a good deal, but in doing my research I discovered it has a somewhat checkered past. First of all, it was originally instituted as a perk. "In lieu of actually paying you more or making your conditions better", companies said, "how about we let you not wear a tie?". Somehow this seemed like a good deal at the time.
To the second point, the definition of Business Casual seems to be a bit fluid and open to interpretation. If you go to a site like Monster.com for example, it's defined as "In general, business casual means dressing professionally, looking relaxed yet neat and pulled together." It's left to each person's judgment.
Take a moment and poke your head over your cubicle. There are probably as many interpretations of Monster's definition as there are desks in sight. Some of those interpretations are rather unfortunate. I almost said, "and you know who you are", but the fact is most of us are blissfully unaware of where our fashion sense sits in relation to others.
I wish I could claim that how I look is irrelevant. It isn't. People form first impressions by what they see. Without an eagle-eyed spouse, Lord only knows what I'd wander the streets wearing.
I can be as competent as the next person, but they're more likely to believe it if my shoes look like they were made from a recognizable animal, rather than a toxic chemical. (Apologies to vegans, you can always wear your dress hemp- I'm making a general point here).
Yes, wearing a jacket or tie make me physically less comfortable. They also make me aware of my surroundings and what I should be doing - or not. When I'm wearing my big boy clothes, I act like a big boy.
Maybe it's a sign that I'm shallow and require outside validation. Or maybe it's a sign that I could have worn them all along if I'd admitted I wear a 17 neck- a bigger boy than I'd like but there you are.