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By its cover

Written by Josh Russell on Wednesday, 19 September 2012. Posted in Leadership, People

It’s an unfortunate truism that in the business world opinions are formed in the first few seconds of meeting someone. But what does your state of dress say about you? And is a suit and tie all you want people to see?

By its cover

We’re often told that appearances can be deceptive. But when you’re expected to make a quick decision about someone, whether it’s down to a recruitment choice or forming a deal that could have long-term ramifications for your business, there can often be little more to go on. Entrepreneurs need to dress appropriately depending on the situation. However, as they’re having to adopt an increasingly varied range of roles, it’s becoming less clear-cut what is appropriate.

When we’re so used to seeing politicians with their ties off and a top button undone that it has almost become a cultural cliché, it’s clear that attitudes toward what constitutes professional attire has changed. And it can vary radically from sector to sector. The garb of a Silicon Roundabout tech wizard is obviously going to differ wildly to a boiler room trader. Once ubiquitous, the suit is no longer a catchall outfit and so entrepreneurs are having to think more about what their appearance is saying about them. A fairly common label, business casual, still fails to really identify what is expected; to different people it can mean anything from leaving the tie at home to a smart T-shirt and denim.

If things are difficult for men, they are invariably more problematic for women. In the majority of workplaces, it’s not uncommon to see female workers in as diverse attire as a skirt suit on one floor and jeans and trainers on another. Levels of formality also vary in terms of what make-up may or may not be appropriate. This places an increased responsibility on women to pitch their appearances right. If a woman appears overdressed she can attract rather unpleasant labels; the 1980s habit of power-dressing and shoulder pads are all too fresh in many people’s memories. But overly casual or, worse, provocative attire comes with, if anything, more demeaning labels. It’s still an unfortunate double standard that provocative dress on a woman comes with entirely different connotations to the same attitude from a man.

It’s clear that we put on different attitudes for different occasions and it’s important our appearance matches this. A launch or evening function needs a different appearance from the boardroom. And a television or public appearance might need something more adventurous than a charcoal suit. More than just a measure of someone’s professionalism, the way we dress has become indicative of our personality and so thinking carefully about the image we’re presenting has become far more nuanced than it once was. 

But what does this look like in terms of practicalities? The world of advertising has, understandably, always been rather image led, and perhaps this is the best place to look at how expectations are changing.

LBi Ltd is one of London’s largest digital media agencies. Given the nature of its work, the balance its employees must strike between ‘dressing to impress’ and maintaining a cool, fashionable demeanour is perhaps more pronounced than anywhere. “When you are seeing clients, it is a balancing act,” says Adam Russell, head of display. “We need to demonstrate creativity but, at the same time, make them feel comfortable and reassure them that we are experts.”

Essentially, Russell feels that traditional ideas about appearance in the workplace put the cart before the horse – rather than being a case of someone’s attire creating an impression of who they are, he believes an employee’s attitude should influence the way they dress. “In my line of work, which I appreciate is fairly creative in atmosphere and therefore relaxed, I think people should largely be free to wear what they are comfortable with,” he says. “Self-expression, creativity, freedom and comfort are more important to me than what someone wears.

“Different people have different expectations and it obviously varies massively with sector,” he remarks. But this also means that the way you dress can still be a huge discriminating factor. If you aren’t dressed appropriately according to the expectations of your field then it draws into question your familiarity with the trends of the sector. “I’ve had people turn up to interviews in a full suit, which in my game, unless you are from out of town, really isn’t the right tone,” he explains.

Ultimately, it’s down to a person’s ability to understand the requirements of the situation. “If you don’t realise why turning up to a client meeting in a T-shirt with a rock band on it and torn jeans is inappropriate, then that says more about your understanding of people than anything,” he says. Not being able to recognise your clients’ expectations is the real issue; by comparison the actual formality of your dress is a secondary concern. “In my business understanding people is important,” he explains.

Expectations about business dress are definitely changing. It’s rather unlikely that inappropriate dress would attract disciplinary action – instead you are far more likely to attract a few raised eyebrows. As Russell comments: “Get it wrong now and it will be temporarily frowned upon, but I imagine in years gone past it would have been a really big deal.” Creating the right image is still very important but it’s no longer built into the structure of an organisation. Even in the world of advertising, it’s much more down to a person’s judgement. “The days of Mad Men are long gone,” he concludes. “There’s no scotch in the desk drawer any more but there probably are far more spare pairs of Converse.”

About the Author

Josh Russell

Josh Russell

As editor, Russell is the man in charge of properly apostrophising our publication and ensuring Oxford commas are mercilessly excised. Our digital doyen, he’s also a Photoshop Pro, a dab hand with InDesign and the man to go to if you need a four-hour soliloquy about the UK's best silicon startups.

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