October 16, 2010

Is "Dress for Success" Dead?

This piece is inspired by an article titled The Tragic Decline of Business Casual.

In his work life, my father dressed above his pay grade. He shopped at Wallach's and had "his" salesman. I remember accompanying him there one time. He told the salesman he wanted two summer suits. The salesman knew which suits to propose. Dad put each one on and proceeded to the tailoring platform. While they were being marked, the salesman was pulling shirts and ties to go with them. He knew Dad's style preferences. Over time, he was also able to move Dad up the price ladder. That was salesmanship! But Dad knew that to be successful, you had to look successful.

Times certainly have changed, and I admit to having mixed feelings about it.

I recently worked in an office in Colorado where shorts, sneakers and t-shirts were common. I wore them too, happily. It provided a comfortable work environment in an office where there were few outside visitors.

Before working for that company, I had regular business at their headquarters in Washington DC. Going there in the 90s, a shirt and tie were the minimum requirements for men, and if you were meeting with an executive, you always put on a jacket. A new CEO came in and introduced business casual. Today, you'll see some executives in jeans.

I like being comfortable, and I like not having to invest a lot of my pay in clothing. But I wonder if a lack of standards is a good thing.

In todays world it's so hard to decide what appropriate dress is for a given event. The toughest calls are job interviews. I think there is still truth to the idea the better-dressed people get treated better. But ten years ago I came to a job interview dressed in jacket and tie, and found my interviewers were all 15 years younger than I, and dressed in jeans or business casual. There is no question in my mind that my more formal dress worked against me.

Last week I exhibited at a trade show in San Francisco. My sense of the industry was that a suit or jacket and tie would be appropriate as opposed to the polo shirts I now sometimes wear at trade shows. Indeed, many exhibitors were dressed this way (women wearing the equivalent suits or dresses), although some wore logo shirts. Among the attendees, a sizable minority wore suits, and most of the rest were business casual. However, a fair number were dressed in sneaks, jeans and t-shirts, and some of those were ratty looking shirts and frayed jeans. Sorry, but they looked like bums. And perhaps they don't care -- they're buyers and have money to spend, so there. To me it makes them seem less serious.

I knew the world had changed when I exhibited at a computer trade show in the early 90s and the IBM folks had logo polos instead of the traditional white shirt and dark suit and tie. I think I'm OK with a more casual look in any business environment, but where I draw the line is when you transition from clean and neat, to sloppy and worn-looking.

There must still be a perception among the public that a suit makes you more important or trustworthy. Note that nearly every male news anchor or or talk show host wears a suit (with women wearing the equivalent). Would you deposit your money with a banker dressed in a t-shirt with printing on it, torn jeans and untied sneakers?


Stefanie N said...

I'm not too thrilled depositing money at banks on UVA football Fridays when they all wear polo necks with UVA logos.

Warren Bobrow said...

I always wear a bow tie when out and about. Nothing wrong with getting a bit dressed up for being in the public eye. Of course I draw the line on dress slacks.

Blue jeans for me.. But the tie? Always!

Warren Bobrow said...

they told me at my last job..(in the corporate world) to not dress for work.
As an (former) executive assistant, I should not "look" or "dress" nicer than the company principals.
They may have made a lot of money, but they dressed like slobs at this company. Fortune 50 as well.

Clothes do not make the man, yet the man should wear something a bit nicer than an untucked logo shirt to a business meeting.