For most of my career, a suit and tie was the only choice for work attire. On Fridays in summer you might get away with a smart blazer and trousers but, in the late 1980s, it wasn’t advisable. Should you ever lapse into suede shoes, there were still plenty of colleagues to remind you that you “don’t wear brown in town”. Women had more latitude but here too there was a clear sense of what was, and was not, business attire.
Certain colleagues fought to express themselves. Men donned loud ties and bright socks and, when the former were wide, a considerable amount of real estate was available to those assailing you with garish proclamations of their individuality, even if that individualism was mostly purchased at Tie Rack. A similar chain called Sockshop offered overpriced hosiery, mostly at railway stations, a vital service for all those who suddenly realised they had left home without their turquoise footwear.
Nowadays you can definitely get away with brown in town, even with a navy suit. I still wear a suit, though mostly without a tie, but sometimes lapse into a blazer and trousers. But then, I have reached an age, seniority and, ahem, waistline where style statements are no longer a priority.
Journalists back then mostly dressed to fit their beat. Business journalists looked smarter than environment reporters. Fashion writers were fashionable, though sports reporters were not always sporty. This is because your work clothes, even when you chose them yourself, were a uniform. You might have been allowed a modicum of personalisation but their main purpose was not to give others a sneak peek at the real you. The less customer-facing your role, the greater the latitude. The uniform for a creative industry was less formal, but there was still a code — even if it was hoodies.
There were many advantages to this. For one, you never had to worry about being overdressed at work. Now the reverse is often true. Meanwhile, the loss of the tie is a particular tragedy if you have an expansive physique which benefits from being broken up with a dash of colour.
What brought this to my mind was the news that a law firm, Vardags, had told staff to stop dressing like bankers or estate agents and instead be “as wildly fabulous as you feel like”. Staff should “express themselves to the full”, “bringing their personality to work”. The code was “more like Annabel’s”, the swish private club. The firm says it specialises in divorce and family law for “high net worth” individuals so, in fairness, it may want to mirror the looks of wealthy guys dressing for a midlife crisis.
After allowing the horror of this to sink in, the memo added that the look would still need to be “formal, still absolutely top-end and appropriate to the luxury market with which we engage, not undermining your gravitas as a professional”.
Or to put it another way, staff should only express themselves if their full personality is formal, luxurious, high end and retains gravitas. I suspect this will amount to very little in reality, not least because people engaged in legal battles largely don’t want to be represented by someone who looks like they’ve come straight from Bella Hadid’s Halloween party. Should I ever need a lawyer, I’d prefer one who expresses my needs rather than theirs. I want them waking up in the morning obsessing over how to win my case, not over which shade of fuchsia goes with a cobalt shirt.
And besides, who wants this rubbish? It’s one thing to have no dress code and let people rock up in jeans, but a style guide that demands fabulous on a Monday morning heading in on the Central line is hardly an emancipation. President Obama famously wore only blue or grey suits in order to reduce the inessential decisions in his life. The uniform was a welcome break. Not everyone can be president but simplicity may be a sign of seriousness. At work at least, give me self-restraint over self-expression any day.
On the upside, I can see a market opportunity. In these days of fabulousness at work, a simple sharp suit may be the only way to stand out.
Follow Robert on Twitter @robertshrimsley and email him at [email protected]
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