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Should we let go of outdated dress codes?

Some years ago, I stood up in a boardroom to address the assembled directors. I had been asked to speak to board members on trends in governance and strategy.

Before I could speak, however, a hand was raised. A visibly peeved director asked me why I was addressing that room, a gathering of the high and mighty, while not wearing a tie. Was this not a sign of disrespect?

Silence. Many moments passed. I am pretty sure I could hear both my own heartbeat and the ticking of the clock on the wall. When I spoke, I asked the director whether he was interested in my insights, or my tie. The chairperson quickly intervened and asked me to carry on.

Sighs of relief all around.

I share this story only so that you can see that I am a determined outlier when it comes to adherence to rigid norms. My response on that day—my tie or me?—could have cost me a lot, but I was willing to take that risk and suffer the loss if necessary. I was wearing a suit, please note—I had not shown up in shorts and sandals. I just haven’t worn a necktie for nearly two decades now, ever since I became my own employer. I find ties antiquated and uncomfortable.

When I joined the world of work, dress codes were strict, rigid and drearily conservative: dark, sober colours; predictable combinations; strict adherence. We all dressed to look like someone’s British grandparents did in the offices of yore.

I always found it astonishing that men and women of originality, creativity and imagination, from around the world could be corralled in this way. That we could all forego our own senses of heritage, taste, colour, and comfort, just to fit in with someone’s antediluvian sense of propriety and uniformity. That we were all required to look the same, think the same, behave the same.

Years later, the coronavirus has caused a resetting of workplace norms. The pandemic has upended the sense of what work is and where and how it is done. Many millions of people have, for the first time, worked away from the office, used virtual meeting platforms, and collaborated and delivered in ways previously unthinkable.

Now, as vaccination rates accelerate worldwide and offices reopen, there is a chance to rethink. In many western nations, employers are finding it difficult to reimpose back-to-the-office directives, as though nothing has changed. The people, having tasted flexibility and comfort, don’t wish to forgo it.

Leading fashion retailers are getting set to rework their catalogues. They see what’s coming: a newfound emphasis on comfort, wherever people work. Even the stalwarts of London’s Savile Row accept that they will have to offer clothing less formal and predictable, and more flexible and easy to wear. I’ll be cheering on. It is one thing to dress formally for certain types of occasions; quite another to wear uncomfortable and restrictive clothing when trying to do your best work, day after day. 

There are two freedoms at play here: freedom of choice; and freedom of expression. I have no problem with anyone else wearing ties. They can look very good, and if you don’t feel the discomfort—hey, knock yourself out. I just refuse to be tethered to your choices, just as I would not expect you to be bound by mine.

The second freedom: express yourself! Who says we of tropical climes must wear the dark, forbidding colours of the colder offices of far-off lands? Who says suits and ties and uncomfortable shoes are de rigueur for working professionals? We should wear kurtas and abayas, dashikis and khangas. We should let rip with kikoy and kitenge fabrics, with pride and personality. Just as importantly, we should be free to dress simply and without fuss.

I don’t say this just because of my contrarian nature. I think people work and bond better when their individuality is accepted and celebrated—not when they are turned into clones and drones. The work of the future will require the human being to do the stuff machines can’t—to be creative, caring and empathetic. I think we have a far greater chance of pulling that off if we are not all stuck in the grooves of eras past.

Will this relaxation of norms lead to widespread abuse? I think sensible people have the judgement to dress with appropriate decorum. Set some loose guidelines, and then let people express themselves. Anyone abusing the new privilege will only be limiting their own progression.

Uniforms and uniformity have their place, of course—in structured environments, where strict chains of control ensure consistency and constancy. Increasingly, though, we will do that through automation. For humans, the future is one of constant flux and adaptability, experimentation and innovation.

I hope your boss will agree. Perhaps not…

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