Are you too smart or too scruffy at work?

Not too long ago, turning up to work in many UK offices wearing jeans would have been unacceptable, stubble and unkempt hair, similarly so. But things appear to have changed – for men and women. Have we all become scruffier at work and does it really matter anyway? We ask three experts for their opinions

The academic

Shaun Cole“Within more formal businesses, even up to the 1990s, there were dress codes that meant casual jeans, for example, were unacceptable,” remembers Shaun Cole, MA History & Culture of Fashion course director at the London College of Fashion. “Today, there are still many jobs where ‘smart’ clothing is required. This may not now mean a suit, collar and tie for male staff members, but smart trousers and a shirt with a collar.”

Cole says in certain sectors (“say, graphic design or new media”) people have long opted for less formal clothing. “I don’t know if I’d call this scruffier,” Cole ponders. “The increase in remote and home-based working has meant many of us dress in a way that makes us feel most comfortable.”

The introduction of the US concept of ‘dress down Friday’ in the late-1980s also impacted on office dress, argues Cole. “In the UK, companies such as Microsoft introduced a new, more casual ‘uniform’ of chinos and polo shirts for men and similarly less formal clothes for women. Other businesses soon followed suit.”

Some employees might still be encouraged by employers to cover up their tattoos and piercings while at work, says Cole, but in many more businesses tattoos and piercings are seen as entirely acceptable expressions of creativity and individuality.

“The more recent revival of interest in traditional men’s tailoring has led to many men taking much more of an interest in their appearance,” observes Cole. “This is perhaps a reaction to the ‘casualisation’ of men’s dress.”

Cole doesn’t view the resurgence of male facial hair as a sign that men are becoming scruffier. Is it all David Beckham’s fault? Cole smiles: “Fashionable, famous people do impact the way others dress – including facial hair. High profile men like Beckham appeal to men. He’s very attractive to women and gay men and many men are influenced by their partner’s opinions.”

The fashion journalist

Lucy Turner“I wouldn’t use the word ‘scruffier’, but female workplace dress in the UK has become more relaxed,” observes Lucy Turner, fashion editor, journalist and style director at Essentials magazine. “Much depends on the business when it comes to rules. At Essentials, one person might come in wearing a little dress and heels, while another might wear skinny jeans and Ugg boots. No one bats an eyelid.”

Turner reckons women have also become more adventurous. “Fifteen years ago many female office workers would have gone into Next and bought a skirt suit, court shoes with a medium heel and sheer tights. Women now are trendier. Younger women, in particular, are confident. To succeed in their careers, they don’t expect to have to act and dress like men.

“It’s in women’s nature to experiment with clothes and enjoy dressing up – and there’s no reason for that to end at work. We get loads of letters seeking advice from women who work in places with strict dress codes – they don’t want to have to wear boring blouses, jumpers and trousers.”

As Turner points out, age affects perceptions. “To a younger person, Ugg boots, skinny jeans and a poncho is trendy, whereas an older person might think it’s too scruffy for the workplace.”

How do British women compare to, say, American women? “Office dress codes are more relaxed in the UK. When visiting New York I’ve always been struck by just how immaculately groomed and dressed female office workers are. Everybody has a manicure; you know, not a hair out of place. That might not be the case elsewhere in the States, of course. Generally, we’re probably less well groomed than French and Italian women, but I think the way we dress can be seen as cooler and more individualistic – which is what British fashion is famous for.”

Do we still need to dress to impress? “Of course – it’s naïve to assume that your appearance won’t affect what people think of you, you must present yourself in the right way. You can’t just roll out of bed, throw on whatever you find and turn up to work looking scruffy, with bitten nails and greasy hair, and expect people to take you seriously.”

The HR consultant

Alison King“Many of us have become more relaxed as regards work clothing and many employers no longer insist on formal business clothing, although much depends on the industry and business,” argues consultant Alison King of Guildford-based human resources consultancy Bespoke HR.  

But why is appearance important? “In customer-facing roles, people are representing their employer’s brand and if you look untidy or dirty, this reflects badly,” King counters. “Our work is important, but so is how we present ourselves to others, particularly customers – it has a bearing on the success of the business.”

Having a clear staff dress code can prevent serious problems, but King recommends first considering whether introducing one is really necessary. If so, she says, it must fit with health and safety requirements regarding protective clothing. “It’s wise to consult with employees when developing your code, including their union, where applicable.

“Explain your reasons. Also make sure employees can appeal if they’re unhappy about the way the code affects them. Be consistent with your code. Bear in mind, the application of different clothing or appearance rules to men and women can give rise to claims of sex discrimination.”

Your code might change slightly at different times of year. For example, you might have different rules when the weather is warmer. King adds: “Your dress code should be discussed when interviewing candidates; explained again during their induction; and detailed in your employee's handbook. Provide examples of what’s acceptable – and what isn’t,” she advises.

But what if an employee persistently defies my dress code? “In the first instance, have an informal discussion and explain why you have one. After that, if they persist, you can make it a disciplinary matter and give them a formal warning, but it isn’t grounds for dismissal unless in extreme cases, for example, if it puts other people’s health and safety at risk.”

Holly Willoughby or Karren Brady?

Research published by online fashion retailer Very.co.uk suggests that female office workers in the UK are most likely to try to emulate the ‘easy glamour’ of ITV presenter Holly Willoughby than the formality of famous business women such as Karren Brady, vice-chairperson of West Ham United and adviser to Lord Sugar on The Apprentice.

The survey of 1,000 British female office workers aged 18 to 40 found that 35% believed Willoughby has the “best look for a modern British office”. Other sources of inspiration include Emily Watson (15%); Karren Brady (14%); Fearne Cotton (11%); Alexa Chung (7%); Abby Clancy (6%); Lauren Goodger (5%); Tulisa Contostavlos (3%); Michelle Dewberry (2%); and Hilary Devey (1%). Respondents said major fashion blunders included 80s-style power dressing, showing too much cleavage, mini-skirts and excessive make-up.

British women spend almost 20% of their income on their working wardrobe – £4,000 a year on average – according to another study. They do so because they believe it helps them to succeed at work. One-in-four female respondents admitted to changing the way they dress to compete with colleagues; while 55% judged female colleagues by the way they dress; and 34% worried about what others would think if they wore the same clothes too frequently.

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