Will office dress codes make a come back?

Twenty years ago, knowledge workers and other professionals automatically dressed for success every working day. Men would generally wear suits or something similar. Male colours would be either dark blue or sit somewhere on a monochrome scale between light grey and charcoal. Their black shoes would shine and their striped or plain shirts would be crisply ironed. A tie was essential. Women could use a little more imagination and colour, but until the mid-1990s formal office clothes were still the norm in New Zealand and Australia. This is no longer the case in either country. Things are similar in the UK, Europe and North America.

You still see pockets of smartness. However, these days formal office clothes tend are the exception not the norm. Even companies like IBM, which gained the nickname Big Blue from the colour of its salesmen’s suits, allow non-customer facing staff to dress down some of the time.

Stand in Sydney’s Australia Square or on Auckland’s Queen Street at lunchtime and you’ll even see a few suits walk by, but at least half the crowd is dressed in ‘smart casual’ gear and there will be a handful who are downright scruffy.

For every Italian suit there’ll be half a dozen woolen jumper and for every Chanel two-piece you’ll see a dozen or more items from this season’s Country Road catalogue. You don’t need to look much harder to spot T-shirts or company logo polo shirt – many will have sport a web address. You’ll see running shoes and casual shoes, but not many of the smartly shined variety. Things have changed.

There are different theories about what the shift to casual dressing means. Perhaps the clearest message is for investors to start shorting stocks in tie manufacturers.

One conservative school of thought says it’s all about the decline of western civilisation – it’s certainly true that the new dress code applies to most first world economies. If this is true, we’ll eventually we’ll all end up half-naked during the summer and rugged up in daggy looking track pants and polar fleece through the winter. (There are knowledge workers in Australia and New Zealand who already adhere to this more informal dress code).

Another theory says that casual dressing has become popular because people need to be comfortable given that they now work such long and anti-social hours. There’s something in this. Wearing a tight collar for 14 hours is no joke.

A third view is that talent is so hard to recruit these days that companies no longer dare impose dress codes on staff because they fear they won’t be able to replace people. In a article printed some years ago, the Economist came to the same conclusion, but first it put forward an interesting alternative theory.

Although the story was specifically about Wall Street in New York, it observed the same phenomena. According to the Economist, in the absence of developing their own Internet strategies old economy companies have decided that allowing staff to look like work for new economy firms is the next best thing. “Maybe,” says the story, “creativity is aided by chinos and an open collar”.

The new casual look of the corporate workforce is only one visible symptom of the recent tectonic shift in power. It underlines the fact that those of us in the knowledge economy can, up to a point, dictate the terms of our employment. If your current employer isn’t willing to put up with Mambo shorts and cargo pants then another one down the road will – and will probably pay you more into the bargain.