What, to Where?: The Dress Code a la Mode

Scarf detail, Alexander McQueen

What to wear, what to wear? That seems to be the big question here in the UK this month. We’re having quite the sartorial debate, and, in some instances, the gloves are really coming off (or going on? I’m not sure where we’re at with gloves right now).

So first up, the V&A museum in London turns down the pussy-bowed blouses and power suits of Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s only (to date) female Prime Minister.

Apparently, Thatcher’s clobber was deemed, well, just that really – clobber, lacking in technical or aesthetic merit and therefore not reaching the benchmark of quality to warrant display by the museum. 

It conjured up an image for me of the kind of reception a middle-aged, distinctly middle class woman in a drip-dry polyester suit might get in a store on Bond Street – “She must be lost – or someone’s accountant?

You don’t belong here.

I appreciate the Savage Beauty of Alexander McQueen must be a tough act to follow for the V&A. The point is, they can’t, so shouldn’t bother (nothing is going to top that). But I think they’ve really missed the point of what the Iron Lady’s wardrobe encapsulates – which is exactly that – how a backbench female MP transitions into the Iron Lady, and what she wears to do it.

Thatcher was always Instagram ready – and the outfit chosen very carefully for the occasion and setting – furs in Moscow, wrapped in white in the desert, channelling Elizabeth I at the Guildhall.

The most fascinating thing about this for me is that it’s a visual language mostly denied to men in power. Men have to fall back on accessories – cigars and bowler hats – or unusual facial hair (or head hair for that matter Mr Trump, Mr Johnson). The uniform, the suit, offers far less scope to be creative – you can’t even play around much with the colour spectrum. And even if you go the military route – which at least could give you more colour and bling, then you’ve got to be in it all the time for it to really cut through.

Thatcher clearly embraced the power of clothes and used them to become iconic – much as the subjects of previous exhibitions at the V&A, Princess Grace of Monaco and Diana, Princess of Wales, did (Thatcher just did it on the cheap – and, I would think, for rather different reasons).

I would have thought the V&A could have seen that and that the discussion such an exhibition would fuel would be worthy of them.

And talking of worthy discussions, business psychologist Professor Cary Cooper has been in the news this week talking about the power of colourful clothes to express creative flair at work. He cites ‘people of colour’ like newscaster Jon Snow and Home Secretary Theresa May as good examples of those whose personal style helps them to stand out.

I do think, as a nation, we’ve got much better, sartorially-speaking. London still ain’t Paris for natural, effortless chic, but I do think people are clearly more thoughtfully ‘put together’ – and men have really come on leaps and bounds (David Beckham, in particular, deserves a lot of merit for this – maybe his knighthood will be for services to fashion rather than football?).

Of course, we can question – does it matter, should it matter? Shouldn’t we be judged on the content of our character, not our wardrobes?

Well, yes, yes, of course. But you only have to hear London Mayor Boris Johnson (also this week) talking about “corduroy-jacketed, snaggletoothed lefties,” to know we live in a world where that’s not case.

People judge us by how we look. We face read, label read – increasingly skin read – everyone we meet. In seconds. What you wear is the visual identity of your personal brand – and, just like a tin on a supermarket shelf, you’ll be judged by it. Chosen for it. Or not.

There’s no doubt clients do. I’ve had clients tell me they wanted to work with me because I “looked the part,” – I’ve also known clients to complain about how someone was dressed when they came to their site.

As I’ve always told those I’ve managed, like it or not, people do notice – and often comment. My advice has always been to keep it clean, keep it simple, try to be a little creative and look like you thought about it rather than picked it up off of the bedroom floor, and, whether you have a body to die for or a body to diet, less flesh is always best.

The customer match can also be a useful approach when it comes to deciding what to wear. If you dress in a way that reflects how your client dresses, at a meeting you can kind of blend in, chameleon-like, and people forget you’re not ‘one of them’ – which can help expedite a sense of intimacy, and, consequently, trust (never a bad thing).

It can backfire – they might want to buy you because you’re a compelling ‘alternative’ to them in your ripped jeans and rude slogan t-shirt (but that approach can also backfire too).

It’s tricky. And there’s another dimension to it, a slight footnote of caution to Cooper’s advice, that I’d like to share.

Getting it ‘right’ can also mean getting it wrong.

I’ve always loved clothes and been very particular about what I wanted to wear, even as a little kid (the genesis of my martyrdom to co-ordination). My first full time job – the summer before starting my ‘A’ levels – was in a designer clothes store. I was practically paid in clothes.

It was a great store, very edgy, stocked designers no one had heard of then – Dries Van Noten, Martin Margiela, Comme des Garcons – and I loved it – the smell of the clothes when they arrived, the weight of them, the feel; steaming them; trying them on; desiring them; bargaining for discount (begging, sulking) and the thrill of the day when I could take something home – and then wear it out that night (all the time praying I wouldn’t ruin it).

It started a lifelong addiction. I don’t buy a lot (because I always know exactly what I want it can take me months, sometimes years, to find that exact thing) but I do tend to buy quality – and designer (the smell, the weight, the feel – oh, and the fact that, at 6’ 3”, most of it actually fits me whereas I struggle in a lot of high street stores, or do I just tell myself that – I could go to High and Mighty I guess). 

I’m no slave to fashion (I don’t think). I know what I like and what I think suits me and that’s what I wear. I dress for me, not the world. The fact that the world often stops to notice and compliment me is nice – sometimes a little embarrassing (a slice of self-consciousness anyone?), and I have a couple of friends who always get really irritated when shopping with me (“…no-one ever says that to me!”), but it’s something I’ve grown (particularly as I’ve aged) to really appreciate.

It’s a lovely thing to do. I think complimenting a random person on the street is the ultimate in generosity of spirit (maybe not so much if you’re trying to pick them up, but I’m not talking about incidents like that!).

In work, as stated above, I think my approach to dressing for success has, in the main, been a good one. As an Executive Creative Director, as a Brand Consultant, displaying you know your brands, the power of symbol and signifier, the impact of an image, is part of the job description.

But, even then, there can be this little flip side. It’s not a big deal. It’s a really, really first world problem, but having a certain style can diminish you in some way (certainly in some people’s eyes).

Anna Wintour touches on this lament of the fashionista in the documentary The September Issue. Just because you like clothes and spend your hard-earned cash on them, some people assume you’re a bit stupid. You’re judged in a light at least as harsh as Boris’s dentally-challenged left wingers.

Like I say, it’s not much of a problem (“Oh gee, people think you’re not as bright as you are because you’re SO stylish – I’m weeping for you!”) but it can be really frustrating when people are more interested in the contents of your wardrobe than your brain, or decide you can’t possibly be really serious about anything because you clearly spent time thinking about what to wear.

So, before you radically alter your look, think about what you want to be known for – who you are, or how you look.

For most workers, the key is probably a little creativity, a little bit of colour, a little bit of ‘freedom within a framework’ – after all, Snow is still in a suit, as is May for that matter.

Standing out too much might not get you the right kind of attention and, another good piece of advice, if it’s wearing you rather than you wearing it, take it off.

In every workplace there’s a dress code – written or implied – that’s designed to help you fit into your environment. Some can seem incredibly prescriptive, incredibly pedantic, but they are usually the result of customer feedback about someone’s LOVE/HATE knuckle tattoos or flip flops.

The sad truth can be that that dull grey suit might not be your idea of flair, but it might be just the thing for your customer.


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