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Wear What You Like to Work

James Russell, NZ Herald, 13 March 2006

What to wear? Pin stripes or polka dots? Patent leather or canvas?

Back in the 80s, the art of atiring for business was elevated to giddy heights with the advent of power dressing. Big hair, big shoulders, cravat blouses, silk, polyester, crepe de chine substitutes and severely tailored suits for the men were the order of the day. A brick-sized mobile phone was the ultimate accessory.

Then along came the internet and the Generation Xers who were driving it. The dot com boom saw sweatshirt and jean-sporting youngsters infiltrating the top echelons of business and blissfully ignoring the rules of business attire. The consequent bust saw a half-hearted comeback of the suit, but its stronghold on the the business world had taken a knock.

So what now? Does appearance really matter anymore or are employers focussing solely on the talent and skills of would-be employees?

When you turn up for an interview wearing a three-piece suit and find your interviewers wearing open-necked shirts and blue jeans, it can throw off your concentration, not to mention your expectations of how hiring managers are supposed to present themselves.

That's precisely what happened to Rowan Tomkin last year when he applied for the job of manager of human resources with Vodafone New Zealand. Now he is enjoying a company policy that allows staff to wear what they want - including shorts and jandals.

"The policy reflects what the company feels is important. It's part of our values of being yourself and expressing yourself as an individual," he says.

"We simply just ask people to use their judgement in dressing themselves; if you are going to meet a client, dress appropriately; if you are spending the day at work, dress as you please. There are some shorts and jandals about, but not many."

Another Vodafone employee, communications officer Leigh Owens, says: "It has been part of the culture from the word go. People are employed for who they are as individuals. We don't tell them how to dress."

Owens says that the policy is one of the reasons that people enjoy working at Vodafone.

"With a policy like this you don't have to put on a costume, either in how you dress or how you act."

So how is the suit selling industry holding up under this onslaught of casual threads? David Eggleton, owner of Suits on Broadway in Newmarket and Leo O'Malleys in the city, says that suits have definitely become less popular over the past decade.

Joe Macky of Cambridge Clothing says clothing is becoming less formal.

"Within that trend, however, there are bumps and hollows and suits are popular at present."

Macky believes that the current demand is generated by baby boomers and young people new to the workforce who are keen to make an impression.

"If you are in a role where you either have to present yourself or an idea, what determines whether your attire is appropriate is your audience. It is a matter of whether you will be perceived as being credible or not."

Susan Axford, owner of Your Style image consultancy, also believes that formal business wear still has its place in the office, but practicality may also have something to do with power dressing not making a comeback.

"Part of the change to a more casual style is due to the climate here in New Zealand and just wearing what is practical. But it really depends on office culture," says Axford.

"It really depends on the industry you are in. For example, most people in the legal profession still wear suits. It is still very much expected of them. When you go to see your lawyer or accountant and you are paying them huge amounts an hour, you expect them to look professional."

Axford says that written company dress codes are rare, but are a good idea.

"The dress codes in most offices are unwritten, but it makes it much easier for staff if they know the dress code. There is nothing worse than dressing incorrectly when you arrive for work on the first day."

Axford says that the 'dress down era' caused a lot of confusion in the workplace. "People found that they had to have three extra changes of clothes and more for the weekend and it became expensive."

Is their less imagination required in wearing a suit? "Not at all. There is still plenty of room for showing your personality with a suit. Different suit patterns, shirt colours and patterns and ties can all be mixed and matched for individuality."

Axford also believes that women's clothing has undergone positive changes since the power suits of the 80s.

"Women want less structure in their clothing such as the shoulder pads that used to be worn. The women do not want to seem so unapproachable. Jackets are still very popular amongst my clients, however."

Whangarei fashion designer Sarah Hewlett is pleased to see the relaxing of strict clothing mores in the business world. "I think that people should be able to wear what they like in order to better express their personality. It depends on what company you work for or what industry you're in, but if people are being recognised for what they do rather than what they wear, that's great."
 

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