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Jeffrey P. Colin Headshot

'Professional Attire' and Reality

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There is a lingering perception that the type of clothing a person wears has some impact on their performance at their job. It is a perception that is beneficial to those that sell expensive clothing, and to those whose desire for control over their employees is carried to the extreme. There are no credible studies that relate the type of clothing a person wears to job performance. There are studies that suggest that "clean and serviceable" clothing seems to have some correlation to good job performance, but that could be reflective many sets of relationships or factors, to be fair.

The business suit has become the de facto uniform of business. It is what many consider to be the height of "professional attire" for most professions. For some of us, it is an offensive type of attire that represents general themes of arrogance, conformity, and irrelevance to function. There is nothing that is done in a business suit that could not be done in a Dickies jumpsuit or even in the nude, to be honest. The business suit is what symbolizes a tacit acceptance of the status quo, and the relevance of elegance in the "higher functions of life." And while there is no reasonable evidence that such ideas originate from any objective data, many defend the business suit as a requirement for proper business etiquette.

As an anachronistic carryover from Victorian and even earlier times -- perhaps originating in the courts of royalty -- the leisure or business suit has alternately fallen in and out of favor over the years. It is a reflection, in many respects, of a notion that true business people emulate royalty. Its development plays to the idea that royalty have been treated, in many respects, as though they and their actions derive directly from divine sources and inspirations. While most of us might openly reject this notion, the undertones that led to such ideas are not so readily rejected by most. The very notion of elegance has been the realm of either royals or those who cater to them. Modern fashion still pays homage to the whims of those who either are of royal birth, wealth, or some other royal-like feature. The wearing of the business suit seems traceable directly back to such ideas, even if few seem to be aware of it.

Among the reasons that the wearing of the business suit is interesting to some of us is because of the numerous connotative meanings of wearing business suits in the public realm. Much of what is understood to be normative in that area appears to be understood tacitly. While there is an understanding of the acceptability of demanding "formal business attire" in some workplace environments, little logical information, based on objective data, is presented for why such requirements are established. Image is not a point of formal logical argument. It is a highly subjective and/or arbitrary reason for imposing rules. While many might readily accept that the wearing of a clown nose to the workplace is an arbitrary idea, few would translate that understanding to the idea of demanding that someone wear anything as uncomfortable as the average suit and tie.

There is also the idea that wearing a business suit signals any given set of social or spiritual/religious values. The business suit is commonly associated with the idea of career advancement, and a de facto play to materialism. It is unlikely that anyone would suggest that someone wearing a $2,000 formal Italian business suit is a "lazy hippie," while people wearing tie-dye shirts and Birkenstock shoes might be prone to such labels. The fact that many highly successful business people, such as Russell Simmons, frequently wear informal attire in the public realm seems to get lost in the idea that, to all expectations, the most financially and socially "successful" people wear business suits.

What the few "infidels" among us wonder is just what cost we are incurring by allowing our choice of attire to be dictated to us. There is no way to know what the productivity of workers allowed to wear comfortable but neat and clean clothing in corporate environment might be, since most of what is known about such entities is colored by numerous other factors. Even so-called "Dot-Com" companies, where the attire restrictions have started out loosely, have mostly ultimately adopted clothing restrictions for the part of their work force that makes important decisions. Apparently, wearing a T-Shirt can cause one's judgment to be seriously impaired or compromised, and wearing an expensive suit inevitably corrects this.

As one completely opposed to the wearing of business suits, I find the total lack of discussion in this area to be fairly discouraging. The fact that many places require that I wear a suit to be almost the same as asking one to paint their finger and toenails black and green, or wearing a huge suit with the words "mindless idiot" emblazoned on them. It is not simply that the suits are uncomfortable or an imposition. It is that, among so many other things that we are asked to endure, even the dignity of just wearing clothes that we like as individuals is denied to us. I have no delusions that business suits, as a requirement in many workplace environments, will soon be eliminated. But, that doesn't mean that any of us have to pretend that it's okay that we are required to wear them. Peace.