Dressing to impress

What to wear to work is a real dilemma in the Nineties. Should you be smart? Casual? Both? Many companies are unclear, but one thing is certain - it pays to get it right.
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You really do appear to be what you wear, or so recent research seems to imply. Apparently, 90 per cent of our opinion of a person is formed within the first 20 to 30 seconds of first meeting them. In the world of work, the implications of such snap judgements are frightening.

But dressing with the intention of impressing the boss, colleague or client, is no longer a simple matter of donning a smart suit and a confident air. The sheer variety of dress codes found in Nineties workplaces has made the choice of workwear a thoroughly perplexing issue. Traditional images are being turned on their heads, as companies such as publishing houses, once famed for espousing the casual, even dowdy look, now prefer a more corporate image, whilst conservative organisations, such as banks, are opting for a more relaxed look.

The question as to which dress code to adopt is made all the more confusing by conflicting reports as to which style wins out. Last month's survey by Adecco, the largest recruitment company in the world, found that 75 per cent of offices now operate a "smart" dress code, yet other studies, carried out by individual image consultants, found just the opposite. Given such confusion, how can one hope to get a clear picture of what outfits are required in today's workplace?

Diana Mather, author of Image Works for Women, outlines some of the wardrobe planning options available to a new recruit. "If you're lucky," she says, "your employers may recognise such difficulties and offer you the services of their very own image consultant. But if an image consultant isn't available, then the first rule is to avoid basing your working wardrobe on your impressions of the companies' overall image. Media-based jobs, for example, are often assumed to carry a casual dress code. However, the reality is that many staff in this field are actually required to dress fairly formally because of the amount of contact they have with the public."

For some office workers, the contradictions posed by conflicting dress codes are almost impossible to resolve. Temps have a particularly hard time of it, maintains Sarah Eldoori of Office Angels. "They suffer a double-edged sword because they are not only expected to project the image of the company but also that of their agency. You might, for instance, belong to a temping agency which stipulates no trousers, only to discover that they've given you an assignment within a company where no one is out of jeans." Fiona Dobson, manager of the recruitment agency, Working Wonders, agrees. "Temps need to be insistent that their agencies discuss with them the details of each and every organisation's dress codes, as well as building up a flexible wardrobe." But this does not mean you have to spend all your wages on clothes - you just have to go for more than one style.

And if you thought organisations such as Color Me Beautiful exist only to tell affluent women whether they best suit autumnal colours, or the more coral look, think again, says Mary Spillane, Color Me Beautiful's director. "There's a rapid rise in people at PA level who want practical, hard advice because British people seem particularly unsure about how to dress in the workplace. They can slob down and dress up pretty well, but the middle ground is a grey area. They don't seem to be aware of the basic rule that the more skin you show, the less authority you have."

According to Judi James, author of Bodytalk and adviser to the Industrial Society, one of the most confusing pieces of jargon relating to Nineties dress codes is the term "smart-casual". ``More people ask me for advice about smart-casual than they ever have about formal wear. I recently trained a man who truly thought it meant being both at once, so he wore a formal waistcoat and trousers with a Grateful Dead T-shirt underneath," says James. Charlotte Ducat, a City-based PA, also dislikes the term. "There's a long list on our company notice board stipulating what smart- casual excludes, such as sneakers, T-shirts, jeans, very short skirts or sloppy-looking trousers. The result is that casual is in some ways more restrictive than a basic suit."

Meanwhile, Rob Briner, organisational psychologist at Birkbeck College in London, points to another occupational hazard of "dressing down" versus suit or uniform. "When a company goes casual, it becomes clear who has the money to spend on an impressive wardrobe, and who doesn't."

According to Judi James, these discrepancies often hit women hardest. "Men are much more tribal than women in business-wear. So while men can copy their colleagues by swapping their shoes for loafers but keeping the tie, the women are totally in the dark. Consequently, it's easy for them to dress down too much, thereby giving the appearance of a lower status than they had intended." This is extremely prevalent in companies which have "dress-down Fridays". "In those cases, people don't even have time to get used to what others are wearing. They're just thrown in at the deep end at the end of every week, and the fact is that you never know who you are going to meet, even on a Friday." She advises that secretarial staff would do well to ask personnel for guidelines on clothing and to be wary of letting a professional image disappear altogether.

No wonder uniforms are more popular than ever. In fact, Barclays Bank has gone one step further, offering their staff a range of fashionable "corporate wear". Spokesperson Yasmine Chouduray claims that Barclays has successfully addressed the two down-sides to uniforms. "Uniforms can result in the employee feeling anonymous, and they can also be unflattering," Chouduray explains. "But since we began to offer a wide variety of trousers, skirts, dresses and shirts in a range of different materials, designed by Jeff Banks, we overcame these problems." The result is that even the staff who aren't required to wear the "corporate wear" are opting to do so. "It makes getting up in the morning far less stressful," agrees secretary Rachel Smith.

But for those of us left struggling to understand a new dress code, Judi James offers one fail-safe golden rule. "When in doubt, opt for over-dressing rather than under-dressing because looking smart can't do you any harm. In the meantime, let's just hope that employers start realising what a confusing message they are sending out."