Dress codes for work are becoming less rigid. But that means we have to try harder to look the part, reports Hester Lacey
LAST WEEK, the peers of the House of Lords spent a lively two hours debating the Lord Chancellor's working uniform. Should he be allowed to ditch his knee-breeches, tights and buckled shoes? The radically modern alternative options are a pair of black trousers and an ordinary pair of shoes. The discussion was heated. In the end, the vote went in favour of reform: much to the disgust of Baroness Young, who was strongly in favour of the status quo. "A lot of professions have not helped their public standing by dressing down," she said. "People like the dignity of office and the dignity of office is shown by the uniform of the office holder."

Quite so, says Richard Morgan, who was most unimpressed when a weekly "dress-down" day was introduced in the offices where he works as a solicitor. He has resolutely stuck to his suit. "I don't have the slightest wish to slouch into the office in jeans and a T-shirt once a week. I don't think it's professional and it doesn't make a good impression. And also I like the demarcation between dressing for work in the week and casual clothes for the weekend - it makes me feel properly off-duty when I put my jeans on."

Adecco, the largest recruitment company in the world, last month conducted a survey which revealed that in fact dressing professionally is more important in today's office environment than it has been for several decades. Seventy- five per cent of offices now operate a "smart" dress code, compared with only 35 per cent in 1976. These days, however, "smart" does not necessarily mean a formal suit. Chinos and shirt for men (well-pressed of course) and trousers (tailored, not hipsters or boot-leg) for women are increasingly acceptable.

A survey in FHM magazine recently claimed that less than half of all men have to wear a suit for work every day - and that this extra freedom has made them into more practised shoppers. According to Ed Needham, editor of FHM Collections, "With only 42 per cent of men now regularly wearing a suit to work, men have almost been forced to take an interest in fashion and know what to wear. But they have taken to clothes in a big way and realise that clothes-shopping is a pleasure."

Sue Mann, editor of Professional Manager magazine, published by the Institute of Management, believes that each profession has its unwritten rules about what is appropriate dress. "We all like uniforms and feel comfortable when we fit in. Even at the school gates parents are wearing parents' uniforms - we like to blend in, only a few people like to stand out. We are all shocked by details like the skirt that is too short or the cleavage that is too low."

Some tenets have relaxed a little, she says, like the vexed question of trousers for women. "But lots of major organisations still have rules - like white or striped shirts, no bright colours, no beards. If you want to be taken seriously you have to look the part, whatever the part is. It gives you confidence, and that's the key - when you look right and feel confident people respond to you better."

Colleen McCluskie, manager of Adecco's busy Westminster branch, says dress codes depend on sector. "Any organisation that has direct involvement with clients or members of the public wants to create a good impression with smart staff. Leggings are more for people who do all their work over the phone and can't be seen. Creative industries are more downbeat and jeans and arty-farty clothes are acceptable."

She believes that most people enjoy dressing smartly for work. "Personal appearance is reflected in work and if you take a pride in the way you look you also take a pride in your company," she says. "We've had to lend jackets to people going off to interviews, we had to give one girl a brush for her hair, and we've had to get people to take out earrings and noserings. It is mostly the younger generation who want to be trendy who have to be steered in the right direction."

These days corporate identity is all, and widespread privatisation has created a raft of companies eager to make their mark by decking out their staff in identical puce tabards or mustard jumpsuits. There are between 500 and 600 suppliers of "workwear" in this country, turning out everything from nylon overalls to bespoke legal robes. Not everyone welcomes being a walking advertisement, however. "We are always either freezing cold or boiling hot," says one salesperson from a well-known high-street chain. "And what looks good on a size 12 doesn't always work so well on a size 18. You gain because you don't have to stop and think in the mornings about what to put on, and it does mean we are instantly identifiable by customers, but I'd rather wear my own clothes with perhaps just a badge to identify me."

Even if it's not a question of shirt or blouse printed with the corporate logo, some companies are extremely strict - a suit and tie can be as much of a uniform as any nylon overall. Sue Collins works for a City firm where dress codes are rigidly observed. "We are not allowed trousers, or even dark-coloured tights," she says. "Tights have to be neutral colours. It is really quite archaic. I am not saying people should come in in jeans but well-cut trousers for women should be acceptable. They are practical and smart."

She may not have too long to wait before trousers are deemed acceptable in all situations. Even if smartness is essential in the workplace, today there is smartness and smartness. After all, as Lord Strabolgi pointed out in last week's top-level House of Lords debate, "some noble Baronesses nowadays wear trouser suits".