Uniformly yours

Gone are the days of frumpy skirts, bright jackets and floral blouses. `Working wardrobes' have replaced uniforms; `personal expression' and `team identity' are the buzzwords. By Belinda Morris
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The Independent Online
There are some companies that I know I could never work for. Not on account of my lack of qualifications, but on account of my vanity. No matter how attractive the pension scheme, nothing would get me into a pair of pea-green dungarees. Nor, I'm afraid, could I ever be happy in an all-round-pleated print skirt and matching blouse (with or without a whopping Christmas bonus), and not even a monthly haircut by Nicky Clarke could persuade me that a lapel-less turquoise jacket was sartorially acceptable.

But it would seem that the tide is turning. Millions of employees, tired of being forced into sub-military cardboard blazers, are rebelling, and bosses are resigning themselves to the fact that the company logo does not necessarily translate into a stylish print design. And since, around 15 years ago, the notion of corporate identity found favour among large financial institutions in particular, the "uniform" is no longer the preserve of nurses, check-out girls and the emergency services - it's now an executive thing, too.

And as with any other group of workers, executives come in all shapes and sizes, which has always been one of the problems with uniforms. One man's meat has too often been some poor woman's short fitted jacket that does nothing for her hips.

There has also been the problem of empowerment. For too long, customers looking for financial advice didn't consider that female staff, wearing their bright jackets and flimsy blouses, had authority. They preferred to see a man in a dark suit. More and more banks and building societies now recognise that egalitarianism can be a question of image as well as equal pay.

It has been something of a learning curve - the introduction of corporate- wear (or, as NatWest prefers to call it, the working wardrobe). "Before we introduced it in 1991, how the workforce dressed was a matter for each branch manager - there was no company identity," says Paul Wilkinson, the bank's head of representation development. As branches became open plan with a consistent design, and barriers came down between customers and staff, it became obvious that the staff, supposedly a company's ambassadors, looked a little unco-ordinated. "We looked at what the building societies were doing and decided we wanted a set of clothes rather than a strict uniform," he explains.

Well, lucky NatWest folk. Not all bank workers were as lucky. "The first corporate clothes started to appear about 15 years ago, and as management rushed blindly into it there were some nasty accidents," says Hazel Thornton, sales and marketing director of Cleaning Tokens, the dry-cleaning equivalent of Luncheon Vouchers. "They didn't understand about buying and they certainly didn't take into account the feelings of the people who had to wear the clothes."

Which is something that Jeff Banks, designer and Clothes Show presenter, has become acutely aware of. He is a consultant to numerous career-wear projects. His first such exercise, eight years' ago, was for British Airways - and was not a resounding hit. "One of the great failings early on was to inflict a dress code on the staff," he says. "It's too close to their personality, and if they're uncomfortable with it, it's doomed to failure. Men and women today understand quality, fit and styling. And the scale of the modern wardrobe is vast compared with that of a generation ago. They have enormous choice." In other words, they're not going to wear any old rubbish.

So nowadays, if a change of look is in the offing, the wise corporate- wear bod will round up the staff, send out questionnaires and authorise not even a button without the nod from the committee. New fabrics and prints are scrutinised. Wearer trials are a must.

One of the biggest differences between old and new corporate uniforms is the variety. Not everyone, say the wearers, has size 10 hips and legs of supermodel proportions. Not everyone wants to wear short, snappy pencil skirts and cinched waist jackets. Which is where the working wardrobe comes in. "The emphasis now is on personal expression, as well as creating a team identity," Wilkinson says. So NatWest employees can choose two jackets from a choice of three, and team them with three different skirts and six blouses. "We were also the first bank to offer trousers for women, in 1991," he adds.

Aesthetics aside, one of the main criteria from a staff point of view is comfort, followed closely by the easy-care factor. "People don't want to spend hours ironing blouses," says Kay Davidson, head of design at Vermilion, which produces Barclays' wardrobe, recent winner of an industry award for best-dressed financial organisation. "But this is all part of the new informality of banking. Staff, now they've moved out of the boardroom on to ground level, need to look more relaxed and welcoming. In fashion, they're used to Lycra and soft suits, and want it in their work clothes too"