Death of the dress code

Traditional working wardrobes have melted away in the heat. But how far can professional women dress down?
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The Independent Online

In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. Now it is bare legs that are more likely to get people hot under the collar. As temperatures soared last week and office workers stripped off to brave the sweltering walk to work, a heated debate was ignited in the business press, one leading female commentator declaring a "bare-flesh epidemic" and decrying the "raunch culture" that has arrived in the British workplace.

Some of the bare flesh belonged to Pepita Diamand, one of 35 leading women executives under the age of 35 who grace the latest issue of the magazine Management Today. She wore a fitted white blouse, but the Financial Times's Lucy Kellaway, provoked by the "tight tops and bedroom eyes" of Ms Diamand and her fellow cover stars, conducted a "spot audit" at her local sandwich shop. Eight cleavages, several bare shoulders and "a large expanse of naked back" later, she concluded that business dress codes have gone to the dogs.

Naturally, Ms Diamand does not agree. "This is just how women dress," she laughs. "Our generation is rejecting the pinstriped cliché and the idea that you have to be restricted by an androgynous uniform, and that is a fabulous thing. I don't think that 'raunch culture' has replaced it. Women have always had more freedom than men in what they wear, but dress codes have changed for all of us. They are more casual now."

It is not only CEOs who think so. Six leading professionals agreed that the suit is out, at least for the summer. Smart dresses and flat shoes were the norm - and our fashion editor, Susie Rushton, on the whole, approved.

But many women are not so secure about this controversial topic. A battle recently raged in the usually sedate atmosphere of mums.net, a forum where professional women exchange views. One contributor, a barrister, asked whether her young paralegal ought to be allowed stockingless into the office. The resulting argument rumbled on for days.

"A lack of personal grooming is unforgivable," snapped one reply. "The legs and toes need to be well looked after and there should be no dodgy roots, piercings or tattoos on display." Another forbade "clothes which are unclean, un-ironed, ill-matched, overtly sexual, visible underwear, too short trousers and the like" - which seemed to condemn 90 per cent of all women. More than one correspondent was very confused. "Who knows whether it undermines my professional credibility more - to look frumpy and too hot and uncomfortable, or bare-legged but well groomed?!" one asked. Nobody seemed to have a definitive reply.

Nina, 31, a former student nurse, hopes that things have changed. "About 10 years ago there were very strict rules about what we could wear. Matron was quite old-fashioned and insisted that we had to wear tights, no matter what the weather. It was very uncomfortable in the summer. Things have changed a lot, even in the past 10 years," she says. "Now nurses can wear trousers and looser clothes in the summer." Lynne Webster, an expert in female dress codes at Leeds University's fashion department, says: "The past decade has seen massive changes in the way women dress for work. Ten years ago women used their clothes to be seen as equal with their male counterparts. Now, they're not trying to be a female version of a man: they can choose a softer look and still be taken seriously. We don't hide behind our clothing any more."

The problem is that, in many workplaces, codes are unwritten. At the fashionable Matrix legal chambers in London, where Cherie Blair practises, they would only confirm that the code is "currently under review".

Other establishments are cagey, at best, about the rules. Ann, who is 55, started work at Leeds City Council in the early 1970s, and remembers it well. "You didn't need to be told; you just knew," she explains. "Dress codes in those days were so strict they were unspoken. You always had to wear tights, and you would never have bare shoulders."

A council spokesman now says: "We don't have a dress code as such. Our staff look smart and wear clothes suitable for the jobs that they do." Mercifully, he did at least confirm that bare shoulders are no longer a hanging offence.

Not everybody agrees. James Sherwood, a fashion writer and BBC commentator on Royal Ascot, finds bare shoulders "quite objectionable". But tights, he says, are "just not necessary any more, even in the Royal Enclosure." Anything too casual is out of the question. "I see women on their way to work in flip-flops, sarongs and tiny little tops," he says, "and they look as if they are dressed for Jade Jagger's beach party in Ibiza and not inclined to work.

"I don't see Italian working women dressed like that. They have been getting it right for years, for example by wearing a lot of white - you can't wear pinstripes in the summer without looking equally dreadful. Women in pinstripe suits look as if they are in drag, anyway.

"Most of these women's mothers probably didn't go to work. There's nothing to compare it to, and no established rules."

How, for instance, does the House of Commons counsel its staff? "Members are not permitted to wear decorations in the House," advises the parliamentary bible, Erskine May.

"The wearing of military insignia or uniform inside the Chamber is not in accordance with the long-established custom of the House. The Speaker has also stated that it is the custom for gentlemen Members to wear jackets and ties." Unfortunately, the Speaker had no advice for women.

"Appropriate" is James Sherwood's watchword. "You have to think of your customers and your colleagues. I don't think it's fair that when men have to sweat it out in suits, women can dress down."

He has a point. Last week, three boys were sent home from their school on the Isle of Dogs for wearing shorts during the summer heat. They are threatening to return for the autumn term in skirts, like the girls. And if that works, then heaven knows - anything goes.

The Lawyer: 'I keep a spare suit in the office'

Ros Barnett, 59, from Finchley, north London. Solicitor for a City law firm

WHAT SHE IS WEARING: A patterned red top and a pale skirt with matching earrings and heels, from high street stores.

WHY SHE'S WEARING IT: "I normally wear a suit for work, but when I don't have meetings, I dress more casually. I have a spare suit in my office for emergencies, because I think it is important to be smart for clients and I feel more comfortable and professional in a suit. Most of the women in my office wear similar clothes to me, but some of the younger girls wear more revealing outfits that I would never dare to, but they are younger so get away with it."

FASHION EDITOR'S VIEW: On-the-knee skirt length is still pretty much the shortest you should go in most offices. The shoes are fine - not too high and tarty. But there's not much imagination in this outfit: the print looks a bit dated. Bare arms are also acceptable on a very warm day, but since she's chosen to expose a fair amount of flesh, Ms Barnett might apply a littlefake tan.

The Broker: 'You must be comfortable'

Nadine Sweeney, 38, from Hockley, Essex. Stockbroker

WHAT SHE IS WEARING: A red printed wrap dress and heeled sandals from a high street store.

WHY SHE'S WEARING IT: "I like to wear smart clothes. Whether it be dresses in the summer or suits in the winter, it is important to give across the right look. I avoid wearing flip-flops but I like to be comfortable travelling into work. We don't have air conditioning in our office so our boss can't complain too much if we don't wear suits. In the winter I do dress in darker colours which can come across as more professional. In the summer you have to be comfortable and do your job without getting too hot."

FASHION EDITOR'S VIEW: In the Eighties this outfit might have been dismissed as too casual. But times have changed and a bit of feminine dressing won't mark you as an airhead. This is a successful and modern interpretation of the office dress code which also nods at seasonal trends - dresses are very much in and the wedges are cute too.

The PR Guru: 'Dress depends on the client'

Joanne Miller, 29. Partner and co-founder of PinkMango PR, North Chingford

WHAT SHE IS WEARING: White embroidered summer dress from Oasis with silver flip-flops.

WHY SHE'S WEARING IT: "I dress depending on who I am meeting during the day, but I do feel more professional meeting male clients in trousers or a smart skirt. I think it is important to look professional, as people are more likely to trust you with their business if you look smart. I think about what I am going to wear the night before: it's important to project the right image. I don't feel less professional wearing more girlie clothes; it just depends on whom I'm meeting, what kind of day it is and where I'm meeting them. I did feel a bit risky coming into work in this but my colleague is wearing a similar dress in black."

FASHION EDITOR'S VIEW: PR is all about looking groomed but friendly, and Ms Miller succeeds here with a white shirt dress - the ultimate summer outfit. Flip-flops are quite casual, but she is not dressing for a big client presentation today.

The Politician: 'Voters make comments'

Nadine Dorries, 49. Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire

WHAT SHE IS WEARING: Black and white Laura Ashley dress.

WHY SHE'S WEARING IT: "Constituents often comment on what they have seen me wearing; my clothes are always in the spotlight. I have to work very long days so it is much harder to dress well in the summer and remain looking good until the end of the day. It can be very hot so I wouldn't want to look flustered and crumpled. I always go for dark clothes in the winter and try to dress up black with coloured accessories and shoes, so I don't look dull."

FASHION EDITOR'S VIEW: Roland Mouret's Galaxy here gets another high-street "tribute" as a black-and-white dress that, had it been worn by a CEO, would be pretty much guaranteed to incur the wrath of the grandees at the FT. Good effort!

The Doctor: 'Image is important'

Melanie Powell, 42. Senior consultant at a London teaching hospital

WHAT SHE IS WEARING: Navy Marks & Spencer linen trousers, white sleeveless top from a French designer, M&S silver sandals, Ambiente sport naval jacket

WHY SHE'S WEARING IT: "I tend to wear suits in the winter but I like to look more casual in the summer. I have no hesitation in being sleeveless but I don't wear low-cut tops or show my tummy. The image you portray by your clothing is important to patients and colleagues, but you can still look professional in lighter clothing. I must feel comfortable and confident.

FASHION EDITOR'S VIEW: Authoritative, individual, this is a carefully balanced outfit that won't scare the patients but has plenty of personality. The three-quarter sleeves acknowledge the season while also retaining the cohesive look that a jacket offers.

The Company Boss: 'I have a pair of heels in my handbag'

Judy Berger, 29. Managing director of What's Mine is Yours, an online clothing website and styleadvocates.com, based in London and Leeds

WHAT SHE IS WEARING: Pale blue Missoni V-neck top with Hennes navy shorts and gold Office ballet pumps.

WHY SHE IS WEARING IT: "I'm not always in the office but I have to meet all sorts of clients, so I dress accordingly. My clothing has to be comfortable and stylish to give the right image to clients. I always keep a spare pair of heels in my handbag for meetings and I always do my hair and make-up. Wrap dresses are great and black is always smart. My clients in Leeds expect me to be smarter than clients in London. I don't like to dress older than I am. I tend not to wear bare shoulders: I don't like strap marks."

FASHION EDITOR'S VIEW: As an MD in the fashion business, Ms Berger has more freedom than most to deviate from convention. The navy keeps the shorts smart, the Missoni top is vivacious but grown-up and the metallic pumps are a girlie touch.

Interviews by Lauren Veevers. Fashion analysis by Susie Rushton

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