Dressing-down can cheer employees up

As Ford workers stick with designer wear, Anna Foster looks at whether casual dress means casual attitudes
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The Independent Online
Just as the epitaphs were being written on Eighties power dressing, and grunge was about to enter the office, some employees have decided that dressing down is not for them.

Workers at Ford Motor Company, offered the option in January of removing their designer labels and donning Levi's instead, have voted with their suits and ties, and decided to ignore a corporate change in dress code that allowed them to dress down for work every day.

"Some have, some haven't. Maybe it will be taken up more in summer," a spokesman at Ford admitted.

So did Ford get it wrong, even though researchers at its US parent decided that employees work better in casual dress?

Britain's fashion magazines, mindful of their advertising revenues, think so, and are desperate to redress the balance and smarten up the work force again.

"What a relief, suits are back," says the March cover of Vogue. Tom Ford, Gucci's American creative director, told Vogue: "There will always be a place for undemanding, purely functional clothes, but there is clearly a desire out there for glamour."

Image consultants are equally scornful of the trend towards dressing down.

Mary Spillane, a style consultant and author of Presenting Yourself, admonishes the likes of Ford. "It is dangerous to take on such US attitudes here," she says. "People will take liberties, let rip and get too relaxed."

Susan Keydar at Confident Image is gloomier. "It doesn't matter whether they wear smart or casual, British people don't wear clothes that fit," she says.

Dressing down began in Britain when old school ties and sports jackets were worn into the City on Fridays, so that bankers could head off smartly at 4pm for their country estates.

But as the fashion lapsed in Britain it was taken up eagerly in the US and adopted by the IT junkies of Silicon Valley in the Seventies. After all, who wants permanent stomach cramp from being hunched up over a terminal in a suit all day?

As others watched Apple and Microsoft grow rich and successful, dressing down became a management issue. Companies claimed productivity gains from their staff who, in turn, said they felt more motivated when they came to work in casual dress.

The trend has escalated to the point where 60 per cent of the largest US corporations have dressed-down Fridays. Some have gone to extremes.

At IDB Group, the US communications company, for example, there is not only an absence of dress code, but no office decor code either.

The founder, Jeffrey Sudikoff, takes the lead and has designed his office as a Hawaiian hut, with straw rug, bamboo furniture and a palm tree.

In Britain, Richard Branson is the modern-day archetype casual dresser - remaining loyal to his patterned woollies and cords even when they were totally uncool in the Eighties. He completed the image by working from his houseboat-cum-office in London's Maida Vale.

Today, he and his staff are still determined down-dressers. "As long as you're clean that's all that matters," says a spokeswoman. "You can have holes in your clothes, as long as they're clean holes. Since Richard doesn't have a dress code, he couldn't ask the rest of us to."

Even so, Mr Branson's appearance drew frowns of disapproval from traditional City financiers during the short period in the Eighties when Virgin was a quoted company.

Apparently, Mr Branson broke one of the rules of dressing down. Don't wear casual for the outside world, it shows a lack of respect. Almost all the companies that have adopted dressing down still insist that their employees look smart for clients.

Swiss Bank has allowed its staff to dress down every day since December 1993, "but they must look professional if they're meeting clients, either in or outside the office," says a spokesman.

But for employees with back office jobs the argument to dress down is strong. Around 75 per cent of BP Oil UK's Hemel Hempstead staff wear casual dress on Fridays after an American departmental boss introduced it three years ago.

Bill Thompson, a retail analyst, says: "It's very practical when you're in the office. You feel more comfortable and you're ready to go away for the weekend." As for style, he says, "smart casual is the order of the day, a rugby shirt, cords and a pullover".

Mr Thompson's department has even introduced an informal Friday "cake break", when doughnuts are on offer from a generous colleague. For women at BP Oil it's a chance to get out of skirts and into jeans and a sweatshirt. But the change in clothes can go to your head: casual dress, work less.

Clare Jump in Support Services admits that when dressing down was introduced people treated work more casually, as if the weekend was starting early. "It took a couple of months to just accept it as normal," she says.

The feel-good factor between management and employees has certainly improved at BP. Ms Jump thinks "it's good to see management dressing down".

As companies strip out management layers the urge to make employees feel equal will continue - even if, in reality, they have only swapped a smart uniform for a casual one.

If fashion dictates, dressing down may have peaked, however. At Andersen Consulting "dark suits are required", while at Lehman Brothers "dressing down is not appropriate to our industry". KPMG has even started to give its graduate trainees a half-day workshop on style, to ensure they dress correctly.

There is no hard evidence that dressing down improves creativity, productivity or the bottom line. In fact, devotees of dressing up believe the opposite.

The image consultants Mary Spillane and Susan Keydar espouse strangely familiar dictums, last heard a decade ago. "I always keep a change of smart clothes in the car," insists Ms Keydar, while Ms Spillane maintains that appearance does get you promoted. "If you are dressed for the back room, that's where you are going to stay," she says.

But even if the fashion industry wants to squeeze us back into structured suits and stilettos, European employees may have found a middle way.

On the Continent, sports jackets and trousers are de rigueur, ties are optional and polo neck jumpers acceptable. At Allianz, Germany's largest insurance company, board meetings are a herbaceous border of differently coloured jackets and trousers.

Emilio Galli Zugaru, the communications director, says that everyday business is conducted in shirtsleeves and that young male employees wear jeans - even ear-rings are tolerated. "It's very informal," he says. "Young Germans wear anything to work."

Executives, says Mr Galli Zugaru, rarely wear suits - except when they have to meet a businessman from Britain.

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