Companies cool their heels over dress codes as ‘business casual’ becomes the norm – IGI IN THE NEWS
IGI In The News
No thongs. No gym gear. No harem pants. Suits compulsory from Monday to Thursday, ties mandatory for client meetings. And no “clothes traditional to a particular sex and/or gender identity”.
If this last part reads like it was written by a lawyer, you’d be right.
Excerpts from the dress codes of Australia’s “big six” law firms show tradition still rules, except on Fridays when employees can cut loose with “business casual” – generally relaxed pants or skirt, and a shirt – unless staff are meeting clients.
While the legal and finance industries typically maintain stricter dress standards, elsewhere things have become more casual.
At Myer, a recent update of the dress code has given the tick to jeans for head office staff.
“[We] encourage all team members in our support office to embrace business casual attire and inject a bit of their own personal style into their work wear,” said Karen Brewster, group general manager of apparel.
But she cautioned against staff sliding into “weekend attire” when on the clock.
A report this week that a temp receptionist in the UK was sent home for not wearing high heels has reignited discussion about Australian corporate dress standards.
At the top of the so-called “dress-code pyramid”, things are pretty clear – black tie is, well, black tie – but it’s in the middle where things get murky.
Jon Michail, chief executive of Image Group International, has advised on corporate image for clients ranging from Australia Post to Price Waterhouse Coopers.
He disagreed with the UK temp agency Portico for its tough stance against the woman, actress Nicola Thorp.
“Flat shoes by nature are not recommended generally [in a corporate setting] but when I look at the quality of her shoes they are very attractive,” he said.
A petition to make it illegal for British companies to order women to wear heels to work has already received more than 100,000 signatures, which will trigger a response from government.
Debra Wittner’s Melbourne-based, family-owned business has been fitting working women for more than 100 years and has introduced a dedicated range of corporate flat shoes.
She said that, in general, heel heights in the workplace were getting lower, while platforms and block heels provided a more stable ride.
“People can’t walk around in the high heels [my generation] used to as teenagers. Flats have become fashionable as well … if you have a good leather, patent or croc skin flat as opposed to canvas it will make it more appropriate [for work],” she said.
In Australia, forcing a woman to wear a particular style of shoe may breach anti-discrimination laws, while in the UK, gender-specific codes can be enforced, within reason.
Australian label Cue has been in the business for nearly 50 years and has seen formal suits give way to “multitasking pieces as [women] seek versatility in their wardrobes”, according to its head designer, Chloe Gray.
“There is definitely a more relaxed attitude to work wear now. Women aren’t restricted to wearing just a suit to the office anymore,” she said.
While dress codes have trended southward for a number of years – many blame the dotcom boom in the late 1990s for the “T-shirtification” of offices – an economic downturn can have the opposite effect.
“The moment the economy is affected, dress standards automatically go up,” Mr Michail said.
“People are nervous about not being safe in their jobs. The complacency starts to be shaken out.”
When it came to footwear, he said employees and employers should use common sense to merge safety, fashion and business acumen.
Over-the-knee boots are a no-no, as are shoes that are overly bright, he said.
Rather, wear something interesting closer to the face to encourage eye contact.
“If you want to influence and keep the focus on you, the last thing you want are your shoes creating a distraction,” he said.
“The fashion industry is in the business of selling products, they are not in the business of outcomes or improving your career.”
Jon Michail is Group CEO of Image Group International, an award winning author and recognised Australasia’s No 1 image coach. Image Group International supports executives, entrepreneurs and their organisations to become iconic and monetised leadership brands.
He has been a regular commentator in international media including ABC, CNN, NBC, Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur, Success, The Financial Review and Vogue.