When I started my career some 21 years ago as a junior engineer at a technology company located in Connecticut, the standard work attire consisted of a button-down shirt, dress slacks, shined leather shoes, and a tie. Most of the employees wore an undershirt beneath the dress shirt. Managers and businessmen always wore suits, upper managers wore 3-piece suits. If there was any official dress code “policy”, no one ever bothered to point it out. I was considered a bit radical when summer ended and I continued to wear short sleeve shirts (I can’t stand having my forearms covered).
A few years later, the company was split up, and we were purchased by a California-based company. After a couple of years, a new policy was announced – “casual Friday”. Every Friday, we were allowed – even encouraged – to dress in casual clothes – defined as jeans or cotton slacks, knit shirts, comfortable shoes, and (definitely) no tie. The reasoning was to allow a level of “relaxation” for the final day of the work week, as well as to match the trend in California.
After a few more years, and yet another corporate buy-out, “casual Friday” had gradually expanded into casual every-day, and the quality of clothing being worn had slowly devolved to the point where the company needed to reinforce a proper dress code policy. We were again encouraged to wear casual clothes, but more carefully defined, though the restriction to one day a week vanished.
At that time, a definite separation of dress behavior occurred. More managers and businessmen returned to wearing formal attire, though the suit had largely disappeared.Mostengineers embraced the casual wear, and rather quickly began the slow degradation of what was considered casual. Older engineers, and (though not universally) the more capable engineers continued wearing formal clothes.
That was about 10 years ago. Today, the collapse of the dress code is just about complete. Almost all engineers, almost all managers and businessmen, even our senior managers, can be found most days wearing at best the old “casual” standard; at worst, jeans and a tee-shirt. Ties (for all but unusual days) have vanished from the building. The dress code has begun to merge with the sexual harassment policy (no shorts, no short skirts, no muscle shirts, no offensive slogan tee shirts).
I still wear a button-down shirt, dress slacks, shined leather shoes, and a tie. I have embraced casual Friday, and I did give up the tie for about the last 6 months, but I have put the tie back on, and its staying on. In a building of 500 employees, with about 300 engineers and managers, I am now one of perhaps 5 employees (and very possibly the only one)wearing a tie when not visiting with a Customer (many of whom, incidentally, do not arrive at our facility wearing ties).
So – do the clothes worn affect our professional behavior?
The choice of clothing worn represents to others an individual’s emotional frame of mind, or attitude. It is not representative of the exact emotional state of the person, as this can change throughout the day without requiring continual changes in clothes; rather, it portrays the individual’s expectation of what their emotional state shall be, or should be for that day. Hence the practice of wearing black for mourning, bright colors for gayiety, wrinkled or loose clothing for relaxation, and pressed clothing with plain or simple pattern in muted colors for seriousness. Of course, there are exceptions in which clothing may be chosen for practical reasons separated from attitude – low cost, high durability clothing for occupations involving hard physical labor; damaged or even dirty clothing for hard labor performed at home. The use of uniforms is indicative of occupations in which emotion is not considered a proper component to one’s job activities.
It should be emphasized again that the selection of clothing may be not one’s actual expectation of emotional state, but what one believes others expect that state to be. It is this that explains in part the spread of changes in my company’s dress code. The company sends a message by “relaxing” the dress code – don’t take the job so seriously. Loosen up. Thisis accepted by some as a command, by others as an affirmation of their actual attitude toward work, and by others, over time, by what they see as a change in the Company’s attitude, as reflected in the clothing, and indeed the resulting behavior, of their peers. Once this dynamic starts, most will not resist the trend toward greater and greater expectations of relaxation. The Company’s former productivity cannot be recovered easily.
As I saw after the Company attempted – temporarily – to stop the decline, therewas a subpopulation of employees whosaw what was happening (perhaps without fully understanding), and resisted the loss of seriousness, focus, concentration in the larger population, by holding on to the “old ways”. Interestingly, I myself discovered during this time that by continuing to wear a tie (the most visible of the clothing elements to generally disappear), my presumed status in the Company rose in situations where my actual achievements were not well known. I have joked that “he who wears the tie runs the meeting” – but by and large this became increasingly true.
As I stated above, I did give up the tie for several months recently – perhaps the peer pressure finally began to affect me as well. But I found that I indeed “feel” more appropriate in a tie when at work. It has been through introspecting on this “feeling” that I have been led to understand the role of clothing in the portrayal of attitude, and its effect on the wearer and those with which he interacts.