Have You Cracked the Dress Code?

Clothing and physical appearance forms the basis of our initial judgements of people, and can even be a stronger influence on our overall perception of character than our personality is. 

According to research by Dr. Albert Mehrabian of UCLA, appearance and body language (visual image) accounts for fifty-five percent of an invaluable first impression.  We use phrases in the workplace such as ‘dress to impress’ to signify making the effort to look our best for a role, and classify people as ‘blue collar/white collar’ to denote skill levels within some industries. Out of the workplace as well, clothing serves as a mental shortcut to identifying a person’s sex, status, group membership, legitimacy, authority and occupation.

Our society is ever evolving, and nowadays clothing and how we identify ourselves through it has become even more prevalent as we start to move away from traditional forms of gender, size and sexuality.  As we become freer to express our true selves within our everyday lives, and as social norms continue to shift, the classic workplace attire has to see its own progression.

Organisations such as The We Company, for example, encourage workers to treat their workspace as a way of life.  This way of working with less traditional form and boundaries, becoming more mobile and community focused, potentially means that our old way of dressing for work – whether in a strict dress code, or even just the classic suit, shirt and tie combo – becomes less relevant. 

But are there advantages for us in continuing to have uniforms or a dress code in the work place, and can we expect workers perform in the ‘expected fashion’ without the benchmark principles a uniform can present?  Should we be looking to move into more casual attire expectations in the workplace – and what is the harm in certain sectors getting rid of a dress code altogether? 

Here are some points to consider when deciding whether to or not to embrace uniforms or dress codes in your workplace:

Differentiating Between Your Work Self And ‘Not At Work’ Self

If you wear jeans and T-shirt to work, and then jeans and T-shirt when you are not working, it can present a challenge mentally switching off from ‘work mode’.  Or conversely, if you wear the same clothes as you do while at ‘play’, does this mean you never truly get your mind into a productive work space? 

Dr Karen Pine, a professor of psychology at the University of Hertfordshire and fashion psychologist, comments that dressing casually can cause an employee to feel less focused and alert: “When we put on an item of clothing, it is common for the wearer to adopt the characteristics associated with that garment. A lot of clothing has symbolic meaning for us, whether it’s ‘professional work attire’ or ‘relaxing weekend wear’, so when we put it on, we prime the brain to behave in ways consistent with that meaning.”

For people who work from home, this presents its own challenge; how do you motivate yourself to be in a work frame of mind whilst in the home you relax in, without the routine of changing and dressing for the day ahead outside the home?

Often people who do work from home find it necessary to still perform these morning routines as if leaving the house, wearing clothing that would be considered adhering to a dress code even while alone. If you’re in this position and finding it hard to get motivated, try this out for a few days and see if there’s any difference.

A Feeling Of Equality – A Shared Goal

One could argue that by a workforce wearing the same uniform, this puts everyone on the same level, and therefore avoids unnecessary social hierarchies occurring, which in turn distract from work productivity.  A visual match of external workplace values can be assumed by a collective wearing the same, and it becomes more about proving yourself via ability than clothing – some workplaces offer uniform additions such as alterations and adornments (like TGI Friday’s pin recognition scheme) to incentivise productivity. 

However, being forced to wear a ‘one style suits all’ uniform can in fact negatively impact employees.  Nelson and Bowen point out that lack of agency in things such as style and shape “… are a constant reminder to the wearers of their lack of power.”  It’s a real challenge to be able to find a dress code or uniform that does suit all body shapes – even just picking the right type of fabric is a minefield as what feels good on one body may feel very restrictive on another. 

Professional Image

There are some sectors where a uniform is vital for visibility such as emergency services, police, supermarket workers etc – this is how we know who to go to when we need assistance in something.  It is difficult to deny that a uniform more often projects a heightened professional image of a company than non-uniform attire does.  It symbolises an expectation of behaviour, and sets a standard for employees to adhere to, which in turn encourages professional output from the team. 

However, this is subjective – and also potentially old-fashioned, as we move into more relaxed views of what is professional.  Are we advanced enough, however, to not view people dressing differently than the expected dress code, and judge them as not as capable? 

Imagine walking into a bank and seeing the teller wearing relaxed jeans and T-shirt and casual shoes – how would you react?  Would this person fill you with confidence as you proceed to carry on your banking, or would you feel like this person should not be trusted to do a good job due to appearance?  We all know deep down that what we wear should not influence us so much, but creating that image in your head now, it becomes challenging to state with confidence that you would not judge them as being less capable. 

These are just a handful of things to consider, and already it is clear that deciding on a dress code in any workplace needs more consideration than at first it seems – is it economical, is it impactful, is it helpful for efficiency, or does it in fact impede good working practices due to style, or because a worker does not feel free to be recognised by their hard work rather than the uniform they wear. It can strip all uniqueness and demotivate employees to step out the box and express themselves.  If we are comfortable in our ‘external’ we are always freer to express our ‘internal’ (Entwistle & Wilson, 2001), and therefore if we want employees who are fresh and positively challenging, they should be encourage to dress with freedom. 

It has to come down to the KPIs of the company at the end of the day, and making informed choices which will allow your team to shine and boost productivity – but overall deciding on a dress code or not certainly is not as simple as just picking out a colour when it comes to having a positive impact. 

Author: Michelle Righini

Michelle Righini has nearly two decades of experience in UK restaurant companies, including managerial roles in The Diner and the Polpo group and as national training manager with Giraffe. She has a background in psychology and is interested in researching morale and wellbeing in the catering industry.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *