Dressing for work: Uniform approach doesn’t suit all

Dress down Friday is spreading to the rest of the week in some companies, and not everyone is happy about it

What did you put on when you got dressed this morning? A stiff suit and tie, loose scrubs and gloves, or comfy jeans, trainers and a T-shirt? More companies are allowing employees to wear casual clothes to work, but some people are arguing against this trend.

"I very much enjoy wearing my chef whites – including wearing my hair up, no jewellery," says chef Rachel Muse, who wears a tunic in the kitchen. "I'd even go so far as to say having my uniform on slightly alters my personality. I put on my logical, focused, work head. I feel like my chef whites are a badge of honour and by wearing them I am one of the privileged band of chefs."

And Muse isn't unusual: fashion psychologist Karen Pine says that uniforms help people feel like they fit in with co-workers.

"A dress code can act as a way of signalling belonging, of being part of the tribe. Many people starting a new job draw comfort from the dress code and often say that as soon as they put it on, they feel ready to take on their new role," she says.


Part of this is because wearing a uniform makes people feel like they belong to something bigger than themselves, which leads to better performance, says psychologist Carolyn Mair.

“As social beings, humans like to belong to and identify with social groups. This means we behave and dress differently in different contexts dependent on which group we’re in at that moment.” It is this group mentality that makes people like following a dress code because it helps them feel as though they belong.

But is wearing a uniform actually better for business? The research on whether dress codes improve productivity is unclear. While some research has found that dressing casually promotes a more relaxed attitude to work and lowers productivity – other studies suggest that wearing casual clothes increases productivity by up to 40 per cent.

In light of this research, more companies have introduced casual dress codes for staff. In July, Starbucks scrapped its strict dress code and encouraged employees to show off "personal expression" in the workplace by inviting baristas to wear clothes that reflect their style and to "make a statement with their hair colour".

Even corporate organisations have started relaxing their dress codes: technology company Lenovo, and branches of Unilever, have swapped strict business attire for T-shirts, dresses and casual trousers.

Andrew Halliday, who works in digital marketing and is owner of Indago Media, says that he feels more productive when he can dress how he likes for work.

“I used to hate having to go to work in smart or business wear. Casual clothes make me feel less stressed and more productive. Occasionally, when I have client meetings, I have to dress formally, and my productivity definitely goes down.”

As an employer, Halliday also thinks staff work best in relaxed attire. “I don’t make any of my staff wear uniforms, they all dress casually. I think dressing informally boosts productivity – there is no need to make them dress all the same.”

So what’s the answer? Which is better: strict dress codes or casual clothes?

“In general, people tend to work best in the type of clothes that go with the job, and that is determined by the nature of the work and by what their peers wear,” says Pine.

This means that when someone wears clothes you don’t expect from that profession, you view them as worse than others in that line of work.

For example, in one study an airline management company decided to change its staff dress code to a casual uniform, khakis and T-shirts, in place of the usual formal suit. In casual dress, the behaviour of the flight attendants became less professional and they became more negative about their ability to perform the role.

The customers’ behaviour towards the flight attendants also changed – they were more polite and respectful when they wore a uniform.

“This shows the power of clothing,” says Pine. “Not only does clothing affect how people are perceived but it also affects how the person wearing the clothes feels about themselves, and this influences their behaviour.”

There isn’t a definitive answer on whether casual dress or uniforms are better for work – it depends on the industry.

“Some people like that uniforms remove the burden of deciding what to wear in the morning. On the other hand, others dislike having to dress like everyone else as they believe their clothing shows their personality and identity. There are many factors involved and they are all complex,” says Mair.

So, the answer as to whether strict or casual dress code is better for business is a complex one: it depends on the industry, the work, and what everyone else is wearing. – Guardian service 2016