Lucy Kellaway: the rise of the super-bland office uniform

Individualism is to be avoided at all costs

We rightly make a fuss when receptionists wear heels because their employers demand it, but not about the women who feel obliged to dress this way because their colleagues do

We rightly make a fuss when receptionists wear heels because their employers demand it, but not about the women who feel obliged to dress this way because their colleagues do

 

What people wear to work at investment banks, management consultancies and top law firms is ridiculous. So is how they talk.

This hit me last weekend when watching Toni Erdmann, a German comedy film in which a youngish management consultant is visited at work by her father, who turns up uninvited wearing a shaggy brown wig, a shiny suit and a set of joke-shop teeth.

As his vast unkempt figure lumbered through the gleaming office, it occurred to me the absurd one was not him, barely able to speak through his mouthful of snaggly gnashers. It was the consultants, all shiny and beautiful and looking the same as one another.

In the past decade what people in the best paid jobs look like has got more uniform and more extreme. There is an unwritten dress code that everyone has to follow, and it goes like this: 1. There is no such thing as too expensive; 2. There is no such thing as too toned; 3. There is no such thing as too bland.

No one dares look individual. The only way of standing out is by looking even sleeker and richer than everyone else.

These rules apply equally to men and women, only the latter have an additional hurdle to clear. Women must look as sexy as possible without looking tasteless. Sheryl Sandberg has nailed it. Kim Kardashian has not.

The youngish management consultant in Toni Erdmann wore her uniform well. Her heels were high and the fabric of her dark suits showed the pleasing contour of her bottom, while her sleeveless dresses displayed the firmness of her arms.

Towering heels

I am not sure at what point work became like this – a rigid cocktail party minus the cocktails – but it is vaguely troubling. We rightly make a fuss when receptionists wear heels because their employers demand it, but not about the women who feel obliged to dress this way because their colleagues do.

These industries employ ambitious, competitive people – and it is no surprise if dress becomes as competitive as everything else.

The buildings they work in make it worse. Banking and consulting offices are competing with each other to be the shiniest, the smartest, the most blandly ostentatious – encouraging the people in them to do likewise. As the floral displays, the expanses of limestone, the modern art get more excessive, so do the shoes, the handbags and the tailoring of the people who work there.

The way people dress exposes two of the great lies of corporate life: diversity and authenticity. Not long ago I attended a women’s conference in Asia sponsored by a global investment bank. On the screen the words “The Power of Authenticity” were enormous, and staring at them sat 700 immaculate, high-heeled women swallowing unquestioningly a series of platitudes about the importance of being themselves. The only diversity in evidence was that while some were wearing Miu Miu, others were in Diane Von Furstenberg and Burberry.

Comfortable

As I looked around at the other people, men in fabulously tailored suits and women in shapely jackets and discreet gold earrings, I felt as outlandish as Toni Erdmann. I was at a distinct disadvantage. I was a weirdo, a pauper, distinctly inferior.

I am not sure who benefits from the extravagant, super-sleek, super-bland dress code. Possibly clients are more likely to trust advisers who dress professionally, but only up to a point. Customers cannot enjoy being systematically out-dressed.

Unless the point is that by subtly humiliating their clients, bankers, lawyers and consultants find it easier to lord it over them, making them less likely to protest at being charged the fees that make such extravagant wardrobes possible.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

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