The Modern Professional’s Guide To Dressing For Work
What to wear for the job you have – or the one that you want
Dressing for work is no longer a straightforward task. As modern workplaces become more relaxed, so too do the rules of attire that govern them. Today, a successful businessman is just as likely to be wearing a T-shirt and jeans as a suit and tie. Indeed, many companies have done away with the wholesale requirement to wear a tie.
Few will mourn the demise of the corporate dress code in all its buttoned-down, straight-laced conformity. That said, business attire still matters. How we dress is a powerful form of non-verbal communication. It can enhance our perceived status, inspire confidence in our abilities and it expresses respect for our colleagues. These things are still of great value in a work environment, regardless of whether we spend our nine-to-five at a vast corporation or hot-desking at the local WeWork.
The challenge for the modern professional, then, is how to channel such virtues in the era of the dressed-down office and the hoodie-clad CEO. There’s no single, universally applicable answer to this. Every workplace is different and you’ll have to figure out what works best for yours. In order to help you along, we’ve chosen the five most common work sectors (according to a survey of MR PORTER readers) and provided a few pointers for each.
Stick to the script
Generally speaking, the financial services industry takes an old-school approach to work clothes. These are the last bastions of the traditional corporate dress code. Many institutions still expect their employees to wear a suit and tie, while in financial districts such as the City of London, archaic sartorial rules (“no brown in town”, etc) still hold sway. Try to respect these rules as best as you can. There’s still plenty of room for self-expression through accessories, as long as you’re careful about it. Get to grips with a few fool-proof shirt and tie combos, and consider investing in a classic dress watch.
Keep your shoes in shape
A couple of pairs of simple black Oxford shoes will provide you with years of service, assuming that you take good care of them. Here are three ways to do that. One: store them on wooden shoe trees. Leather softens when warm, so do this immediately after taking them off in order to prevent any loss of shape. Two: keep them polished. If you’re not confident in your ability to do this, or simply too lazy, it’s worth paying someone to do it for you. Three: check the weather forecast before leaving the house, especially during winter. The combination of slush and gritted roads can ruin your shoes for good, so wear boots or sneakers on the commute if necessary, changing into your smart shoes when you arrive at the office.
A little local knowledge goes a long way
Rules of attire will vary from country to country and institution to institution. Any new employee should study the details of their contract, which should offer some clarification of the dress code. If in doubt, contact the HR department or speak to a current employee. You really don’t want to be the guy showing up on your first day to a smart-casual office wearing a full suit.
If your patients take anything at all from your mode of attire, it should be the impression of being in safe hands. This is not the time to be adventurous. An experimental approach to fashion doesn’t necessarily imply an experimental approach to practicing medicine, but it’s still best to err on the side of caution. Keep your wacky outfits for the weekend; don’t give them any reason to doubt your professionalism.
Know your audience
Consider the kind of people you’re likely to meet. Are you a Beverly Hills plastic surgeon? If so, your clients will be comforted by the sight of an expensively dressed doctor. Are you a GP working for the NHS in a diverse area? If so, your work will bring you into contact with people from all walks of life, some of whom might feel alienated by a doctor in a designer suit. Do you work in paediatrics? Keep formality to a minimum and work a few warm, friendly colours into your wardrobe. Maybe even slip a Superman tee under your shirt. Above all, try your best to be relatable.
The power dynamic between patient and doctor is clear. They are in a position of vulnerability and you are in a position to help. In a crowded hospital, it should be immediately obvious who the doctor is. The iconic white coat once served as a doctor’s badge of office, but with long sleeves now deemed an infection risk and banned by many health services, it has fallen out of favour. In its absence you should look for other ways of asserting your authority. If in doubt, always lean towards dressier attire.
Get the balance right
If you’re after an example of just how drastically the employment landscape has shifted beneath our feet over the last couple of decades, look to the tech industry. Indeed, Facebook didn’t exist 15 years ago; 21 years ago, neither did Google. These two companies now employ more than 100,000 people. The tech revolution has had a profound effect on how we dress for work, too, helping to bring Silicon Valley’s corporate culture – and its associated laid-back dress code – into the mainstream. (Legend has it that Google’s dress code is simply “You must wear clothes”.) While there’s every reason to cheer a dress code that emphasises comfort over formality, in the rush to abandon corporate attire, it can be easy to forget why we ever wore a suit and tie in the first place. We did so – and many of us still do so – as a way of expressing to our employers that yes, we made an effort, and yes, we do actually want to be here. However you choose to dress, try to keep this in mind.
Elevate your sweats
In 2012, Facebook CEO Mr Mark Zuckerberg caused a minor scandal among Wall Street’s besuited money men by showing up at an investor meeting ahead of the company’s IPO dressed in a hoodie. One analyst accused him of being disrespectful. Would that analyst bat an eyelid if the same thing were to happen today? Probably not. But before you raid the contents of your old gym bag and rush off to your next board meeting, we are duty bound to remind you that there are hoodies, and then there are hoodies. Stick to darker colours of charcoal grey and navy blue and consider brands such as Thom Browne or James Perse.
FASHION AND RETAIL
Don’t go overboard
If there’s one industry where personal style is encouraged, it’s fashion. But don’t assume that gives you carte blanche to wear whatever you like. You should always endeavour to balance your desire for self-expression with a respect for professional and cultural standards. In other words, leave the anti-Brexit slogan T-shirts at home.
Dress for the job you want
In most industries, there shouldn’t really be any correlation between how well-dressed you are and how good you are at your job. In fashion, however, there’s no denying that the right clothes can be a real career investment. It shows that you know what you’re talking about and have a passion for what you do. (And given that you probably benefit from a staff discount, this is one investment that you shouldn’t ignore.)
Stay on message
Try as best as you can to reflect the aesthetic of your place of work. Do you work at a specific retailer? If so, introduce a couple of pieces from that retailer’s selection into your weekly rotation. Nobody’s expecting you to arrive at work head-to-toe in a single designer – that would be bordering on sycophantic – but a well-chosen item here or there can subtly indicate that you’re a good fit for the company and the team.
ART AND DESIGN
You are your brand
If you work in the visual and applied arts, you’re essentially in the business of aesthetics. Your job is to create things that are pleasing to the eye. It makes sense, then, to think of the way you present yourself as a showcase for your abilities and an extension of your personal brand. You’d think twice about employing a graphic designer who uses Comic Sans on his business cards. Ask yourself: is there anything about your own appearance that might be a bit, well, Comic Sans?
What you wear while working should be guided primarily by functionality. What this means in practice depends largely on what you do. Perhaps you have a painter’s jacket with a pocket in just the right place for your pencils, or a pair of cargo trousers where you store a little tool essential to your daily tasks. If you have any intention of ever selling your work, though, you’ll also need to know how to smarten up said garments when meeting clients. Look for clothes that bridge the gap between form and function but keep a smarter outfit ready in your wardrobe for when the situation demands it.
Don't be derivative
The worlds of art and design are rich with sartorial cliché. The architect in thick-framed glasses and a black rollneck; the artist in a corduroy suit; the gallerist in head-to-toe Prada. It’s natural for anyone plying a trade in the arts to develop a signature “look”. Just make sure that it really is your look.