Friday, May 13, 2011

Deciphering the dress code

Today, it's a polo shirt and a pair of khaki pants. Yesterday I dressed up a bit more with dress slacks and a button-up shirt. The day before that, I wore jeans. Consistency is not a hallmark of my wardrobe. But let's face it, you have to be prepared for anything. This is especially true for me, where my week often includes attending a banquet and taking pictures of farm animals.

Dress codes have always mystified me. Granted, I don't keep a wide variety of clothing in my makeshift closet, but I don't think I could fit in everywhere. There's something called “smart casual” (as opposed to “dumb casual, I suppose) which includes a blazer or sports jacket. Now to me, a blazer suggests perhaps becoming a TV anchorman, but not really casual. And “informal” includes “business attire” which requires a business suit and a tie. Maybe my rural midwestern upbringing has messed me up, but how does anything involving the wearing of a suit and tie fit into “informal” wear?

I started thinking about all this when I ran across a story about a Swiss bank and its dress code. The bank is UBS and the dress code is 44 pages long. OK, not exactly. Until January it was 44 pages long. Then the bank officials got tired of being made fun of by people all across the world, so they decided to whittle it down to a small booklet. It seemed that the bank wanted to control how all of their employees looked and smelled right down to the color of their underwear (skin-tone). And having run my own business, I do understand that looking “professional” means something very different to certain employees. But these folks were getting pickier than the father of a teenage girl.

How we dress has certainly changed over the years. When I was a child, few men would even think about attending church without a necktie. (That could be why fewer men attended services.) Women wouldn't dream of wearing slacks to sit in the pews. We were taught to dress out of respect to God. Of course for many, they dressed to attract attention with their new clothes, but you get the idea. Now many churches stress the condition of the heart rather than the condition of the wardrobe.

In business, the dress code depends on the type of outlet. In factories, safety equipment is the main concern, but elsewhere these codes dictate how people dress. I worked in radio for ten years back in the 1980s. Now you would think if there was one business where it wouldn't matter what you wear it would be radio, right? PEOPLE CAN'T SEE YOU. However, there was usually a business office attached to the studio complex at radio stations, so management always wanted these young disc jockeys to look “professional” if they were on the job during any business hours. Which meant that if I worked from 4 p.m. until midnight, I would have to dress appropriately because someone might see me during that one hour that my schedule overlapped with the business folks.

At some point my laundry didn't get finished, and I faced having to go to work with no clean dress pants. Rather than wearing dirty pants, I slipped on a pair of jeans with my dress shirt and put on a tie. I was a little nervous going into work in jeans, but I soon found that no one noticed my jeans because everyone was impressed I had worn a tie. I got more compliments on my attire that day than in the previous six months combined. So when I was in management, I passed this little trick onto other young men with a limited number of dress pants. No one ever noticed the jeans. It worked every time.

So perhaps the secret to proper dress is not skin-tone underwear, but delivering a good focus -- a tie, a beautiful hat, or whatever is kicking around in your closet. Make sure it's tasteful to more than just people your own age, then strut your stuff with pride. Just be careful around the farm animals.

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