Office dress code: what you need to know that no-one tells you

Our columnist Matthew Reeves on what he's learnt about office dress code from his own somewhat unusual experiences

I have no idea where the idea of dress code comes from. I like to imagine that it dates back to the days where there was still royalty, gentry, and such like - all with their own particular garbs. You could tell who the paupers were because they weren't wearing a fox as a hat, or a cape dyed with the blood of an imported beast, like the losers they were.

More recently, as the concept of ordinary people being allowed to own things like factories went viral, a whole lot of new workplace attire was born. Overalls: optimised for the accumulation of soot and oil, for longevity, for practicality. And the business suit, optimised for nothing but looking better than everyone else.

Current office dress code is not much different. A way to discern those at the tip of the social pyramid from the roaming knights in their white Transit steeds and whatever is below that - are there still factories in the UK?

I think there are also three tiers of graduate garb today, and each one says something about the business and the graduates who choose to work there.

The first is some kind of suited and booted. Most likely these days is suit with no tie, but most certainly a shirt. This type of business and their graduate intake thrive on being better than everyone else. They're probably either trading with other "masters of the universe", or old and stuffy with board members called things like "Percival".

If you're lucky, they might have "dress down Friday", which is a sure sign that senior management think that "foreigners actually can do good work" and "women could do well in the boardroom if they just had the confidence to try", both hallmarks of the well-meaning but bumbling progressive boss. He absolutely "gets" all the memos about currently socially acceptable behaviours, but they arrive by fax about every two years.

Then there's the startup or tech company that embraces no uniform because they and their grads are more concerned with growth hacking the world using nothing but software and a copy of Steve Jobs' biography than looking half decent.

These grads are fuelled by sheer practicality, discarding anything absolutely unnecessary in order to reach MVP (minimum viable product) - for them to wear a suit it would have to be open-sourced and 3D-printed.

The third and best type of business as far dress code goes can actually fall into either of these first two categories and is simply one that has a sensible reason for a dress code.

One business I've worked for summed up their dress code neatly as "nothing offensive, and try to be smarter than our clients". The reason? "Our work exceeds expectations in our work, and that extends to every aspect of what we do."

Ok, it's not quite as rousing as Churchill, but it's certainly reasonable - employees at least have some idea about where their dress code comes from and why it's in place.

And whether or not a similar dress code exists at the business you join, a personal dress - and life - code of being relatable and exceptional is never going to harm your career.

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