Tuesday 28 January 2020

Not a mohawk in sight: why we all dress like squares at work

Many of us don't need to wear suits to work, so why are we stuck in black, asks Sarah McCabe

DRESS DOWN FRIDAY: You’re not meant to take it literally
DRESS DOWN FRIDAY: You’re not meant to take it literally
DRESS DOWN FRIDAY: You're not supposed to take it literally

Sarah McCabe

Every day is casual Friday at the tech companies that dominate the trendy docklands area of Dublin. Most technology employees are free to wear what they want. Given that it is a vibrant, innovative industry - and that the average age of a Google employee is just 29 - one would expect nothing short of a riot of colour. But walk around Grand Canal Dock any day of the week, and it's a sea of slacks. A bounty of beige. A surplus of knee-length skirts, sensible shoes and tidy jumpers.

We are, despite the best intentions of US technology companies, still conservatives at heart.

Walk through the tech hubs of Berlin or Stockholm and it's a different story. There, workers use their clothing as an outlet for creativity, an opportunity to demonstrate personality.

Search "business attire Ireland" online and it is clear our foreign counterparts have cottoned on. "Dress modestly and conservatively... tweeds, wools and subdued colours are recommended" says ediplomat.com. "Bright colours aren't typically worn in Ireland" reports travel website Vayama.com.

Kathryn Byrne, owner of image consultancy Your Image Matters, puts it down to a lack of time and resources faced by middle-aged, post-recession Ireland.

"We have less time than ever. People hit their thirties, get a house and a mortgage, and suddenly find they are just throwing on whatever is clean. They just don't have the resources to devote to image anymore."

But younger workers are increasingly pushing the boundaries, she says. "I've very clearly noticed a difference in the younger generation" says Ms Byrne. "Twentysomethings with disposable incomes, especially living at home, really lead the way with style and creativity in what they wear to work."

Older women have the most difficulty in expressing themselves through clothing, she says, because designers are not interested in that demographic.

"Stylish clothing suitable for an office environment is designed for young, petite people" says Ms Byrne. "It's difficult for older women to find something that works."

Then there's the pressure imposed by employers. Try as they might, Ireland's biggest companies just can't leave their stuffy image behind. Many of the city's biggest professional service companies, including law and accounting firms, hold 'casual Fridays', with employees encouraged to eschew suits and don their normal clothing.

But everything comes with a caveat. Some specifically request that jeans and sports shirts are left at home. Many employees simply wear black, for fear of appearing unprofessional in colourful clothes.

Companies are legally entitled to insist upon a certain standard of dress as long as the policy is applied fairly and consistent, said employment law expert Catherine O'Flynn, a partner at Dublin law firm William Fry.

"Once there is a written policy, it is entirely reasonable to expect employees to dress a certain way. In lots of workplaces, such as law firms, there's no need to explicitly state it. It is inferred from the nature of the work that you wear very professional business attire."

Employers get into difficulty, she says, when employees feel they are treated disproportionately.

"Firing an employee for wearing something they've worn for years without comment could easily lead to an unfair dismissal situation," she said.

Sunday Indo Business

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