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Every time you 'dress to impress' at the office, you demean yourself

What dress code? Hard-rocking former federal MP Pete Steedman.

What dress code? Hard-rocking former federal MP Pete Steedman. Photo: John Lamb

Noel Towell had an amusing story today about some Tax Office workers whose office fashion was too titillating. It reminded me of this (somewhat extreme) column I wrote a couple of years ago:

Three decades ago, a Victorian lefty, Labor MP Pete Steedman, rocked up to the House of Representatives wearing jeans and a leather jacket. He did so often during his short stint in federal politics, sometimes opting instead for a colourful cardigan. He showed there was no inherent need to wear the defacto uniform of the Parliament: an expensive, tailored suit.

Suits are nothing more than symbols: empty expressions of wealth and authority. 

Yet Steedman has long since left the House, and his cavalier dress sense went with him. These days, I doubt more than a handful of parliamentarians would wear suits, or other outfits, worth less than $1000.

The House of Representatives: a sea of colour and individual expression.

The House of Representatives: a sea of colour and individual expression. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

I don't blame politicians; more than most people, their job compels them to "fit in". What I struggle with is why most professionals - indeed, pretty much all white-collar workers - dress formally. They wear suits to job interviews, when meeting clients and very often for no reason at all. That most ridiculous of contrivances, the necktie, remains commonplace. I've worked with women who boast about fashion shopping sprees, and who avoid wearing the same clothes or shoes in the same week. I know public servants who never meet the public yet still dress to the nines every day, if only for the ''pleasure'' of themselves and their colleagues.

Why do we do it? There are endless industries pumping out excuses for this vanity (let's not shy away from its name). The purveyors of clothing, accessories and styling products spend up big to associate their goods with success; media outlets, too, in covering fashion in detail, implicitly accept its importance. And many of us embrace the resulting narratives without critically analysing them. "It's disrespectful to others to 'dress down'." "Nice clothes make me feel good about myself." "I work hard; I deserve this indulgence." "I'm single and I won't find a partner if I dress poorly." "I'm ambitious so I need to 'play the game' at work."

Sometimes, it's pragmatic to conform to social norms. Fashion-based prejudice is a pandemic; it can be simpler to meet the expectations of others, however superficial.

It certainly doesn't help when workplace leaders take pride in their shallowness. When Attorney-General's Department chief Robert Cornall retired in 2008, he devoted part of his valedictory speech to, of all things, advice on clothing. "I have always tried to look, sound and act like a secretary. Some people may think that is paying attention to appearance over substance but I disagree."

Cornall spoke of a man who had once sat near him in a plane's business-class section. "I was, naturally, wearing a business suit but he was in jeans, T-shirt, open plaid shirt with the sleeves partly rolled up, Birkenstock sandals and socks decorated with cartoon character Yosemite Sam and the word 'cute'. I thought to myself: 'This guy could be a software multimillionaire for all I know, but one thing's for sure: dressed like that, he will never be secretary of a department of state.' "

But as pompously self-indulgent as Cornall's comments seem to me, I know many other public servants would share his views. The many irrational cultural beliefs that are attached to clothing cannot be dismissed; they are real and they affect our interactions with others. People will assume a shabby dresser is a shabby thinker, or that an idiosyncratic fashion sense indicates an unwillingness to be a team player. They'll equate an expensive suit to success, or a tidy appearance with an organised approach to work.

Yet suits are nothing more than symbols: empty expressions of wealth and authority. They were first worn by middle-class British dandies trying to pass themselves off as aristocrats, and I'd argue that nothing's changed in the 200 years since. Every time we don a suit, we clad ourselves in a veneer of "respectability" (it's not as though we do it for comfort). And, in doing so, we tell ourselves, and everyone around us, that what we wear is what matters, not what we think, say or do.

(Yes, that's me in a suit in the photo up top: I don't know what came over me that day.)

13 comments so far

  • I know what you're saying Markuus, to a point. Yes, it's probably a meaningless social convention, but then, so is doing your hair in the morning and washing your car occasionally. If I had my way, I'd probably be sitting at my desk in tracky daks, a crappy old t-shirt and slippers. But, I'd be drawing negative attention to myself in a way that I don't want to. I therefore attempt to dress within the same ballpark as the way my colleagues do, and hope that nobody asks me why.

    Commenter
    Being
    Location
    strangled by a tie
    Date and time
    May 05, 2014, 2:23PM
    • Yes, we may be fulfilling societal expectations but that is part of being in a society. Which is why public servants dress one way and advertising execs dress another (but equally as conformist).

      You may not like the convention but probably not by enough to ignore it totally. And we all draw conclusions based on appearances

      Commenter
      asdf
      Date and time
      May 05, 2014, 6:10PM
  • One can't help thinking thatMembers of Parliament could possibly perform better if they were dressed as Gladiators .... Maybe Pirate Day should be celebrated there as well... :-)
    I wonder what other alternative dress Brisbane Times readers would possibly like to see in Parliament.
    I spent some time in the Sinai with the Bedouins and I can testify that the dress code there is more suited to the Australian climate than the ridiculous cold dress codes of Northern Europe ...
    With Australia moving ahead so fast and becoming a leader in the world of fashion maybe nude body art day is not so far away... I'm sure it would be the biggest fund raising event of the year!!:-))) I hope if it does go ahead it's in the warmer part of the year ... This cold westerly is playing havoc with the PR dept of my body council!!:-) welcome to winter bring on the woollies and the ug boots...:-))

    Commenter
    Barry Anthony
    Location
    Moggill
    Date and time
    May 05, 2014, 2:46PM
    • you might be wearing a suit in the photo, but you are sticking it to the man by refusing to wear a tie.

      I had a bloke show up to job interview with no tie the other day. he didn't get the job. however illogical a convention ties may be, not wearing one indicated he couldn't be bothered.

      Commenter
      a d
      Date and time
      May 05, 2014, 3:10PM
      • And ad you probably lost the opportunity to employ a good person who has the guts to think and behave outside the square. You pick the nice conformist and you will get what you deserve. Probably a clock watcher who does the minimum and no more, someone set in their ways with little to distinguish him from most of the other boring workers you employ. I have been employing people for 30+ years and if the man had equal qualifications to others I would have given him the job. I may also have pointed out that on occasions he may be required to wear a tie and I bet he would have been fine with that. Your loss

        Commenter
        How superficial
        Date and time
        May 05, 2014, 4:54PM
      • How pathetic, guess he's glad he didn't get it!! It's generally conservatives that worry about the way you dress, just look at the Bishop women it would cost more to dress them than I earn in a year. Progressives generally feel better about themselves and wear whatever they feel like.

        Commenter
        Amro
        Date and time
        May 05, 2014, 6:24PM
    • Yes!

      Commenter
      FILL
      Date and time
      May 05, 2014, 3:47PM
      • It says more about you than it does others that you jump to the conclusion that people make an attempt to dress in a certain way purely for the gaze of others. If I dress purely because I like the look, history or construction of certain items of clothes, does this make me fit your narrow and simplistic definition of vanity? Surely this self congratulatory piece is more vain than putting on a suit in the morning, a piece of clothing with hundreds of years of history.

        This is several hundred words of the author making himself feel better about himself. People choose to spend their money in different ways, there's no need, nor is it productive in any way, to denigrate others based on their choices.

        What of the studies that show that people dressed in certain ways perform better? There's the famous one about the students who were more careful in their lab when they wore white labcoats than didn't. It doesn't take a genius to hypothesise that for great swathes of people, they work better when they make the effort to dress up a little. I know plenty of people who work from home, but still get dressed professionally purely because they know it helps them get in the right mindset.

        Of course, if there's a good portion of the population which does place some emphasis on how people are dressed, then by dressing well you make a gain with no loss. Some people don't care about how the ATO is dressed, some do. To get both parties on side, you'd have a dress policy no?

        Commenter
        hungryhungryhypocrites
        Location
        Rozelle
        Date and time
        May 05, 2014, 5:23PM
        • Like I said, "Sometimes, it's pragmatic to conform to social norms."
          But what do you make of Robert Cornall's comments? The point I was trying to make is that he denigrates others based on their choices, to use your words.

          Commenter
          Markus Mannheim
          Location
          Canberra
          Date and time
          May 05, 2014, 8:41PM
        • that's it Markus, if nothing else it's pragmatism. Wearing a wool suit and a tie is a ridiculous northern European tradition to import to a country where the temperature routinely exceeds 30 degrees (one of many, but that's another story), but the fact is we have imported that tradition and it is part of the cultural shorthand we use to express professionalism and (to a degree) courtesy to the people we do business with.

          Commenter
          a d
          Date and time
          May 06, 2014, 10:51AM

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