Look 1: A young executive arrives to a meeting wearing a Yoda t-shirt, Haviana thongs and Calvin Klein underwear. You know what brand of undies he has on because you can see the logo peaking out over the top of his jeans which are belt-less and well, loose. The wearer of said T-shirt does not work in advertising, IT or a fashion store. He works in Insurance. Sales.
Look 2: You’re greeted at the front desk by a young woman wearing a skirt that’s smaller than a seat belt, knee-high Ugg boots and face that appears to be sparkling with glitter. She asks you kindly if you’d like a cup of coffee while you wait for the meeting … with your accountant.
Look 3: It’s the first time you’re taking a new assistant to an important client meeting. She decides to dip-dye the ends of her hair blue the night before. When she arrives, she announces that the colour was a “bit too much” so she’s dressed it down with a velour tracksuit to make it look more corporate.
Welcome to work wear 2012. These are real examples from real Gen X bosses who are struggling with what their real Gen Y employees are wearing to the office. Much has been written about poor, old (or is that young?) Gen Y and how they handle responsibility. Their careers, hard work and commitment. Much of it is wrong. I’ve found that on balance they’re a pretty creative, intuitive bunch and who says they have it wrong? Just maybe working 58 plus hour weeks is a little bit crazy? But somewhere along the way, perhaps in our obsession to get them to stay in a job longer than a couple of months, we forgot to tell them what to wear when they do show up.
Etiquette in general has relaxed. No more so than for dress codes. When was the last time you went to a Black Tie wedding and saw a sea of tuxedos? It just doesn’t happen anymore. Wrapped up in this dismissal of formal attire has been the gradual dilution of what is and isn’t appropriate in the office. It’s the Mark Zuckerberg factor. A billionaire in a hoodie and Adidas slides has given us permission to dress down. Success now looks like the lost property bin at the local primary school not a three-piece custom suit.
Gordon Gekko is just soooo Gen X.
Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.
When I got my first job at a magazine I was given a set of very strict rules and regulations about what I could and couldn’t wear. On days when I was required to greet clients I was not allowed to wear pants. Ever. On non-client days I was allowed pants but never jeans. I always had to wear a certain shade of nail polish and there was an unspoken preference for headbands. Sounds unheard of now but at time I didn't even flinch I just headed to the chemist and bought hair bands in every colour. It was only 20 years ago but that’s how much things have changed.
Interestingly, these school style restrictions meant that I never felt out of place in the office. A big deal when you're just starting out. I knew what I had to wear and that let me get on with learning my job. In a funny way the clothes protected me.
The financial industries have been hardest hit by this Gen Y dilemma resorting to the services of style consultants to help young employees find middle ground between self-expression and an industry appropriate dress code. “I don’t want to be called 'a suit' and I don’t want to wear one,” my sister's friend Chris tells me. ”But they treat me like I’m delivering sandwiches if I don’t wear a tie – I have two degrees!”. This is a brutal truism that perhaps many Gen Ys are overlooking. Gen X and The Boomers are still running the majority of companies which means as long as they’re in charge your pay rise may have a direct correlation to your wardrobe choices.
Gen Ys know about the power of image – possibly better than the rest of us – so I find it odd that they don’t harness the power of clothes in the workplace more effectively. My early lessons in work wear resulted in a pathological hatred of Alice Bands but also taught me a valuable lesson about the significance of image in business. Even though I was the most junior member of staff I worked directly for the most senior member of staff. This meant that by the pure luck of geography, I was surrounded by people with the jobs I one day hoped to hold. As an 18-year-old on the minimum wage dressing up every day was hard but it taught me the importance of dressing for the job you want, not the job you have.
Just think about it.