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Future grey for corporate clones

WHAT to wear today? As we crawl out of bed looking forward to another cut and thrust day at work, the choices for women seem to be endless.

Skirt and blouse? Dress? Trousers and shirt? Dress suit? Dress with jacket? Blouse or shirt? Stockings or socks? Which earrings? Hair up or down? Muted, power or sexy look?

For most guys the options are limited to...er...combing the hair (short), donning a shirt (white), tie (preferably with a ‘wacky’ motif to show what a rebel he is) suit and shoes (dark).

That’s it. The definitive, dull male uniform of the 20th century.

Unless they are really well made by, say, Armani or Paul Smith, suits all look pretty much the same and most companies dictate sober colours and traditional styles. Corporatus clonus exemplified.

WHY do we persist so slavishly with this dull, bog-standard male uniform?

Companies will argue suits “create uniformity” (there’s that word again), “clients expect it”, “the public expects it” and “other companies expect it”.

Really? Has anyone actually bothered to ask any of these groups, which include you and me, if it really concerns us what managers and professionals wear – as long as it is clean and presentable?

My last GP in the UK, for example, sported two earrings and a ponytail. I never saw him in anything other than jeans and t-shirts. He did not alarm the older people at his surgery and he was an exceptional doctor.

It’s also worth recalling the extravagant clothes men used to wear, particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries.

BP Manufacturing Australasia managing director Peter West commented in a talk to my MBA students that he rarely wore a suit and tie to work.

When asked why, he said: “The suit alienates me from the engineering staff. All a tie does is separate my neck from my head. It serves no useful function.”

When I first met him he was in jeans, t-shirt and a leather waistcoat. You forgot about this fact one, or maybe two, nanoseconds after meeting him.

Some American companies have introduced ‘dress as you like days’. Most men, confused by the freedom and their historical lack of dress sense, soon reverted to the old uniform.

However, in the growth companies of the moment, no-one bothers with the old suit and tie format. Staffed by predominantly young people obsessed with ideas, innovation and growth, this is the last thing on their minds.

So, let’s at least loosen the reins and allow men to experiment a bit with their working clothes. They have nothing to fear but their bad dress sense.

Now, where’s that bright purple retro suit with the lapels modelled on the wings of a jumbo jet...?

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