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The cowl does not make the monk… or does it?

      “Dressing well is a form of good manners.” Tom Ford

Back in 2018 then CMCE Director Calvert Markham wrote an article asking whether there was a  management consultants’ dress code and what was its importance in making a positive first impression.

Looking at the piece now we can safely say that a lot has changed, not only because five years is the fashion equivalent of an eternity, but mostly because in the current post-pandemic world our relationship with clothes and our expectations on appearance have somewhat changed as a result of a period spent working from home, behind our computer screens and dressed in comfortable loungewear pieces. As someone who is named after a fashion designer and has a passion for fashion, I feel somewhat qualified enough to explore this topic further. Pages could easily be written on how to put together the right outfit to be appropriately dressed to comply with the different levels of formality required when attending a conference, a professional event or a client meeting. On event invitations it is common to see terms like “business professional,” “business formal,” “business casual,” “smart casual” or “casual” as a way to guide participants in deciding what to wear, however, looking around the room at the last events I attended, there still doesn’t seem to be a universally-accepted meaning of what they actually indicate. So, to avoid the complexities related to this, I decided to focus instead on the interplay between our work and the way we dress, and the key factors to consider when ‘dressing for success’.

The power of first impressions

Even though we know that first impressions can sometimes be deceiving and shouldn’t always be trusted, together with our behaviours and attitudes, they can play a significant role in how people perceive us. While research results do not agree on an exact number, it is widely acknowledged that we have less than 30 seconds before the person in front of us forms an opinion on whether we are successful, intelligent, qualified for a job or trustworthy, depending, among other things, on what we are wearing. As management consultants, we carry out a lot of client-facing work so this topic is extremely relevant, so much so that many companies still have detailed dress codes, requiring a certain level of formality and associating the idea of ‘dressing well and appropriately’ with level of professionalism and competence. However, during the recent lockdowns many organisations and individuals alike realised that they could be productive and perform well even without wearing a three-piece suit or high-heels and, when the time finally came to return to our physical offices, traditional pre-pandemic formality in dressing didn’t feel as appropriate or necessary anymore. According to Net-a-Porter market director Libby Page, the new work wardrobe is about “relaxed tailoring” with loafers, and “matching separates that are multifunctional”. In other words, most companies are embracing a less formal dress code and give employees the opportunity to be more creative with their outfits, partly as well in response to the fact that their clients seem also to be adopting more casual attires.

Beyond first impressions, why is dressing appropriately important?

The way you dress is a way to show your understanding of and respect towards a company’s culture or a specific situation. In addition, by conforming to specific dressing norms, you develop a visual sense of belonging to a certain group that can help you succeed in many work and social situations. For centuries royal families and courtiers dictated fashion choices and rules of etiquette that represented a clear set of guidelines to indicate social status and regulate relationship dynamics at court, and ultimately they were rolled out to the wider of society. Today’s dress codes are their modern equivalent. However, dressing appropriately is not only important as a form of respect towards others but also as a key factor in boosting our own confidence and improving our performance. Many experts suggest that the clothes we wear influence what we think about ourselves and the way we behave. This is why one of the pieces of advice for people working from home is to fully dress as if they were going to the office - even when they are not on camera - as a way to recreate the same productive mindset and attitude they would have in the workplace. In addition, you may have to stand up during the call and you certainly don’t want other people to realise that you are wearing shorts, tracksuit bottoms or pyjamas below the waist. So, that leaves us with the question of how can we pick the right attire for each situation?

Observe and adapt …

Every sector and every organisation has a series of spoken and unspoken rules about what individuals are expected to wear to embody the values and standards of performance of the profession. Additional layers of complexities are a consequence of cultural norms, the specific context and client dynamics. This means that it can be very difficult to navigate the challenges of picking the most appropriate outfit and the best solution might seem to stick to neutral, safe options. But it doesn’t have to be like that. In the same way that we use listening and mirroring to adopt the most suitable communication style, it’s possible to find out where dressing boundaries are by looking at those around you (colleagues and clients) and trying to figure out what is considered appropriate and understand the nuances of how people dress in that specific context. If you are deciding what to wear for a job interview and you have no opportunity to observe others first-hand, it might be useful to have a look at the company’s website, or search online industry-specific information for any useful advice, or even ask your potential employer whether there is a specific dress code. This can prove important because in some cases whether you are dressed appropriately may also contribute to the final outcome. And then, once you know the rules, you can think about how you can break them…

… but don’t be afraid to cultivate your personal style

Although conformity in workwear norms and expectations is certainly an efficient way to show belonging to a certain group or profession and a lack of it can be a cause of disapproval and exclusion, it is important to avoid becoming a photocopy of each other. In addition, over the last few decades the idea that more personal expression in attire should be allowed has become an increasingly popular way for organisations to  acknowledge that what we wear is a way to show to our counterparts who we are and let them see a bit about our personality. As a result, even within the boundaries of a specific dress code, fashion gives us a ‘voice’ and an opportunity to personalise our performance. Research on the topic shows that ‘under certain conditions, nonconforming behaviours can be more beneficial than efforts to conform and can signal higher status and competence to others’.

In the case of management consultants, for example, it might be useful to project the idea that you are an individual with a defined style and personality, who can think outside the box and have their own opinion. This can be easily achieved by playing with different fabrics, patterns, cuts and shapes. It might also be extremely useful to have your own statement piece that makes you stand out from the crowd and be memorable, anything from a piece of jewellery like a brooch, or an original tie collection to an unusual eyeglasses style.

Although womenswear arguably offers more options for creativity, there is a long history of fashion choices made mainly to conform to societal expectations rather than to express one’s own personality. An example is provided by a recent FT article that discusses the return of power dressing for women, a style that became popular in the 70s as an empowerment tool to visually demonstrate assertiveness in the boardroom.  Interestingly, the piece also mentions John T Molloy’s 1977 ‘Woman’s dress for success book’ which suggested that ‘women should wear skirt suits to be taken seriously in the boardroom, but says trousers look too masculine; …. the author also admonishes those who wear sweaters — they, after all, signal “lower-middle class” and “loser”.’ Although we can’t help smiling while reading this today, the book literally became a bible for dressing successfully. Luckily, we have mainly moved away from this vision of women’s professional wardrobes and, even though exaggerated shoulders and a belted waist may be back, women now have more opportunities to show their identity through clothing while still being able to command respect in a professional setting.

Final thoughts

In case what you were hoping to take away from this piece was a set of actual tips about how to choose what to wear, here are a few final thoughts to keep in mind:

  • Balance showing respect to the context and your counterpart with expressing your personal style.
  • You are better off being over-dressed than under-dressed (obviously as long as it is respectful of cultural norms and it doesn’t turn into flaunting). 
  • Invest in nine-to-five pieces.
  • Find your statement piece and create a distinct, memorable style.

In addition, if you want to keep up with the latest from the fashion world, you should watch the recording of the Louis Vuitton Men’s Spring-Summer 2024 Fashion Show by Pharrell Williams in Paris. Although you may think that many of the pieces would not (yet?) be appropriate to help you secure your next consulting assignment, it might provide a glimpse into and an opportunity for further reflection on the evolving business model, branding and communication strategies of luxury goods.

Finally, remember that the recent changes in the way we work and see fashion has given us a unique opportunity to rewrite the rules of dressing etiquette in the office and you should not miss the opportunity to use what you wear to strengthen your personal branding.


Valentina Lorenzon is a member of the CMCE Coordination group and editor of the CMCE newsletter.

Tuesday 3rd October 2023
Four people in medieval dress