An update on the Dress Down phenomenon


In business initial impressions can be potentially damaging. It is during these initial critical seconds that reputations are made or broken – known by psychologists as *The Primacy Effect. You may be brilliant at what you do, but unless you are recognised as such you may be ignored. Ingrained personal habits, scruffy and insanitary appearances can sink any career or corporate reputation. The old proverb “the first impression you make is the most lasting” is terrifying and true. If a corporate image is insanitary, unless the reputation has been fully and firmly established, it will become the personal and defining signature. Once an image is stuck, it is extremely difficult to dislodge. Those who polish up their primacy effect and know how to use it, win the day in the influence stakes.

It’s a huge corporate image dilemma. Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley joined the growing ranks of corporations that have decided suits will no longer be required working wear.

The decision has been prompted by the new generation of business school graduates that have decided pro-suit is anti-tech – lose the suit to gain instant credibility. Anne Hollander, fashion historian and author of Sex and Suits a book on the history of modern dress compares this trend to the plight of the skirt in the 1970’s, when feminists boasted “I don’t own a skirt”. The casual trend began in the mid 80’s when HR departments in the USA decided that a weekly dress-down would be fun and free and an employee perk.

However, converts to the suitless society beware!

The role of the suit has changed forever. Gail Cameron, International Image and Communications Consultant warns “Unless your reputation has been fully and firmly established, I would treat dress-down, as a piece of rope by which you may hang yourself. Your approach to image needs to be strategic. Understand your discipline and the expectations of your client before you grab that golf shirt! Consider that clothing adds a metaphysical element, such as the feeling you get by putting on your dinner jacket for an important event, or the feeling one has when dressing in a suit that makes one feel powerful. The essence of image is about feeling good. When you feel good you project power.

Bankers like Morgan Stanley are suffering from ddss – dress down stress syndrome. “Morgan Stanley’s London Trading floor is a fashion shambles”, says one employee “Some in suits still, some in suits with no tie, visiting Americans in Banana Republic gear and a few in T shirts and jeans. Casual wear is a struggle. Steven Balmer an attorney at PwC says the PwC legal department has trailed the rest of the company in the move toward casual because, “to some the suit is still a sign of power”

There is, however, evidence to suggest that certain corporations are reviewing their unilateral dress down policies. Merrill Lynch, who was one of the first large corporates to institute the dress down policy has re-instituted “dress-up”, as there was a marked increase of absenteeism, and general lackadaisical attitude to work, that was attributed largely to the informal dress code. One executive noted: “dressing-up has improved the general work ethos. Our people are taking their work more seriously. For the foreseeable future anyway, dress-up will stay” This is good news for most people who look lousy in jeans or leisure wear they choose for business casual.
*(Reference : Prof Michael Shea “The Primacy Effect)

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