A potted history of workwear

18 September 2011 -


The 21st-century workplace is global and age-diverse. Kayleigh Ziolo explores how generational differences have created new office style rules, and how they affect management and employee relations

Clothes maketh the manager

From City law-firms to trendy design companies, there can be no single definition of office attire. A conversation in a publishing company in London addresses the wearing of a suit to the office. The responses – “it’s too ‘salesy’”, and “it’s a bit unapproachable” – tell a story. The workers here are a healthy mix of millennial creatives and mould-breaking professionals from Generation X, to whom suits make a bold statement.

Yet, with economic changes and delayed retirement, offices in the UK, Europe and the US can now contain up to four generations of workers at one time. The collective skillset of each generation is different, due to their different life experiences, work ethic and cultural references. This is a challenge for managers, yet is an enormous strength of the modern-day office.

It is not just one’s profession that influences one’s workwear choice: age is a crucial determinant. Even if you are not a dedicated follower of fashion, what you wear is defined not just by your individual taste, but also by the societal and cultural experience of your era. With most senior managers and executives hailing from the old school, clothing is not an expression of self, but a business uniform identifying the divide between the professional self and the self at leisure – therefore, a suit is the norm.

Younger employees are less likely to make this distinction, seeing work much more as part of what defines them, where expression of personality matters. Many readers will have had that family meal where they have either had their haircut/trouser/facial-piercing choice questioned by an older relative, or else done the questioning. But family members, as a rule, love each other – this interrogation may not translate so well in the workplace. The sheer gulf in life experiences between the generations comes with an increased risk of miscommunication. Gaining an understanding of the sartorial trends followed by each generation leads to a better understanding of the culture that guides them, even if we have to make some rather large generalisations…

BORN 1925-1945: the “Silent Generation”

Feeling the ripples of the Great Depression growing up in an era of war and rationing, those born in this period were dubbed the “silent generation” by Time magazine: “working fairly hard, but saying almost nothing”. People in this age group typically have a greater focus on discipline – authority and a top-down chain of command is the most familiar and favoured structure of business. They are likely to have started from scratch and worked their way up, “building” their own companies.

A handful of the very youngest of this generation are still in the workplace as they put off retirement in the face of recent economic woes, and, due to their commitment to their business or industry, will stay active in board member and associate roles. They typically wear conservative, muted suits, as they believe work is a place for uniformity.

BORN 1946-1964: the “Baby Boomers”

As the senior knowledge base of the organisation, Boomers are often semi-retired and place a high value on quality of life, and form a more flexible approach to work, often found in consulting or speaker/educator roles later in their careers. Growing up in the 1960s, a time of great social change, they are often perceived as rebellious, rejecting the traditional values of their parents, but are by no means casual. They experienced success in a period of great economic expansion, and exponential house-price growth. Many like to dress to reflect their importance and rewards – Boomers were the first to begin flashing their designer labels.

BORN 1965-1981: “Generation X”

The Xers, as they are known, sprang to working life in an increasingly technological, materialistic and fraught world. Reeling from the uncertainty and instability of the Cold War, they are fiercely independent and individual. This background often leads to singlemindedness that has earned them a reputation for getting the key job done, even if it is at the expense of fringe tasks.

Xers watched their arch-rival generation, the Boomers, reap the rewards of wealth, health and security, which they found to be increasingly out of reach. They may not look too fondly on the younger generation either: individual fashion and personal expression are important, but they consider those who do not conform to a standard of professional dress slightly churlish.

BORN 1982-2000: “Generation Y”

Critics of this generation say the babies of the workplace expect nurture and praise at every turn. Yet Generation Y draws strength from this – many of this generation are still childless and mortgage-less and, as such, are more likely to be motivated by development and recognition than salary reward. This often leads to greater innovation and creativity than their predecessor generations show. In this way, they show a degree of similarity with the Silent Generation, focusing on what they do to contribute to the good of the company.

When Generation Y first joined the workplace, their primary concern was being in a job that suits them and they enjoy. The recent recession meant that many found it harder to find such a position, but they still value a work-life balance and opportunities to shine. Often expressive and quirky, they believe a job to be part of who they are, and see little reason why they should dress differently in and out of the office.

Past, present and future

Are dress standards slipping? Henry Farrar-Hockley, associate editor at men’sp magazine Esquire, tells the Financial Times that standards of dress have now even started to slip in the Square Mile, due in part to a “relatively new culture of high-street fashion, and with it, a far less clear-cut notion of what’s formal and what isn’t”. Suits, t-shirts and everything in between are typically found in one shop, leading to this growth in mix-and-match dressing.

“The younger generation are more fashion-oriented and have a more relaxed approach, even to things like ironing and presentation,” says fashion journalist and consultant Lucie Greene. “But there needs to be some differentiation between home and the workplace. Even if it’s a youthful, contemporary look, people should put together their outfit and make an effort.”

Encouraging guidelines and personal responsibility is often more viable than a list of strict rules – with such a wide array of different attitudes in one office, dress codes can be near impossible to implement. “People should not have a dress code dictated to them,” says Angela Barnard, chief executive of image consultancy mylondonstylist.co.uk. “But they need to be reminded of the importance of smart dress – image consultants can help larger companies do this – [but] all employees should clearly communicate to their staff what the image of the company is.”

While surveys show that four in five firms believe a casual work environment improved productivity among employees, pop culture has, conversely, adopted “office chic”, most recently notable in response to the popularity of hit drama Mad Men, says Greene. Such trends mean that, although the dress code itself is becoming less commonplace, this does not necessarily lead to more casual work attire being worn. And with the creeping uncertainty in the job market, it has been suggested that some from Generation Y are being forced to take their sartorial choices in the workplace more seriously.

“Younger generations are not necessarily less smart,” says Professor Khalid Aziz, chairman of leadership coaching firm Aziz Corporation. “[But some] have just placed less emphasis on what messages their clothes are sending.” Yet, by the time that the youngest of this generation join the workplace, a more austere approach to workwear could have taken hold. Anyone familiar with fashion knows that trends come in cycles. Fashion often reflects the economic situation and, in recent years, it has seen both boom and bust. Now the dust is settling on the crash, the next generation may find the Old is the new New.

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