What does ‘smart’ really mean in the New Normal, and does it make us more productive?

As the workforce returns to the office in Autumn 2021, an old chestnut has been raised once more – albeit with a new spin. What does ‘smart’ attire or ‘smart casual’ really mean, and where does the line now lie between acceptable workwear and homewear in a world of hybrid working?

When much of the workforce was working from home in 2020-21, the accepted norms of worklife were challenged, and none more so than what to wear in the office – since there was no more going to the office. It became normal to see women on conference calls without make-up or wearing scarves that covered uncoiffured hair; while suits, ties, heeled shoes and bras were forsaken in the search for comfort. Some developed a hybrid style of their own – a variation of the old Morecambe & Wise sketch where newsreader Angela Rippon was only dressed to the nines from the waist-up.

Workers have long complained that workstyle cramps their personal style, as they are compelled to buy a second set of expensive clothes that are more formal and uncomfortable than those they wear outside work. Women are sometimes told they must wear certain items of clothing or dress to promote ‘the right impression’. This often translates to heels, make-up, and shorter skirts or form-fitting dresses. But prejudice in workwear can be less obvious.

The TUC has pointed out that some compulsory workwear means women have no choice but to wear clothing that’s been designed for men by men, and doesn’t fit their bodies. This isn’t just about comfort, but also about efficacy. The trade union Unison, for example, recently noted that much PPE sourced at the beginning of the pandemic was only modelled on white males, making it less reliable for women.

Amid all the recent talk of workplaces being supportive of menopause in the drive for diversity, Rhianydd Williams, the equality officer for Wales TUC, commented that fabrics used in workwear are often man-made , making wearers hot and sweaty. She pointed out that these can be uncomfortable for all employees, but present even more of a challenge for women struggling with hot flushes.

Hairstyles are another source of controversy. Men who prefer to wear their hair longer have faced barriers to doing so even when they’ve tied it back in a fashion similar to women with long hair. People with curly or Afro-Caribbean hair have faced prejudice and criticism when wearing it naturally (untidy) or in common styles such as dreadlocks, plaits and twists that are intended to make it more manageable (unprofessional). Some workplaces even feel they have the right to dictate the colour of hair, preventing workers from putting ‘unnatural’ colours into their own hair (also unprofessional). Let’s not even open the Pandora’s box that is tattooes and piercings…

This raises the spectre of who determines the standard of ‘professionalism’ in workwear, which is a socially determined construct and subject to change, rather than being an immutable standard. When I started the world of work most people wore suits (with a tie if you were a man), a kind of dark grey uniform in itself. Casual Fridays nodded to the general dissatisfaction with such clothing, and were gradually extended into the rest of the working week. Smart casual then became the norm but confused everyone. What exactly is ‘smart-casual?’ people would ask, and their colleagues would shrug in response. No-one was ever quite sure and maybe that was the idea.

As we relaxed from tailored suits into chinos and polos, were people any less productive, creative or professional? Of course not. Appearance is only one aspect of professionalism, after all. Was allowing men to wear their hair slightly longer dangerous? Did it prevent them from doing their job? Do beards really signal the end of civilisation as we know it?

Like many trends, the push back against workwear has its roots much earlier than the pandemic. But mass homeworking fuelled the rejection of workwear where there was a choice, and rebellion against workwear that was unfit for purpose. It was actually a subtle signal of a shift in power from employer to employee, an indication of the rise in the importance of employee experience (EX), and a tangible challenge to the mantra of inclusivity that was being pumped out by corporates.

Emboldened by programmes that tell workers they’re equally valued and respected, employees have responded by pushing back on expectations around their appearance. If we’re all different, and that’s okay, then what’s wrong with expressing those differences in our clothing and hairstyles? If we respect our women workers then why aren’t their needs taken into account when it comes to clothing? Why are such old-fashioned and sexist standards applied to them? Why are highly culturally-specific standards of hairstyle applied to men? Why is conformity to a white male-oriented dress code from 50 years ago seen as a good thing?

Most depressingly, this outdated standard is often used to justify sexism in schools. Girls are forced to wear male attire such as blazers, button-through shirts and ties (which even adult male professionals have given up wearing). The uniform is so out of kilter with what an adult woman wears today that it’s fetishised. There’s a constant measuring of skirts and assessing whether trousers are too loose or too tight. A 13-year-old girl in Leeds, for example, was excluded from school because her ankles were distracting and her trousers showed the shape of her legs.

My own daughter’s school has an obsession with the distracting nature of girls’ shoulders. Girls must not, on any account, show the tops of their arms lest boys can not contain themselves at the sight of a well-turned deltoid apparently. At a school in Yorkshire girls are expected to kneel on the floor every Friday afternoon to check their skirt isn’t too far above the knee – either because they’ve hiked it up or because they grew taller and it’s now deemed too short. Sex discrimination in its most humiliating form, you might say, but it invariably also discriminates against poorer families who can’t afford to keep buying their growing girls new skirts to keep them in the golden zone around the knee.

In this way, girls are also taught that they are responsible for the reaction men may have to their appearance – the beginning of a process of self-criticism that will last a lifetime. All of this is justified by the expectation of the workplace. Girls are told that in the world of work wearing a sleeveless top would cause the wheels of industry to fall off.

Much of this is, of course, nonsense. Europe and most of the US have no school uniform and are no worse off for it. The UK, along with many Asian countries, likes the concept of uniformity. In the UK the cost of the uniform is protested annually by poorer parents: these are clothes that can only be worn for part of the day and part of the week, and having to buy two sets for home and school adds to their financial headaches, they say. As in parts of Africa, not being able to afford the correct school uniform prevents British children from attending school and stands in the way of their education.

The question we have to ask ourselves is whether any of this is smart. Is it smart to determine someone’s worth by their clothes? Is conformity and uniformity at odds with inclusivity? What – if any – benefits does uniformity confer? It means asking ourselves whether our expectations of workwear have a reasonable foundation, or are based on prejudice and, worse still, are perpetuating prejudice.

Relatively little research has been done on how workwear affects working. However, American academic David Brunsma, a sociology professor at Missouri-Colombia University, spent eight years researching uniforms in schools. He concluded that: “The results, although surprising to many, simply cannot be ignored. Uniforms do not make our schools better.” Notably, some research that has been conducted to support the argument for uniforms was financed by those who most benefit from them. One piece of research that is frequently cited by politicians in the UK was conducted by Oxford Brookes University but sponsored by the Schoolwear Association. While it found that pupils “enjoy the sense of pride they get from wearing a smart uniform, and the smarter the better,” this seems at odds with what anyone that has school age children hear from their own offspring. In contrast, Mike Slepian, adjunct assistant professor at Columbia Business School and author of ‘The Cognitive Consequences of Formal Clothing’ analysed the effect clothing has on workers. He found casual clothing makes workers think less abstractly and more concretely. He says formal dress is used to distance the worker and make them feel more powerful.

This distancing effect might have been useful in a command-and-control organisation, but in the age of teamworking – and distributed teams at that – do we really want a rigid hierarchy reinforced by dress? And doesn’t this simply alienate us even more from ordinary people? (otherwise known as ‘customers’) I’d argue that it’s hard to put ourselves in our customers’ shoes when we dress like one of the Mad Men from 1962 and thus inevitably, formal workwear is completely at odds with an industry drive towards customer centricity.