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The big cover-up

The Guardian
It may be summer but dressing down can cause conflict in the office. So ditch that heavy metal T-shirt, cover those shoulders and put your bra back on, says Helena Pozniak

http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2001/jun/25/officehours2

There are many ways to offend your colleagues this summer, but sartorial sins rank way up there. We all know what we're talking about. VPLs, dodgy shorts, puerile T-shirt slogans, flip-flops and hairy legs. See-through tops revealing amorphous grey bras, or worse still, no bra at all... a collection of unfortunate fashion decisions encouraged by rising temperatures.

Office wear has become so flimsy as staff strip for summer that some US firms based in Britain have instituted a dress code governing the coyly named "foundation garments" - ie: wear some (sturdy) underwear or else. "Dressing down can be a real problem," warns Matt Dean, head of employment law training at Simmons & Simmons. "Managers are trying to create the right working environment, and people turning up scantily dressed can ruin that."

And things could get trickier, employment lawyers advise. With new human rights legislation in place since October, employees upbraided for wearing too little could claim their freedom of expression has been infringed. Or those offended by barely dressed colleagues could even prosecute their employer for sexual harassment. Either way, companies are well advised to have a clear dress code that they can justify for the common good of the business.

And if you don't like what your colleague isn't wearing, don't wade in there and tell them, warns Dean. "It's a high-risk situation for a male manager, say, to tell a female junior what she's wearing is inappropriate. The conversation could so easily be misconstrued." Much better, he advises, to have a quiet word in the ear of a personnel officer, who can tactfully sort the matter. Don't ignore complaints, he says - if someone's offended, there's probably a valid reason.

But objections about dress can mask deep sexism and aesthetic bias, says business consultant and author Judi James. "Quite frankly, it's nobody else's business. Anybody who actually reports a colleague for what they are wearing should be put down the toilet, head first. Most often, it's something about their body shape that offends them more than their clothes. For instance, Julia Roberts dressed as Erin Brockovich will still look tasteful because she's got Julia Roberts' body."

While creative industries such as advertising and media can dress down with the best of them - advertising execs think nothing of wearing their best flip-flops in front of clients - confusion reigns in more traditional offices. Finance and banking have long held dress-down days - or even summers - with occasionally unfortunate results. "I've seen a man with such short shorts, he looked like he had nothing on under his jacket - just bare legs and business shoes," says Judi James. "And a woman in a leather mini with thigh-length boots - she was expressing herself big time."

IT, home to a broad church of fashion, has also had its ups and downs in the quest for comfortable dress. "When we first had dress-down, it was an excuse for all the dodgy jumpers to come out," says one senior personnel manager at an information technology headquarters. "It was like red nose day every day - really cringey." In spite of her company's official dress-down policy, she and anybody who wishes to be taken seriously at work have dressed back up. If in doubt, recruitment firm Gordon Yates advise, stay safe in tried and tested smart casuals - chinos, polo shirts, and short-sleeved suits or matching separates for women - no denim, no T-shirts, no trainers.

And regardless of company policy, what you wear is largely dictated by the preferences of your line manager. "I turned up in combats," says one city-based analyst. "My boss - who continued to wear a suit, regardless of the dress-down policy - asked me if I was off to the building site. We all copy how he dresses now."

So be kind to your colleagues this summer, advises Judi James, and spare them the worst of your wardrobe. Wear underwear, cover your shoulders, leave the heavy metal T-shirt at home and think twice before ditching your tights. Test the water before revealing your toes or taking your trainers and, it goes without saying, no socks with your sandals. "Something horrible happens when the weather's warmer," says James. "Barriers go down, fashion goes out the window and we dress like Brits abroad."

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