June 3, 2011 1:26 pm

Why business casual makes me smart

I can think of no more depressing phrase in an invitation to any work event

All was well when the invitation arrived until I noticed the two dreaded words at the bottom: business casual. With the possible exception of “tickets courtesy of Ryanair”, I can think of no more depressing phrase in an invitation to any work event. Instead of just grabbing a suit, I was going to have to think about my ensemble. Are chinos too casual? Grey flannels too business? Suddenly a routine conference assumed the terrors of a red carpet: “OMG: Robert chooses chinos, so last season and a bit of a nightmare with those shoes.” Or alternatively: “Oh no Shawna, here’s someone in a lounge suit. You can always spot the first-timers.”

Business casual is meant to indicate a relaxed, informal atmosphere; a forum conducive to ideas and conversation. But of course it is just as much of a uniform as anything else, and how you can you relax if you are the only one not wearing it?

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Robert Shrimsley

To make matters even more complicated, the conference was in France and President Sarkozy was the opening speaker. Not that he’d be there by the time my workshop session got under way, but you couldn’t help feeling he’d set the sartorial tone. Just to add to the calculations, this was a conference on the internet, meaning many of those present never wear suits, so there was a danger of looking seriously square (as if that isn’t a danger most of the time in any case).

Ordinarily business casual for guys seems fairly clear. It is a pair of chinos, a blazer and a good shirt, no tie. But I was still uneasy. So I turned to Wikipedia. It offered little practical extra help beyond noting that “the second-from-the-top shirt button may also be opened in addition to the very top button.” Even this fairly useless advice carried the rider “citation needed”, as if to stress that the second button debate is still very much a live one.

I consulted a colleague who had worked in Paris on how he would interpret business casual. “Your best suit, a good shirt and possibly no tie,” he replied without hesitation.

So I bottled it and wore a suit, which turned out to be the right decision because pretty much everyone else had done the same. Clearly the netizens were similarly intimidated by the gold-embossed invite as many of them were suits too. Mark Zuckerberg stuck to his guns and wore a T-shirt, but that’s the kind of confidence that comes with a valuation in the billions.

Things got worse. Later there was to be a grand dinner for which the dress code was smart casual. It was clear by now that they were just toying with us. I turned again to Wikipedia. It advised that “smart casual” (as distinct from business casual) is “a loosely defined dress code, casual, yet ‘smart’ (ie ‘neat’) enough to conform to the particular standards of certain Western social groups”. Or to put it another way: “You’re on your own, pal.”

A friend’s wife acidly observes that “smart casual” means smart for the women and casual for the men. What is true is that if all these opaque dress codes are difficult for men, they must be torture for women. Dress or trousers? Fitted or flared skirt? Patterned or plain? Bare arms or covered? Is visible cleavage appropriate? This is tough. However stressful these dress codes are for men, at least we don’t have to spend time in front of the mirror fretting over the right amount of lunchbox to display in outline.

At the other end of the spectrum is black tie; now seemingly the preserve of awards dinners and the annual company knees-up. For those who dislike this garb but who know it is rude to refuse to abide by the dress code, this is something of a blessing. For it means the words “black tie” on any work-related invitation signify an inessential event, something that can be missed unless you’ve a penchant for overcooked chicken. It may be good for networking but if there was any real work going on, an ordinary suit would be fine.

Business casual is not liberating but oppressive. Surely it should either be work clothes or casual? In between is hopeless. Anything else is a failure to understand the purpose of work clothes, which are not to stand out, but to fit in. Freedom at work is a nicely tailored suit, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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