It’s time to dress down (again)

The nifty aphorism, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes,” usually attributed to Mark Twain, aptly applies to the recent announcement by Goldman Sachs that they are formally introducing informality to their dress codes for employees. Most of the Millennials effected by this latest adjustment to business culture won’t remember the pre-millennium phenomenon of ‘Casual Fridays’ (aka Dress-Down Fridays), but most of the drivers were the same and the more buttoned-up sectors had much the same internal debates about it before eventually relenting to what was seen, at the time, as an irreversible, trend in modern business.

Brands in professional services are projected through a combination of symbols and substance

But then, after the turn of the century, the dot.com boom rapidly turned to bust and out with stock options went jeans and trainers (sneakers) in the office. Back with a vengeance came ‘suits and boots’ for most of the next two decades – there wasn’t much of a change during the boom in the mid-noughties, and then the credit crunch and subsequent global recession hit, and collars, which might have been loosened a notch, were firmly buttoned up again.

SYMBOLS AND SUBSTANCE

Brands are what you stand for, and that’s at the core of this; brands in professional services are projected through a combination of symbols and substance – one without the other doesn’t work, but both together can be very powerful. Goldman and others in the professional services sector are changing for both internal and external effect. Internally, it’s all about the war for talent, particularly for the kind of employees with tech skills who tend to prefer the digital, ‘geek-wear’ uniform exemplified by people like Mark Zuckerberg. These firms need them, along with a herd of the brightest and best young people, in all areas to sustain their business models, and they need the best of them to thrive. So, if they can adapt their internal business cultures to help the best young talent feel more at home – or at least not in a totally alien environment compared to the WeWork start-up environment they’re more used to ¬– it can help them with recruitment and retention.

Dress codes, from bowler hats to shoulder pads, have always been powerful symbols in professional business circles, projecting confidence and authority

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But it’s the external forces that have really tipped the balance for banks, law firms and management consultants in favour of adopting informality. Increasingly, over recent years, bankers have found themselves turning up to meetings with clients feeling and looking like fish out of water – the bankers in suits, the clients in shorts and t-shirts, probably accompanied in the meeting room by one of the office dogs. The eye-watering, commercial rise and rise of the tech sector means that these businesses have established the zeitgeist in terms of what’s seen as attractive and aspirational. In their heart of hearts, professional service firms care about their clients and want to project a balance of professionalism and empathy towards the people paying their fees. Yes, they want to be respected, but they also want to be liked.

Dress-codes, from bowler hats to shoulder pads, have always been powerful symbols in professional business circles, projecting confidence and authority. Similarly, a 20-something man or woman with a white coat and stethoscope is transformed into a medical professional with sufficient authority to be able to gain the trust of a patient who could easily be 60 years their senior.

How long it will last this time around is anyone’s guess. Hopefully, the business world will stay firmly on the rails for decades to come – but what goes up must eventually come down and when it does watch out for that dress-code update from ‘upstairs.’



Ian Stephens

CEO and Founder of Principia, the world's most experienced branding and innovation consultancy for professional service firms.