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Choosing What To Wear To Work. Is it Ever That Serious?

Former US President Barack Obama came face to face with this dilemma when, on one fine Thursday afternoon in August 2014, he picked a khaki suit to wear as he addressed the press. Never mind the content of his speech, on that day, the president’s choice of dress scandalized Washington, almost sparking world war 3 as far as republicans and self-appointed fashionistas on social media were concerned.

“There’s no way any of us can excuse what the president did yesterday,” Republican. Representative Peter King said on TV the following day. And he meant it too.

When The Independent reported the incident, its headline read: President Obama’s choice of suit is more important than Ukraine, Isis and the Middle East (apparently)

It didn’t help Obama’s cause that two years earlier, he had told the world, via an interview with Vanity Fair magazine that he only wears grey or blue suits, “I don’t want to make decisions about what I’m eating or wearing because I have too many other decisions to make.” He said.

And he was right. Decision fatigue is a thing; a psychological condition in which a person’s productivity suffers as a result of becoming mentally exhausted from making many hard decisions throughout the day.

Essentially, what Obama was saying was worrying over things like what to wear every day, would make him become less efficient at work. And everybody was OK with that.

Until the day he wore that Khaki suit.

That day, his decision earned him a notorious spot in the court of public opinion.

To suit up or to dress down

The future, it appears, vindicated Obama.  The fact is that remote work has now made it possible for people to virtually (pun intended) wear whatever it is that they want to work. The formal suit days in the office are, apparently gone. But even pre-covid, and before remote work became a buzzword, more and more of the new generation of workers had started ditching the suit and opting instead for the ‘smart casual’ look.

Smart casual is a mode of dressing that is neat, conventional, yet relatively informal in style. This generation of workers says that it gives them the opportunity to step out with a certain edge in their personal style.

But some beg to differ.

A significant number of the (mostly older) population still believes that wearing a suit is extremely important in the workplace. For this population, work is duty and duty equates to following the rules.  According to them, there is a time for duty and there is a time for personality. And when it comes to work, duty transcends personality.

“This whole smart casual business symbolizes a general drop in standards, our thoughts, our self-discipline, our choices”, I over-heard one CEO lamenting.

Hearing him talk, I tried to picture a President making an inauguration speech in silk pants and a tee…The image didn’t conjure up the desired imprint in my mind because, let’s face it, a dark bespoke suit does cut a pretty commanding look. 

Substance over style

Which then begs the question- was the late Steve Jobs decision to wear his signature black turtleneck with jeans and sneakers every single day symbol of low standards? Does Mark Zuckerberg’s typical choice of a grey t-shirt with a black hoody signify a lack of self-discipline?

I think not. 

No doubt the world would be an extremely boring place if we all wore the same exact thing every day.

And yet, life is complicated enough. Is it worth spending so much time worrying about things that, ultimately, have no substantial consequence?

Women, especially, are judged particularly harshly in this department…Her dress was too tight, her heels too high, her jacket was hiding her figure, her blouse was too motherly…Everyone and their dog has an opinion on what a woman chooses to wear both in and outside the workplace.

It may be that books are still judged by their covers and truth be told, I do appreciate it when people put some thought and effort into their appearance. But in the end, does any of this ever really matter?

While the Tom Ford combo can cut a commanding presence, it will only take you so far. After that, it comes down to what lies beneath. I look at at this way: What you wear will get their attention, but who you are is what will retain it. Because one’s character or abilities are not to be found in the clothes they wear.

Also read: The Future of Employment and What Recruiters Will Be Looking For

Damaris Agweyu

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