Robyn Vinter: Why the suit needs to just go and die

What we wear shouldn’t matter that much

One of the most amazing things about the human race is that it constantly strives for innovation. Almost everything we do is designed to be an improvement on the status quo – making things easier, cheaper, smarter, faster, better. So why on earth are we still wearing the same freakin’ clothes we wore more than 100 years ago?

The last century has seen a whole range of fashion trends come and go, but business has dolefully stayed the same.

Dreary wool, cotton or (God forbid) polyester in varying shades of black, grey and blue has suitably disguised any hint of personality, with a coloured tie or blouse the only real way of guessing what a person is really like. Even then, it’s only a small clue, because we’re all encouraged (either overtly in a company’s dress code, or covertly in an unspoken social code) to keep the style muted, avoiding patterns or colours that might seem flashy or jazzy.

The existence of the suit creates a barrier to engaging other people because its uniformity masks character. It shouldn’t be a surprise at a business event to discover after a 10 minute conversation that the be-suited person you’re talking to actually has a personality.

The worst thing is sometimes we’re judgemental about even a small slip in this code: “her dress should be knee-length”, “he shouldn’t be wearing red socks”, “blah blah blah bowtie”, “blah blah stockings”… well, you’ve heard them all before. Getting hung up on whether you can or can’t wear open-toed shoes is just crazy, considering what’s really important at work.

Go to any London business gathering and you’ll observe a sea of grey and black– the occasional blue shirt or red blouse standing out a mile off. Among the murmur of networking and tea cups clinking, there’s often a clack-clack of heels on marble or wooden floors.

I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but those shoes are actually really uncomfortable. You know what are comfortable? Trainers. Companies spend thousands on things like air-conditioning systems and ergonomic chairs to make their staff comfortable (and, in doing so, increase productivity) and yet they make employees wear restrictive clothes that squash their personalities.

Don’t believe me? What’s the first thing you do when you get home from work? The answer is pretty much always “get changed”.

Peter Thiel, the venture capitalist who was the first from outside the company to invest in Facebook, has said as a blanket rule he never invests in a business where the CEO wears a suit.

His angle is that a successful and confident person doesn’t need to wear a suit. And the research supports this theory. The Economist reports researchers at Harvard Business School call it the “red sneakers effect”, after finding professors who dress less formally at academic events are thought of as more knowledgable.

In Silicon Valley, suits have been over for 10 years and during that time it has drawn in the world’s best young business talent. What’s great to hear is the new generation of American entrepreneurs’ hoody-and-trainer style is beginning to drip through to London.

What we need to do is to teach young businesspeople coming out of schools and universities that it’s their vision, their talent and their brilliant ideas that matter, not their £100 suit from Next.

Do you agree? Tweet me your thoughts @robynvinter

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Readers' comments (3)

  • I disagree with just about everything you say. Nothing is worse than the current "Slob Style" taking over the west. I once had a meeting with a very senior director in a "Progressive" financial company who looked like he'd dressed from his dirty washing bin and chided me for wearing a suit!

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  • Ha, thanks Nigel - though I hasten to add I'm not suggesting people wear dirty clothes!

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  • I agree with Nigel, some people may feel better in their self by getting dressed to go to work, I think it shows what the person and business is all about, when you have as Nigel said, people who's wardrobe is their wash bin. Also Robyn, there must be far more important things to write about!

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