The subject of business dress has changed a great deal since the turn of the 21st century. Up until that time, suits for men and women were expected in all but the dirtiest of jobs. Even then, it was not uncommon to find mechanics wearing ties. Now, dressing up seems to be confined to upmarket shops and city offices, whereas dressing down for Fridays seems to have extended to the rest of the week. What should entrepreneurs wear while at work?
Business dress as we know it probably came from the style of clothing that artisans, farmers, and merchants wore prior to the rise of the white-collar worker. Hundreds of years ago, you could guess someone’s profession by noticing what they wore: Falconers had leather padding on one forearm, and blacksmiths wore leather aprons; seaman had flared trousers, and court jesters could be seen in colorful costumes that were so silly that no one else would want to wear them.
At first, the man (or the woman) made the clothes, but gradually the clothes made man or woman. Then the dress of the day was largely for functional reasons. Leather on the forearm of falconers protected them from the claws of the bird of prey that perched on their arms. The leather aprons worn by blacksmiths kept their clothes from catching fire from the hot sparks as they were pounded off of the glowing metal. And the flared trousers were so made so that men who fell overboard could get them off more quickly.
Today, those in certain professions are expected to present a particular appearance. Suits, for example, have no functional purpose, as did the professional clothing in past centuries. In fact, suits can be very uncomfortable to wear; but they continue to be worn because that is what is considerable de rigeur for the job.
There also was a time, not long ago, when business people were expected to dress “above” the level of the customer. The intent was to provide some authority for what that person did. Suits evoked the highest authority.
Quite recently, the attitude has changed, and I think for at least three reasons.
1. Business people realized that they needed to be able to communicate with customers on all levels. If the customer wasn’t dressed up, then it looked as though the entrepreneur was attempting to be superior in some way. People tend not to buy when they’re made to feel inferior.
2. Telecommuting has meant that there was no need to “dress” for work. You could wear whatever you wanted to.
3. Generation Y (born 1980-… ) not only wanted to work where, when, and with whom they wanted, but also in the clothes they wanted. Dressing up was considered to be part of the jumped-up hierarchy that wasted, rather than saved, resources.
Today, entrepreneurs have to decide on a case by case basis what dress for them will be the most appropriate. There are no hard and fast rules. Some of the most successful people seem to wear the scruffiest clothes possible. The clothing runway has even made a fashion out of selling “pre-worn-out” apparel.