Dress Code & Culture Change
All organisations have a dress
code. In some it is formal and openly specified. In most it is informal, newcomers having
to rely either on their own cultural sensitivity or the avuncular, and often embarrassed,
hints from a more experienced colleague.
There is much debate about the
values of dresswe all know that the way we dress makes statements about the way we
see the world and our place in it. Clothing has symbolic as well as practical value. In
the workplace the values associated with clothing tend to be expressed in terms of
formality or propriety. The low-cut dress may be deemed not proper enough, the wing collar
may be deemed too formal. In general, we can assume that the prevailing dress code(s)
expresses elements of the prevailing organisational culture. Indeed, the chosen (and note
that the choice may not be formal, explicit or imposed) dress code helps reinforce the
culture as well as expressing it - this kind of circularity of feedback loop always seems
to be present.
Flexibility in the code
There may be different degrees of
latitude in an organisation, depending on the staff involved. Thus there may be a rigid
dress code for security staff or reception but much more scope for the people in research
or IT. What do these differences say about the cultural attitudes to different functions?
In some organisations
non-conformity is given status, in others the reverse is true. In either case, this may
say something significant about the culture.
One particular kind of apparent
flexibility is popular in a number of organisations - 'dress-down Friday' or similar,
where on certain occasions employees are permitted (usually they are encouraged or even
commanded) to dress more casually than the prevailing dress code. Although this is often
seen as a move towards loosening the dress codes and towards more informality, many
anthropologists would see a 'ritual of reversal' here, which actually serves to strengthen
the prevailing code by drawing attention to it at the 'norm' (see The Ritual Process
by Victor Turner, Penguin 1969, pages 155ff for more on this kind of ritual). It's another
example of the exception 'proving' the rule. A similar phenomenon can be found in
'off-site' meetings, where suit-wearing managers almost vie with each other to wear the
most colourful and casual clothes.
Multiple dress codes
Most companies have more than one
, usually depending on the grade or function of the staff involved. Senior
managers may wear modest lounge suits, salespeople affect a 'sharp' double-breasted
approach, the engineers will sport short-sleeved shirts, shop floor workers have overalls,
cleaners and maintenance people wear beige coats, security are in uniforms and so on. It
is simply not sufficient to look at one style of dress and then assume that this in some
way 'symbolises' the culture.
Does the presence of several dress
codes mean that there are several cultures? No, they simply point to the fact that culture
is complex. The individual dress codes themselves are often of relatively little
significance; as the French linguist de Saussure said, Nothing can ever reside in a
single term. Instead, looking at the number of codes may give a clue to the amount
of social stratification within the organisation; it may map out the distribution of power
and authority. The rigidity of distinction between codes may give a clue to the strength
of boundaries between the different strata.
© Richard Seel 2000.
Dressed for Fieldwork: Sartorial borders and negotiations, Indian
anthropologist Nayanika Mookherjee explores the implications of dress when she
does fieldwork in Bangladesh.