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Dress Code

Dress Code & Culture Change

Richard Seel

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 dress—we 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 dress code, 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.

Further reading

In Dressed for Fieldwork: Sartorial borders and negotiations, Indian anthropologist Nayanika Mookherjee explores the implications of dress when she does fieldwork in Bangladesh.

 

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Last modified: 12th January 2008
> Richard Seel 2000.

Further reading

In Dressed for Fieldwork: Sartorial borders and negotiations, Indian anthropologist Nayanika Mookherjee explores the implications of dress when she does fieldwork in Bangladesh.

 

[Up] [Home]