Dressing in the Dark

Dressing in the Dark

Things never get simpler. Even the process of making something (anything) simpler inevitably makes that thing more complicated, less defined and more burdened with real and potential problems. The certain entropy of our business lives is not chaos by decay or disintegration, but chaos by layered ambiguity.

A steady, inexorable decline marked not by a series of remarkable events but by a nearly frictionless downward spiral.

I was in Silicon Valley this past spring being escorted through the headquarters of a well-known hardware company. The view exiting the lift was that all-too-familiar expanse of cubicles, precisely arranged to maximise available floor space. Wear marks on the carpet confessed to at least two cubicle downsizings since the offices were occupied and made the placement of walls, conference rooms and coffee stations appear a lot more random than the original designers had intended. Working our way up one narrow aisle toward the CEO's cubicle (a pointless show of egalitarianism since the CEO is forced to spend most of his time in a conference room just to make a phone call), I caught out of the corner of my eye what appeared to be a very large woman with a ponytail and plaid skirt attempting to wrestle open the stuck paper tray of a copier. In desperation, the human combatant put one Nine West wedge against the side of the machine for leverage, revealing a moderately muscular, very hairy leg.

My first conclusion, that this must be an employee visiting from their offices in Paris, was proved incorrect when, suddenly aware of my presence, the broad shoulders turned to reveal a combination of moustache, horned-rimmed glasses and nose not unlike those novelty glasses we used to buy as kids that made us look like Groucho Marx. We stood and stared at each other for what seemed like 10 minutes, until my escort grabbed my arm and pulled me along toward my appointment while sheepishly explaining that "Stanley", the person at the copy machine, was the most brilliant engineer the company had.

"Of course, I knew that," I thought to myself. "He would have to be." I will always remember Stanley, not for his uncanny ability to mix styles, colours and textures for maximum heart-stopping effect or his willingness to defy the strictures of fashion by wearing knee-high nylons with a short skirt, but because he is obviously so valuable to his company that even the kryptonite of the HR department can't bring him into line.

Things Only Get More Complicated

You'd think something as benign as relaxing dress codes would have made things simpler. It didn't. Once upon a time, the rules of appropriate dress were as obvious as the biker tattoo on Stanley's forearm just above his charm bracelet.

Even explaining fashion transgressions to the offending party used to be a pretty straightforward, unemotional exercise. Not any more.

The fossil record of our evolution into this madness can be traced in the questions mangers have to ask themselves in assessing a subordinate's presentability. We've gone from worrying about whether Fred has remembered to wear his lab coat to hoping that Fred's T-shirt doesn't contain any words that might contribute to a hostile work environment. We've gone from prescribing the length of Karen's skirt to hoping that she'll leave her nose ring at home.

It all would have been so much easier if we had relaxed dress codes for the right reasons. Alas, that didn't happen either. As far as the average worker is concerned, there isn't 5 per cent worth of difference between any two established companies. Each spends a fortune on benchmark studies to make sure they're not paying employees 10 cents more than they have to, each squeezes workers into the smallest possible work space, and each pushes relentlessly on the productivity envelope while gassing about work/life balance. The casual workplace became a must-have, cost-free perk in the search for differentiation in the recruiting wars.

"Who needs child care and a cubicle bigger than a hamster cage? I get to wear Levi's to work!" I miss the days of no decisions when it came to clothing.

Like most men I know, I don't care that much about clothes, I don't have time to shop, and popular fashion is a complete mystery to me because I can't think of a single reason why, once set, fashions should ever have to change. In the good old days of charcoal grey business suits, they never did.

I ran across a fashion soul mate just last week when I spoke at a symposium for Fortune 500 CEOs concerning the impact the Internet and e-commerce would likely have on their businesses. It was a bitter disappointment to many in the audience to hear that the Internet was not the passing fad that they'd hoped it was. The event was being moderated by the president of one of the world's largest consulting firms, a tall, distinguished, white-haired gentleman (I'll call him Don) whose authoritative bearing makes him the centre of attention even in a room filled with these leaders of industry.

Don apparently packed two nearly identical pin-striped suits for this meeting, one blue and one grey, testament to both his station in life and his lack of imagination. For the most part, it's pretty hard to go wrong with suits like these: Just throw in a couple of white shirts and some red or blue ties and you're in business. Unfortunately, Don made the mistake that morning of dressing in the dark and, further, not bothering to check how he looked in the mirror before he walked out of the hotel. It can be pretty tough to deliver an important and powerful message when the audience can't take their eyes off your blue pants/grey jacket ensemble.

As I look around the office, it occurs to me that at least half the men (and more than just a few of the women) around here dress in the dark every single day. If I thought I could get away with it, I'd establish a whole new dress code whose purpose would be not to ensure conformity but rather to reduce the occurrence of hysterical blindness among those (myself included) who have to look at these getups. My rules might include the following: Avoid wearing anything other people have to read, especially when both front and back have to be seen to get the joke. And, by the way, nobody will ever believe you got that Joey's jersey playing Rugby in the First 15 at St Joseph's College - you're in IT, for Pete's sake.

Try to avoid wearing shirts the colour of sherbet. They don't look good with anything.

If your jeans have more holes in them than Windows 2000, feel free to tear them into strips and use them to wax my car.

That can of Skoal chewing tobacco in your back pocket will leave a telltale circle in the fabric, so it's best to keep it in your shirt pocket. The same goes for the men.

Ties (on those rare occasions when you do wear one) should be long enough to reach your belt. If your expanding waistline is making your ties appear shorter, either buy some longer ties or try slouching a little.

If you're feeling brave and/or desperate enough to try something this foolish, please feel free to use any part or all of my list.

At the same symposium where Don was doing his best GQ imitation, someone happened to mention that Scott McNealy of Sun Microsystems, Jack Welch's new best friend, recently attended his first General Electric board meeting wearing blue jeans and a polo shirt. In a room meant to impress, with richly panelled walls adorned with the portraits of GE heroes like Thomas Edison, our compatriot and school-yard bully, Scott, in a show of Rebel Without a Clue bravado, decided that it wasn't enough to challenge convention, he needed to push it to the ground and take its lunch money.

Smooth move, Scott. Jeez! v

Anonymous has been a CIO at household- name companies in various industries for over 12 years

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