In a coffee break during a recent workshop, I was stopped in my tracks by a colleague calling to me in an astonished voice: “Phil – you’re wearing jeans!”  My blood ran cold.  He was technically my superior on the project, and was, I assumed, about to dispense summary justice for what was clearly a sartorial misdemeanour of the highest order.

As it turned out, I was in the clear; his exclamation was one not of shock, but of relief; he had assumed that jeans were not allowed on the workshop, but seeing me wearing them had reassured him. It seemed both he and I, presumably along with every facilitator and participant on the project, had been having sleepless nights inspired by the nagging question: what exactly is acceptable workshop attire?

Anyone who has ever been sent on a course knows the tightening of the stomach we all experience on seeing the words “Dress: smart casual” on a set of joining instructions.  It’s one of those oxymoronic phrases which organisations are so fond of, like ‘loose-tight’ and ‘act global – think local” (or should that be the other way around?  It’s so nebulous I can never be sure).  ‘Smart casual’ is a phrase which suggests you have a wide choice of attire, but in practice its elegant internal tension pulls you inexorably towards a nondescript middle ground: No ties - not casual enough (unless they’re ‘wacky’ and you keep your top button undone); no jeans - not smart enough (unless they’re brand new and/or ironed). Perhaps it’s time for companies to introduce the training equivalent of the school uniform. 

The only guaranteed result of all this anxiety is that participants put far more effort into packing their suitcase than they do into preparing their prework, as they imagine the door to the seminar room being blocked by a huge bald man in a penguin suit telling them threateningly: “You are NOT comin’ in dressed like THAT!”. There are, I admit, some benefits; ‘smart casual’ workshops are about the only place these days where you never see a Calvin Klein thong sticking out of someone’s low-slung waistband.  But after so many years spent looking out across a plenary room apparently filled with Marks & Spencer window dummies, I yearn for joining instructions that say “Dress: togas.”

The hideous concept of ‘casual Friday’ is another example of this phenomenon.  Men in particular develop ulcers from the agonies of choosing the right Friday outfit.  You are freed of the ‘constraint’ of having to wear a suit, yet you know very well that coming in to work as a pantomime horse or dressed like Carmen Miranda may prove to be a career-limiting move.  As a result, offices on Fridays are full of men looking like they got Gap vouchers for their birthday (indeed, in one bank I worked for, the day became known as ‘chinos Friday’ – for more polemic on this and related issues, see

Consultants suffer the same sartorial agonies, but ‘once removed’; we have to second guess how our clients will respond to their firm’s clothing guidelines and attempt to emulate them.  Some companies have a ‘loud tie’ culture; some don’t like patterned shirts.  When I worked for [insert name of global consulting firm here] a group of colleagues about to do a sales pitch to Levi Strauss realised just in time that they’d never get the business unless they turned up in jeans – and not Calvin Klein’s either.

Previous generations are often derided for their over-formality.  How we laugh at the pictures of bowler-hatted office workers flowing over London Bridge, or the novelised accounts of the painfully stilted social decorum of the late 18th Century.  Yet now, in this age of endless options, one can appreciate how such social conventions take so much of the agonies out of simple everyday decisions.  If I have to wear a suit for work, then I have to wear a suit for work – end of story.  The full range of my consciousness can now focus on what’s important.  If, on the other hand, I have to wear a suit for work except on a Friday, when I can wear whatever I like as long as it isn’t something which I afterwards discover the boss didn’t approve of, and as long as there’s no possibility I might bump into a customer, in which case I must wear a suit, because customers obviously wouldn’t understand the ‘casual Friday’ concept….. need I go on?

Perhaps I should start a joint venture with Gieves and Hawkes and reintroduce the starched collar and the bowler hat.  In the meantime, if you’re coming on one of my workshops, rest assured the dress code is either black tie or leopard skin – I’ll let you know which on Day One.  Happy packing….


© Phil Lowe, 2005.  All rights reserved.