Marketing manager Alan O'Neill dressed in a suit for his first day at tech company Optimal Workshop, but he was the odd one out. "I quickly realised that isn't the norm or culture of the office," he says.
Optimal Workshop is one of a number of Wellington workplaces encouraging their employees to dress casually, a come-as-you-are approach that is now more of a norm than wearing a tie.
"It instantly makes you feel comfortable," O'Neill says. "When you leave work, or on weekends, you wear casual clothes, so [this way] you feel normal, comfortable, you're not trying to be someone else. It's a good feeling."
Casual work clothes are now an ingrained part of the IT industry. He reckons it promotes better relationships with his colleagues, and people from other organisations don't bat an eyelid any more.
Wardrobe Flair personal stylist Trudi Bennett says it all started with "casual Fridays" and it has now become the norm - but people are actually pretty confused about where the line is.
Bennett is called in to workplaces to help people work through what is appropriate and what's not.
"Ten years ago, people used to have their suits and then they'd come home and put their T-shirts and jeans on. Smart casual came and it threw a spanner in the works. They understand work, and casual, but they didn't understand the blend."
Not helping is the fact that different workplaces interpret casual in different ways, but Bennett says it is important to get it right because it affects people's perception of a person.
Employment lawyer Barbara Buckett agrees, which is why lawyers are still wearing suits.
"For us, we are a professional organisation and there's an expectation on how we present ourselves in all aspects, of which dress is an important part."
But she still likes to jazz up the corporate attire, and about 15 years ago started working with a stylist. "Mainstream corporate gear is quite often very dreary or dowdy or staid, so I've departed from that . . . we take the basis as the corporate style and then we play with it."
Mandatory menswear store owner Clare Bowden agrees lawyers are one of those professions that will always stay sharp: "They can't be shabbily dressed, they can't rock up looking like they didn't get paid for the last case they took."
And she says the casual trend has been messy and complicated, and at times inappropriate. "The feeling is some people are taking the mickey and they've really dropped their game."
The best way to approach it is to have smart, well-tailored garments on hand when needed.
"They just need to present well, and the scope for doing that has been a lot broader. There's a lot more individuality, but the standard has to be quite high."
Bowden is predicting a comeback for the dressier look, but ties may now be reserved for evening wear and special occasions only.
"There's not nearly as great a number wearing ties or needing to wear them for work. Some people are opting to as personal style, but it's improved the standards of ties out of sight, because they're not just part of the uniform."
HOW FAR IS TOO FAR?
Barkers' stylists The Panel have had a go at demystifying the different types of casuals and formals for men:
Smart-casual: You can get away with almost anything a step above a tracksuit here. The key is to make sure everything is clean and in good condition. A solid pair of jeans with fresh Converse or a casual boot will save you in almost any situation.
Casual corporate: Think beyond shirt and jeans. Try a chino with a dress shirt and a blazer, or pair a blazer with your jeans. A dress pant with a contrasting blazer is also a great look - navy and grey works well. In colder months, layer a merino over your shirt, or try a merino cardi in place of a blazer.
Semi-formal: Often tidy jeans paired with a shirt and leather/suede footwear will do the trick. A coated jean or a chino is also a good option in this situation.
Formal: At the very least, dress pants and a shirt are required. A full suit and tie would also be acceptable, or a blazer with a contrasting dress pant. Be sure to wear a dress shirt - not a casual shirt. Typically dress shirts are plain - no button-up sleeves, for example. Make sure your shoes are polished and in good condition, and that they match your belt.
And Trudi Bennett's advice for women at the office: "If you can see up it, down it or through it, don't do it."
- The Dominion Post
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