Is it time to reimagine the workwear wardrobe?

Business casual and casual chic may be the way forward for now. It may be a while before Indian workplaces begin embracing the unbuttoned plaid shirts, ripped jeans and pajamas

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The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped work life the world over. The idea of flexibility at the workplace has more or less entrenched itself even as employees are transitioning out of working from home. However, has flexibility equally permeated workplace sartorial norms?

Well, it may be worth remembering that many may not be willing to let go of the indescribable comfort of working from home, even when they’re not working from home. So, are Indian workplaces ready to see employees saunter into office in T-shirts, tank tops, ripped denims, and sweatpants? HRKatha spoke to some Indian HR leaders to find out their take on the subject.

“Smart dressing, not formal dressing is the need of the day”

Thabitha David, CHRO, Sterling Holidays

Dress code is a symbol

Although corporate spaces have traditionally adhered to a formal dress code, the tacit imposition of dressing rules came into question even before the pandemic.

Back in 2019, Goldman Sachs sent out an internal memo announcing it was time ‘to move to firmwide flexible dress code’, while simultaneously advising employees to “exercise good judgment in this regard”. While the message could be described as ambivalent, it did seem to hint at embracing more relaxed dressing at work, a semi-eschewal of the once-sacrosanct business suits and pumps.

At about the same time, Virgin Atlantic also relaxed its dress code for female flight attendants. Mark Anderson, executive vice president of customer, Virgin Atlantic, was quoted as saying that the changes were prompted by a company survey of employee preferences. The changes, he remarked, would offer female flight attendants “an increased level of comfort” and “more choice” for expressing their individuality.

Manish Sinha, SVP and CHRO, Mahindra and Mahindra Automotive Business, echoes a similar view. According to him, allowing employees to dress as they like to at work is widely interpreted as granting freedom, respecting their individuality, and most of all, making them feel they can be themselves, unbound by conformity to a specific code or culture.

“An employee should not be sloppily dressed, or in a way that is overly casual”

Pia Shome, chief people officer, U GRO Capital

However, Sinha is quick to warn against the dangers of stereotyping organisations on the basis of their dressing conventions. “Just because an organisation follows a more traditional dress code, doesn’t mean an employee’s voice isn’t respected, or it has no understanding of diverse perspectives, or is close-minded,” he opines. He goes on to add, “I feel this is just an inference. The dress code at an office is like a symbol; multiple meanings can be read into it”.

Importance of power dressing

Sartorial choices at the workplace aren’t just about expressing individuality. The idea of ‘power dressing’ evolved in the 1970s to enable women to display authority and competence in contemporary male-dominated workplaces, while at the same time appearing feminine and de-emphasising their sexuality. Its relevance continues, what with scores of experts still equating the idea with confidence.

Stressing the importance of the right combination of power dressing and grooming at the workplace, Pia Shome, chief people officer, U GRO Capital, describes power dressing as “any outfit that one derives power from”.

“Of course, people should wear what they feel like, what looks good on them, and what they are comfortable in. However, a sense of discretion, a measured freedom of expression, should prevail,” opines Shome. She further underlines the importance of time and occasion, remarking that people dress differently with friends, at pooja ceremonies, at a funeral, or when elderly members of the family are around. “Likewise, an employee should not be sloppily dressed, or in a way that is overly casual. There is nothing restrictive about it,” she adds.

“Just because an organisation follows a more traditional dress code, doesn’t mean an employee’s voice isn’t respected, or it has no understanding of diverse perspectives, or is close-minded”

Manish Sinha, SVP and CHRO, Mahindra and Mahindra Automotive Business

A similar opinion is voiced by Thabitha David, CHRO, Sterling Holidays. “The workspace is not one’s personal space,” she points out. “Stepping inside one’s workplace is like switching on a different mode – a sombre, focused, work-oriented outlook. Sporting slippers, or Bermuda shorts, or Hawaiian shirts to the workplace will viscerally trigger feelings of relaxation and leisure!” she quips.

However, David isn’t enamoured of traditional workwear – suits, ties, pencil skirts, the works – either. “Smart dressing, not formal dressing is the need of the day,” she feels. She defines smart dressing as appearing well-groomed, wearing ironed, sharp, chic and comfortable outfits, and polished shoes.

“Ultimately, it’s not about others; it’s about oneself. One’s attire has a subliminal effect on the mind, and should consequently enable one to give one’s best at work,” she underlines.

Sartorial inclusivity

Kavita Singh, CHRO, United Breweries, enunciates a slightly different opinion. “Casual dressing has become the norm across sectors,” she says, going on to opine that diversity and inclusion must encompass sartorial freedoms. “Dressing is about who one is; about being oneself. What’s wrong with wearing a round neck T-shirt to work?” she questions. “Unless of course it is faded, fraying, torn, or shabby,” she adds.

According to her, the word ‘allowed’ connotes authority and dominance. “Should such choices be dictated by an organisation?” she asks.

Citing the example of Facebook co-founder & CEO Mark Zuckerberg – who has long been known for wearing the same gray tee and jeans to work every day – Singh elucidates how no-frills, understated casual outfits don’t necessarily come in the way of bringing one’s best to work.

“Casual dressing has become the norm across sectors”

Kavita Singh, CHRO, United Breweries

“Recently, I went to deliver a talk at IIM Udaipur. My remark that casual dressing would be a norm was met with a resounding round of applause from the audience, comprising 400+ students,” recounts Singh, suggesting the wide preference for casual dressing among Gen Z individuals, the workforce of tomorrow.

But just how far Indian organisations would be willing to let workers push the envelope in terms of casualwear in the next decade begs another debate.

“Many organisations may not approve wearing shorts and flip-flops to work. However, there aren’t too many nowadays that categorically forbid jeans and T-shirts,” notes Sinha, alluding to the near-universal acceptance of the business casual and casual chic at workplaces.

So, for now, it is business casual all right. Looks like it may be a while before the sweatpants, joggers, and grunge-style plaid shirts – unbuttoned, oversized, and what have you – make their appearance at Indian workplaces.

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