When Fashion Comes To Work

The following is my column for today, August 14, 2006 at the op-ed section of the Manila Standard Today:

MY VIEW about fashion is that at the very least, it is a good reminder that nothing in this world lasts. Today’s hot pick is tomorrow’s laughing stock. I am not a fashionista and I disdain spending inordinate amounts of money just to wear some Italian or American guy’s name on my person. So I have always wondered what possesses designers to come up with those creations that fashion victims drape on their bodies supposedly to assume some semblance of respectability. There are instances, of course, when the exact opposite happens; instead of achieving respectability, someone becomes a laughingstock or at least becomes the object of unwanted and unpleasant speculation (what the heck is that thing she is wearing?).

But such is the way of the world. What most everyone should wear is dictated by an elite group of people whose whims and caprices many are simply more than happy to oblige despite disastrous results. Thanks to some people who think that having the chutzpa to wear outrageous costumes qualify them as role models, we now have a situation where the people tasked with imposing dress codes in workplaces or in campuses end up having monumental headaches trying to cope with a new job description: as fashion consultants, or worse, as fashion arbiters on what is appropriate or inappropriate attire for work or school.

At the college where I teach, wearing “inappropriate attire” has become a minor offense and is a constant source of irritant between students and administrators. The same phenomenon is happening in workplaces as well. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled Style trends create troubles in the workplace detailed a list of fashion transgressions being committed in the United States today and their impact on the workplace. These transgressions have also become endemic here. Many human resource management practitioners have started to bewail the rising incidence of employees coming to work in getups that give the impression that they are either going to the mall, or worse, to bed or to the gym. I have personally witnessed two instances where a priest included in his homily a stern admonition for people to come to church in more appropriate getups. I looked around and noted that a number of the male worshippers were wearing shorts and many among the women were wearing blouses that were a little more provocative. So at least people are democratic, they wear the same thing everywhere, including Sunday mass.

This used to be pretty simple and straightforward. There was a time when business or corporate attire meant wearing a dress or a suit if you were a woman, and slacks and tailored shirt if you were a man.

Today, it looks like we will soon need the United Nations to mediate on what comprises business or corporate attire. Do sundresses qualify? How about those trendy pair of knee-length shorts that can pass off as a skirt? Will sports jackets do for formal occasions? Can men wear black shirts to work? How much jewelry (on men!) should there be? And we are not even talking about footwear and accessories yet!

Fashion trends have become more and more confusing and vexing. We not only have to make judgment calls about what comprise formal, corporate, or casual wear, we also need to distinguish what is masculine, feminine or unisex. And as if there is a dearth of more important things to debate about, we also have to make distinctions about what is business casual, casual chic, dressy casual, semi-corporate, formal laid-back. Arrrghhh!

My friends and I in the human resource management profession recently had an informal discussion to thresh out the differences between fashion terms such as flip flops, capris, culottes, pumps, dress shirts, slacks, and many other peculiar animals of the fashion world. When did it get this complicated?

Making the distinction about what attire is appropriate or inappropriate becomes even more difficult because some people do have this misplaced notion that price is an indicator of value and consequently, suitability. Thus, something that looks like a contraption to catch birds with is often being passed off as appropriate simply because it costs an arm and a leg and has some snottily famous guy’s name on it.

Take for example rubber slippers. Yes, we know those imported havaianas cost more than a whole school year’s worth of tuition in a public school in Northern Samar. But for crying out loud, regardless of whether Fidel Castro wears them, they are still tsinelas and cannot by any means of the imagination pass off as suitable attire for work or for school. But when everyone else is exclaiming about how much that thing costs, the whole discussion shifts to techniques in spotting the real McCoy from the fake instead of whether those should be worn to work or school to begin with.

Or take for example ratty jeans. I am aware of the kind of boost being able to fit into a pair of Levi’s that has been in your closet for 20 years does to one’s ego. I personally had that kind of experience a few years back when I almost burst into tears when I finally lost enough poundage enough to be able to slip into a pair of 501s that I’ve had since college (I have since then regained all those poundage and acquired more, but that is another story altogether). But we both know that as a rule, wearing them to a formal function is inappropriate. But what if you wear them with an Armani jacket? Or if you are, say, some cool CEO worth a billion bucks? I know, I know, it will still be ratty and worn out. But the context changes and you get the drift.

The advent of the so-called metrosexual men threw a bigger monkey wrench into the discussion. Today, we have to wrestle with various interpretations of individual style. Does that crumpled, disheveled look indicate he was in a hurry to get to work that he did not have the chance to have those ironed, or is that look intentionally hip and studied? Is that untucked half of his shirt a result of carelessness, or is it a failed attempt at being cool? Thank goodness shoulder pads have not been reincarnated because I truly dread the thought of seeing other men on those things.

But what is causing this whole wrinkle? My friends think it is strongly connected to the changing lifestyle of the current generation. A coprofessor noted that kids today no longer make distinctions about what clothes are suitable for school, parties, formal occasions, etc. The New York Times article says the phenomenon is caused by the dot-com boom, which showcases “super smart people who make a ton of money who go to work with jeans and shirts.” Another friend of mine says the reason is economics, citing his labor union’s position on the issue: “If you want us to come to work in decent attire, pay us decent wages so we can afford them.” Ouch.

It is complicated. But I think dressing appropriately does not have to cost so much money. I think the issue is first and foremost one of mismatched expectations. I guess that just like in everything else where diversity is involved, we just have to clarify our expectations of each other and start from there.


jtagregado said…
Grabe. Modesty aside, even though I can afford to buy those havaianas thing of whatever kind na slippers, hindi ako bibili nyan. I dont get it. Why should I buy a tsinelas thats worth P800 - P1000++ when you can get something less than a hundred bucks but with the same quality naman.

Pero infairness, dinudumog sya sa rustan's the last time I went there.
snglguy said…
Luckily, we never had a dress code in the company where I used to work. So long as it's not too shabby and presentable. :-)
jen said…
the thing here is a lot of people are just not secure enough in their person to know what's appropriate to wear on different occasions, that they have to rely on other people's opinion of what's in and what looks good, unmindful of whether it's right. and these people are so silly as to think that every thing they see in magazines that look good on models will look good on them as well.

i'm a woman, i love stylish clothes, i'd even claim to be a fashionista. but i don't rely on magazines to come up with my wardrobe. i choose for myself what looks good on me, and what's appropriate to wear to work and wherever else i go. i have all those fashionable clothes, those multi-colored shoes and frilly tops and rubber slippers but you'd never ever catch me wearing them in the office. because i live by the principle that you dress for the job that you are aiming for and not the job that you are presently in. and i know that wearing those expensive flip flops to work will never get me the corner office. sad that people just haven't realized this.

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