“Business fashion: suit or hoodie?” was the main topic of a Personalmagazin Talk from 2021, in which Prof. Dr Thomas-Breyer-Mayländer discussed current trends and the changing meaning of business fashion with Prof. Dr. Barbara Vinken, Thomas Wartner and Katharina Schmitt, editor of Personalmagazin. The pandemic is over and this raises the question of how the business dress code will develop in the office. Have the suit, shirt and tie for men and costume and blouse for women become obsolete? Or are we going back to traditional dress codes? IBA editorial team talks to Prof. Dr Thomas Breyer-Mayländer.
In a modern working world with hybrid work, home office and alternative work locations, do you think formal business dress is still appropriate at all?
We are experiencing a significant change in business dress. If the subsidiaries of established German industrial companies adopt a dress code based on hoodies in order not to fall behind visually in direct competition with tech companies, this has consequences for all partner companies that perceive this dress code and adopt it for themselves as well. However, this does not mean that formal business dress is no longer in demand. With a suit or fancy dress, one can now set a deliberate counterpoint, which is also still considered rather standard at many conferences or industry events.
In your book “Führung braucht Klarheit” (Leadership needs clarity) you describe that successful leaders need to be clear about their role, their style and their goals. How do clothing and dress codes work and to what extent do they support the performance of executive functions?
For managers it is first of all crucial to keep in mind that everything they do and don’t do (you can’t not communicate in the sense of Watzlawick) has an effect. Managers are examined much more closely than normal colleagues. The signals from executives are interpreted directly by their colleagues. They are role models in a certain sense. This also applies in particular to their dress. As a manager, you can therefore consciously decide to set yourself apart, or you can decide to approach the team in terms of clothing as well, in order to be part of the whole and thus signal flat hierarchies at this level as well. In the company itself, style and dress code can create a feeling of togetherness within a group. This can be individual teams or departments or even entire divisions and companies. It is important that managers use their design options for salutations, clothing, etc. to consciously define their role and support, for example, the conscious definition of closeness and distance.
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What can younger generations of employees in particular look to for guidance when it comes to appropriate business dress? How important is a role model function in this case?
For younger employees, the anchor point at the colleague level is usually decisive. How do colleagues dress whose role in the team, but also towards superiors, is seen as positive? Then you can decide for yourself, according to your own standards of dress or non-verbal signals, how you define for yourself in this environment what is appropriate dress and what constitutes your personal style. This can also be more formal dress, where you use certain elements such as a jacket with a pocket handkerchief almost as an ironic quotation.
What contribution does business dress make to corporate culture? Is a softening of strict business dress codes and thus an individual clothing culture in the office worthwhile?
When it comes to the question of individuality and the need for conformity in business dress, we currently have two trends. At the moment, it is rather the companies that want to get away from the traditional dress code culture that are creating much more pressure to conform with corporate hoodies than the companies that are adopting classic business women’s and men’s fashion as the standard. This apparent contradiction can then be resolved by looking into the question of where the desire for a radical change in corporate culture in the field of dress comes from. The goal here is to consciously change the level of the artefacts, i.e. the directly visible embodiments of corporate culture, in the further development of corporate culture towards a more agile and digital culture with flat hierarchies, more self-responsibility and entrepreneurial freedom of activity in the sense of an entrepreneurial culture. In this context, dress is a very important element that is directly visible and can be experienced.
Where is the journey for business dress codes heading in the next few years?
Clothing as a cultural factor will continue to play a decisive role in the future. Here, in the end, the tightening personnel markets will also ensure that companies will consider how they remain or become attractive for what kind of candidates. From a leadership perspective, it is important to be aware of the importance of clothes as a building block of leadership and corporate culture. This can work both ways: Hoodie, jeans and sneakers can work just as well as the three-piece suit and waistcoat or the suit. It all depends on the message you want to send with your choice of business dress style.
Prof. Dr Breyer-Mayländer, thank you for the interview.