24 January 2000
Friday, midday. I'm entertaining clients at The Ivy. I'm wearing a dark blue cashmere gilet, silk blend chinos by Ralph Lauren, taupe pashmina socks, a hand-stitched alligator belt... but not really. This is London. It's Wednesday, I'm sitting at my desk and what I'm really wearing, in common with every other lawyer this side of the Atlantic, is a suit.
For how much longer, though, I'm not sure. Something tells me that the business suit is about to meet its maker. Wherever you look the signs seem to point to its sovereignty being challenged by the new and irresistible force of smart casual. Even the City - the last bastion of formality - may be turning into the People's Republic of Chino.
Like it or not, the business world is being made over - loosening
its tie, unbuttoning its suit and slipping into something more comfortable.
In the business of UK law, the trend is as yet invisible to the naked eye, but I have a hunch that lawyers the land over will need to follow this one closely. Guys, Karl Lagerfeld is not brewed in Munich.
The concept and practice of dressing down for business has been around for at least 10 years in the US, driven largely by the new business orthodoxies of the internet economy. And far from changing the face of business as we know it, it has simply emphasised the deep gulf between those who do dress down and those who do not. Touring the business parks of California (as you do) in a British business suit and tie is to invite an assumption that you are not a lawyer but a bailiff.
Oliver James, the clinical psychologist, says that the reason dress-codes have proved so enduringly popular is that people like to punctuate the transition from home life to working life, and that working clothes allow them to behave differently at work than they would at home. Sounds plausible, but this theory is dependent on the assumption that people actually go home, which I understand is no longer the practice in some law firms.
But resistance to dressing down probably has more to do with the fact that business is still run largely by folk who are to fashion what global telecoms are to Postman Pat.
Naturally some solicitors will be wary of unleashing the dark and terrifying forces of individualism, particularly in front of their clients. No-one wants to deal with people looking like characters from the Cartoon Channel - unless of course they are the Cartoon Channel.
But in the US this fear hasn't proved to be justified. Allowed to dress to please themselves, few people and even fewer lawyers will arrive at work in tank top, kitten heels and (pace David Beckham) thong. Perceived wisdom has it that in the People's Republic of Chino, what people really like to do is let rip and... conform.
I certainly cannot believe any of this is going to be a threat. After all, the terms "business casual" or "slacks" are codes of dress and not new client-service models.
On a deeper level, perhaps our dependency on the suit and all it stands for masks a deep-seated neurosis or two: the inability to accept change or a too intransigent view of how things should be done? If so, getting our business kit off and our casual gear on might help.
Now where has that gold medallion got to?
Leslie Perrin is managing partner of Osborne Clarke. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org