10 July 2000
It's one of the pitfalls of being a dress down firm five days a week. One minute you're in your bespoke two-piece smooching a multinational board, and the next you're in the back of a cab acrobatically slipping out of your turn-ups and into chinos and Paul & Shark when you notice... the cool, assessing gaze of a busload of Japanese tourists. Still, as they say in the smart-casual business these days - chic happens.
It could have happened a lot. As women will appreciate, allowing men to dress to suit themselves could have produced more tragedies than a wet weekend in Stratford. But it didn't. It loosened us up. We have a whole new understanding of the term 'Gap' year. We're changed men (and women). But it comes as no surprise to hear that as we are getting our business kit off, our US clients are struggling back into theirs.
Over there, the backlash has been attributed to a number of things, among them a tightening in the economy. Apparently casual dress is associated with the high point of the economic cycle and the return to smarter dress is a sign of tougher times to come. It's happening here too. A poll by the Society of Human Resource Management claims the number of firms that allowed casual dress once a week has dropped by 10 per cent in a year - and it predicts that the trend will continue.
What is a stitched-up lawyer to do? Like the English on the fields of Charleroi, we just can't seem to win. We wear a suit, we're hopelessly old hat; we switch to chinos and we find the fashion flavour of the day is... what else but a suit?
Excuse me while I consult my business casual communication image consultant (only joking!), but the trend has, I suspect, little to do with falling standards at work or modish semiotics of style as economic indicator.
Consider Silicon Valley. The dotcom guys do not wear business suits because it doesn't suit the way they do business. They don't have jobs, they have lives where the line between worktime and non worktime is blurred beyond distinction. They don't need clothes for work and clothes for home, because, of course, they never go home.
And there's a further consideration. On precisely what as a tyro tycoon do you spend your hard-earned wad... more chinos and polos? No way. You want the sort of status, credibility and respect that only the sharpest most expensive threads can buy. And of course a formal suit has a major advantage in its ability to differentiate you from your forty-something boss - in his chinos. As kids the world over know - once Dad starts wearing his Calvins à la Marky Mark, it's time to re-think.
This is precisely what some people are doing. And let's face it, lawyers are not at the bleeding edge of style. If anything, we're the original triumph of form over style. We're more Lock Stock and Two Smoking Jackets. And our clients love us for it. Going casual has made us more relaxed, changed us in a raft of subtle ways - and for the better. So if it is now démodé to wear chinos and polos, then I for one am happy to carry on basking in the unstructured if unmodish waistband of my (classic flat-front) khakis and let clients wear the (fine gauge cashmere with the hand-rolled turn-ups) trousers. For now.
Leslie Perrin in managing partner of Osborne Clarke. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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