It’s safe to say that professional dress across the globe has become overwhelmingly less strict. Gone are the days where a suit and tie were the default choice; business-casual (or even purely casual) is now the dress code of choice for the majority of workplaces.
In this brief primer I’ll discuss the role Conservative Business Dress (also known as CBD) has in the office of today and the fundamentals for putting together a professional wardrobe.
A primarily American invention, business-casual attire was born out of high-tech companies staffed and run primarily by younger guys rebelling against the stuffy and conservative attire of the business world, creating a new workplace ethos. The corporate world soon followed, beginning the Casual Friday craze of the early ’90s when managers stumbled upon a no cost solution for relaxing and motivating their employees. With one day of the week to be coat and tie free,the market was swiftly opened for smart but inoffensive clothing and Levi brand Dockers took full advantage of it – pushing their khaki trousers into workplaces across the nation. Business casual took off in full swing as ties were discarded left, right and centre. With American media and soft power at its zenith in the late ’90s, it’s not hard to see why the rest of the west quickly followed.
Many British workplaces remained a bastion of more conservative sensibilities however, in particular the firms and sectors at the heart of the City of London: chiefly finance, legal and political. Populated by the graduates of elite and somewhat insular school of Eton, Oxbridge and St Andrews and with their roots firmly in the class systems of old conservative styles remained a fact of life.
During the late 2000s a second, lesser rebellion took place in the work world with a backlash against sloppy standards of dress so prevalent. Many companies abandoned the free-for-all of business casual and more formal attire returned, particularly for client-facing positions such as sales or external consultants. Happily, right now there is a more healthy mix of the two styles in the West with neither being looked down upon as too archaic or inappropriate.
The dress demands of the office vary wildly from country to country, sector to sector and even within individual companies and departments. However, one can’t help but wonder whether or not something was lost in this evolution – the suit is now seen in-and-of-itself as “formal” (as opposed to just an everyday work outfit) and the mere act of wearing one is sometimes treated homogeneously as “smartly dressed”. Nuance and complexity within the realm of suiting: the cut of a jacket, the rise of trousers, the combination of shirt and tie, the appropriateness of shoes are lost on many. As a result, step into many offices with a suit-and-tie dress code and you’ll immediately be confronted with a smörgåsbord of different suiting styles and influences – both expressive and conservative.
Dressing well within such an organisation can require finding one’s own voice, and perhaps a return to more conservative standards is the way to go. An expertly put together conservative business wardrobe is a great way to define oneself in a subtle and elegant manner at the office – leave the amusing ties and neon coloured shirts to those around you. Or perhaps a conservative wardrobe is expected at your office – working in the City or for the European Parliament/Commission for example. Or perhaps you’re client-facing or job-seeking and need to dress in a fully professional manner. There are plenty of reasons to put together at least a few conservatively professional outfits. Or sometimes it’s simply fun to dress more conservatively for a change.
So what are the key elements of conservative professional dress for the modern man?
Naturally; an odd jacket/trousers combination won’t cut it here. Our suit should be a solid colour dark navy, charcoal or medium-grey in colour. No flashy or ostentatious patterns to distract. Although solid colours may seem dull, it offers the chance to express oneself subtly through the choice of fabric. Consider weaves such as twill, pick-and-pick (aka sharkskin) or a heavier fabric such as flannel.
The modern style for suits is of a tightly fitted, slimly cut aesthetic with little-to-no trouser breaks, thin lapels and short jackets. A modern professional look ought to find a balance between this and a more timeless style – avoid suits that are too fashion-forward or too baggy/old-mannish. Exhibit moderation in the size of your lapels (both too wide and too narrow are fashion statements) – 3.5″ is a good balance. Notch lapels. 2 button jackets, venting at your preference (I wouldn’t wear anything other than side-vented jackets myself). No ticket pocket, no slanted pockets. The button stance of the jacket should sit roughly at your natural waist (the thinnest point of your torso) rather than higher up (as modern styles emphasise). You can go lower for an even more conservative take on the jacket, but avoid going too low. Trousers ought to feature some break and a not-too-low rise. Shoulders ought to be padded and emphasise a strong, masculine shape (without entering into the ’80s). Save unpadded shoulders for slightly more casual or rakish dress.
Stick to white or light blue. Have a healthy collection of solid coloured shirts (in varying weaves if you like) before branching out and taking some more conservatively patterned ones – stripes and microchecks for example. Length of the shirt tails should be long enough to tuck in completely. The shirt should fit fantastically, with little excess fabric to billow about. In fact, the quality and fit of dress shirts is often underemphasised and an under-appreciated component of the professional wardrobe – suit jackets are often discarded upon arrival at the office and you’ll spend most working days with your shirt on display. A good fit on the shirt not only ensures that you look your best in this situation, but prevents unpleasant folds of fabric from appearing when wearing a jacket as well. I highly recommend using an online (or in person if you’re lucky enough to have one nearby) made-to-measure shirt service. These days they’re cheap and easy, and will save you a huge amount of headaches trying to find an even remotely well-fitting shirt in shops. Not to mention the customisation options ensure that you get exactly what you want every time.
Shirt collars ought to be a spread or a cut-away – points have fallen out of fashion and button-downs are not conservative enough. In American offices a button-down collar is treated much the same as any other, but in Europe or the UK they should be treated with some degree of suspicion and left alone for the more conservative outfits. Resist any temptation to take contrast cuffs and collars unless you’re over, say, 45.
Double/French cuffs are to be encouraged – especially for Brits! Professional business attire is the best excuse to wear them (they look terrible worn casually) and the extra subtle detailing and self-expression that cufflinks allow keep things interesting. Single-cuffs are just as good, and quite a bit preferable if you live in the US (where double cuffs are treated with suspicion). I personally think that double cuffs should be restricted (legally if necessary) to white shirts. A blue shirt is just a touch too informal for this particular detail. The virtues of both white and light blue will be discussed in later articles!
Having a pocket or not is quite optional. I strongly prefer without – a pocket makes a shirt ever so slightly more casual. Two pockets are out of the question here.
The tie is an area where some self-expression can be brought to the table, but also where the professionalism of the outfit can be emphasised. Solid colours are almost always a win particularly if combined with a texture such as grenadine. In fact, grenadine solid colour ties may just be the perfect business tie.
Stick to dark colours such as navy, forest green, grey, chocolate-brown, purple (a tad dandy-ish) or burgundy. Avoid black for most suits – more on that another time. Do not be tempted by bright colours such as pillar-box red – there’s no such thing as a “power tie”. Subtle patterns such as the polka dot or repeating geometric patterns are to be encouraged. Repp stripes are an OK choice, particularly in the US – in Britain beware of their associations with specific clubs and schools. Don’t go for more than two colours striped, or busy stripes.
Good choices for ties knots include the half-Windsor, four-in-the-hand, Pratt & Shelby or double-four-in-the-hand (my personal favourite by far – more on this in a later post). A good tie should naturally form a dimple – encourage and practice this.
Ensure the tie width corresponds to the width of your lapels. Skinny ties are much too fashion-forward for this level of dress.
Don’t be afraid to step away from silk towards wool, tweed, cashmere, cotton or linen ties – seasonally depending. However be cautious of bringing too casual an element into a dressy outfit (a rustic tweed tie will look well out of place against a white shirt with double cuffs).
Your tie should, naturally, hit the middle of your belt buckle. Keep your top shirt button done up and your tie situated snugly against your collar.
If you’re working in London, don’t even think about wearing brown shoes – few quicker paths to flamboyant dandy-ism exists and expect quick and stinging accusations of “dressing like a yank”. Outside of the UK dark brown shoes are perfectly acceptable – I’m enjoying my freedom in Belgium to wear cognac derbies on my more dressed down days. Oxford laced shoes are the only sensible conservative attire choice – preferably captoe or wholecut.Shoes are perhaps the most important element of a professional wardrobe and the temptation to skimp on the cost should be avoided – a good quality pair of black or brown captoe oxfords is an immensely worthy investment for the future right now. Less conservative options include wingtips (black wingtips are a bit weird though), derbies, monkstraps or even chukka/chelsea boots (see Daniel Craig’s black Crockett & Jones chukkas worn with his conservative attire in Skyfall).
White linen folded neatly in a TV fold and not fussed over. Anything else is too dandy-ish for this exercise. Don’t be afraid of the square – it’s a hallmark of professional, smart and on-point dress.
This is just the most basic of guides and we’ve only scratched the surface – individual components will be discussed at greater length and in more detail in future posts. For now though, this should be enough to get you started thinking about how to move your professional attire in a more conservative direction – a subtle yet rewarding approach to dressing for work.