The Power To Dress As You Like

Of late there’s been quite a lot of column inches produced about the sartorial choices of Steve Hilton, former Director of Strategy for David Cameron. He of the beach-bum-by-way-of-no.-10 look. The man with the audacity to meet President Obama whilst wearing only socks on his feet.It’s fascinating how much of a stir one man can cause as a result of straying from the acceptable norms of attire. This isn’t a storm in a teacup on the fashion pages either – I don’t think fashion editors would allow him onto their pages – Hilton’s personal style has been written about in the news sections of various broadsheets. It begs the question; does allowing yourself sartorial freedom give you power or does power give you sartorial freedom?

It is a long-established fact that clothes are as much a form of communication as speaking and body language. The likes of Ted Polhemus and Alison Lurie have written copiously about the subject. It isn’t just what you wear, it is how you wear it, when you wear it and what you wear it with that forms the message for others to read. But is the dress code for power shifting?

Another ‘radical’ is Mark Zuckerberg, he of that little social network thingie. He is well-known for attending Wall Street meetings in a hoodie and jeans. This is probably to be considered even more scandalous given his recent windfall of a few billion dollars. Call the cops!! Would we think of Mark Zuckerberg in the same maverick light if he had long since left behind his college kid style and adopted bespoke suits to rule his empire in?

And what about for mere mortals? My husband (sorry husband, you are of course a deity in my eyes) owns a creative business. His day-to-day attire is very much of the Zuckerberg variety. But he works with a lot of corporate clients and whenever he has to art direct a shoot involving such clients, he dons a suit.

As an ex-stylist, I have been known to laugh at the preposterousness of wearing a suit to a shoot. I’ve made the suggestion that given his status as a company director, he should be able to wear what the hell he wants. His retort? That he has more power if he is dressed on a level with his clients. Kow-towing to what is expected or arch manipulation of a situation?!

Another thing that fascinates me is the practise of Dress-Down Fridays. Have you ever wandered into an office in the midst of a Dress-Down and noticed that though there are no suits, there is another uniform of sorts – chinos, casual shirt and perhaps a jumper slung round the shoulders?! The employees have seemingly been given the power to dress as they please, but the reality is that the power is still all with the employer.

On the flipside, there are more and more companies of the Facebook ilk springing up, where casual is the norm. CEOs are indistinguishable from office assistants. So, when casual is the norm, what do you do to gain or retain power? Is it laughable to imagine that an office assistant wanting to assert themselves within this kind of casual environment could gain power simply by wearing a suit?

Perhaps this is where I find the answer to my question; does allowing yourself sartorial freedom give you power or does power give you sartorial freedom: It is the person who dares to wear exactly what they want to wear who has real power, be they a CEO or an office assistant. As Roxette once sang, you’ve got to get ‘dressed for success’. But long gone are the days when that automatically means donning a suit.


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