Tie's the Limit: A Guide to the Modern Working Man's Wardrobe

Last Updated Mar 29, 2010 1:43 PM EDT

So now David Cameron is dressing up like the Terminator, all in black. Will it work? Will he terminate Gordon Brown or himself with his new style?

I discovered the power of dress yesterday when I was walking in the West End, in a suit. Three people stopped me to ask for directions. The suit clearly fooled the visitors into thinking that I might be both trustworthy and knowledgeable. Please don't laugh...

Then there are days when I become wallpaper: no one even notices me: these are the days when I wear a fleece and casual clothes: people suddenly see an idiot and do not bother to ask directions or anything from me.

The power of the suit is why all the sleaze bags of the world wear suits: bankers, politicians and con artists. The more sleazy they are, the more they crave the cloak of respectability. At some point, reality will take hold and when members of the public see someone in a suit, they will start throwing rotten eggs.

Corporate dress has become a minefield. You work for a top technology company: do you wear a suit and tie to convince your clients that you can be trusted with the technology on which their business depends? Or do you wear funky fashion to convince potential recruits on campus that you are part of the future and that you are not a bunch of boring old farts? Or, like Superman, do you find a rapidly vanishing phone box and change outfit depending on circumstances?

As a visitor to many different sorts of organisations, I use three rules to guide me, which are, in order of priority:

  1. Mirroring: dress to blend in. When I spoke at Skype, everyone including the CEO was in jeans and T-shirt. When I was invited to Downing Street, everyone was in a suit and tie. Dress for the occasion.
  2. Conservatism. If in doubt, err on the conservative side. You are more likely to be forgiven for being conservatively dressed than you are for being wildly dressed.
  3. Be authentic: granddad in disco dress does not work. Be true to yourself, provided you meet the first two rules.
All of this comes with a health warning. My first job offer was made on condition that I buy a suit; later, I joined a fancy consulting firm and they gave me one months salary advance...to buy a decent suit. When I became partner, the senior partner arranged my first meeting...with his personal tailor. Dress sense does not come naturally to all of us.

In the meantime, we need to move on from the business suit which has become the refuge of sleaze merchants. Business casual is neither casual nor business like. I favour a return to Georgian dress (frock coats, bright breeches) or 1960s 'Austin Powers' style all in one space suits. That really would give Brown and Cameron something to think about...

(Pic: Kent Wang cc2.0)

  • Jo Owen

    Jo Owen practises what he preaches as a leader. He has worked with over 100 of the best, and a couple of the worst, organisations in the world, has built a business in Japan; started a bank (now HBOS business banking); was a partner at Accenture and brand manager at P&G. He is a serial entrepreneur whose start-ups include top 10 graduate recruiter Teach First and Start Up, which has helped over 250 ex-offenders start their own businesses. He has and has spent seven years researching leadership, strategy and organisation in tribal societies. His books include "Tribal Business School", "How to Lead and How to Manage." He is in demand as a speaker and coach on leadership and change. His websites include Tribal Business School and Leadership Partnership