Suiting the times

2009-09-05 00:00

CASUAL DAY is one of the few days in the year that you can lose the bulky suit and slip on some flip-flops and shorts and go to work — provided you’ve paid your R10 to do so, that is.

Celebrations on the day give us licence to loosen up in a generally restrictive environment as far as dress is concerned, for at least nine hours a year. However, we (the working class) are most likely to spend around 2 340 hours of our year in work-wear: suits, ties, collared shirts, dresses …

Given recent media reports on municipalities around the country laying down the law about what is considered as appropriate attire for their high-ranking employees, ANGELO C. LOUW has decided to decipher what exactly you can wear at work without setting off any fashion patrol alarms.

THE City of Cape Town is one of these municipalities. A code of conduct recently drawn up restricts male full-time councillors, city ma­nagers, executive directors, and sub-council managers from wearing anything less than a jacket and tie with matching pants at council and sub-committee meetings.

Women employees are expected to dress elegantly, neatly and smartly. Their clothes cannot be excessive and provocative — that is, fit too tightly or be too revealing — or untidy.

Not so long ago, the spotlight shone on the suggested dress code for the Msunduzi Municipality.

The year was 2007 and many — including the mayor — strongly objected to the propo­sal that would have prevented councillors from wearing strapless dresses and golf shirts (to name a few) to municipal meetings and the like.

“I was not against the idea of a dress code,” said Msunduzi Mayor Zanele Hlatshwayo. “If you are invited to a black tie event, you will dress in formal wear. Council meetings are like that and you are expected to dress smartly. You can’t show up wearing jeans and a golf shirt.”

Hlatshwayo, however, said it was how the proposal defined formal wear that she had a problem with.

“They said we were not allowed to wear strapless dresses, but a lot of traditional [Zulu] outfits are strapless,” she said.

“I had a problem with them saying that strapless was not elegant, because you find strapless dresses and traditional outfits that are very elegant.”

Hlatshwayo said the current dress code has taken these concerns into account, but added that the crux of the matter is that the standards set in the original proposal were too Eurocentric.

Nevertheless, this mini-drama that unfolded on our front pages at the time serves as the perfect example of how different people view diffe­rent types of clothing.

If situations like this arise in places like local government, then it is only fair to assume that in the everyday workplace, tensions will arise about what is okay to wear. How can this be avoided?

According to Lwazi Mlaba, CEO of Human Capital Investment Programmes (a leadership, service and learning group), human resource departments in organisations need to step up in terms of researching what is acceptable in the workplace.

“What you wear to work really depends on the environment that you work in,” said Mlaba, who has headed leadership training workshops for the past four years. “In our times people want to connect with the understanding that there are no barriers between the client and the ser­vice provider.”

He said that in the banking and legal sphere, for example, it is perhaps less likely that the suite­d person is going to go away because that environment requires the keeping up of appearan­ces, and the suit is necessary for that.

He said that this is also true for those in the business world — both men and women.

Organisations like People Against Suits and Ties (Past), however, think the notion that you can be taken seriously only if you are all suited up is a ridiculous one. “It is not the suit that gets the job done, but the person in the suit,” said one of the founding members of Past, Kenneth Leigh.

Past has over the years supported the “casual day” initiative and has gained the support of over 30 000 South Africans — including celebrity sisters Kerry and Tracy McGregor.

The organisation was founded three years ago by a group of people who were fed up with having to wear suits (formal wear).

“We’re not a militant organisation,” said Leigh. “We’re not against people that wear suits, but all we’re saying is that we don’t like wearing them.”

Leigh said the organisation understands that certain jobs require people to dress in a certain way, but people should not be forced to dress in a certain way for their job.

In fact, Mlaba pointed out that, by law, we are entitled to wear whatever we want.

“I am ever so aware of the problems the ‘freedoms’ have given rise to in terms of what work can prescribe, because labour will always respond and say: it is my right to wear what I want,” said Mlaba.

He added, however, that dressing for work is dependent on what one wants and needs — and the weighing thereof.

“[A professional’s] higher need is appropriateness,” he said, “but that in itself is subjective … I think in business, what is sought after is the appropriate look, both internal and external.”

He explained that your job is something that helps you generate income, so even if you do not have the means to buy a suit, you should make a plan and invest in it. “If work defines how you need to look, then by all means do that,” he said.

Hlatshwayo said the dress code implemented by the municipality is not what is expected for municipal employees on a daily basis, but specifically at meetings.

“These are people who work in the communities, so they are not expected to work in a suit when they’re out doing their job,” she said. “What it boils down to is that there are certain times that require you to dress a certain way.”

And according to Mlaba, for most professionals, the corporate look is smart-casual or “the middle line between suited and weekend wear”.

He added that unless one is going to a meeting (as you are expected to dress formally for them), you can get away with jeans, and a formal shirt at work.

However, he added that it essential for “ladies to cover up and gentlemen to look decent”.

Some “ladies” reading this will probably think the idea of having to cover up is a sexist one.

However, Mlaba explained that, given the scores of sexual harassment suits doing the rounds, “it seems to me that if one does not want to tempt the outcome, remove the input”.

Hlatshwayo agreed with this. She said that by nature, men are visually driven and women need to keep their “beautiful, god-given bodies” under wraps.

“Let’s be honest, we walk around on the beach in bathing suits and we are not attacked, but the reality is that we are not approached with that mentality at the workplace,” she said. “You need to wear what fits your surroundings.

“Men will notice and be distracted if a wo­man is walking around with her breast showing ... And we [municipal employees] are all here to work and make decisions. How is a man going to make a decision if he’s distracted?”

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