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The workplace look

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Casual's the word... not just for everyday work attire but also the all-important `interview' outfit.

Wardrobe wise: More companies now believe comfortable clothes increase productivity. -- Picture by BIJOY GHOSH
Wardrobe wise: More companies now believe comfortable clothes increase productivity. -- Picture by BIJOY GHOSH

Nina Varghese
Raja Simhan T.E.

As a jobseeker or an employee have you ever wondered what is interview-appropriate and office-appropriate attire?

According to data from a Yahoo! HotJobs and Banana Republic survey, a majority of employees wear either business casual or casual outfits to work, indicating that more companies are relaxing office dress codes.

But it's not just everyday work attire but the interview outfit too that is becoming more casual. A number of recruiters in the survey said wearing a business suit to an interview at their company could be too formal. As a result, jobseekers are spending as much time evaluating their wardrobe as they do researching the company or practising interview questions the night before a job interview, finds the survey. "Companies are embracing the theory that comfort increases productivity," said Susan Vobejda, a career expert and vice-president of marketing, Yahoo! HotJobs. "However, people should not dress like they are going to a ballgame or a picnic. It's important to look neat and professional for any job interview."

"The line between what men and women wear for work and what they wear after-hours continues to blur," said Deborah Lloyd, executive vice-president of design for Banana Republic. "At the same time, fashion has moved back to a classic phase, with an emphasis on versatile, softly tailored pieces which work alone or as layers. The ideal workplace look is appropriate, but never stiff or formal."

What about the interview?

Workplace mentality is changing. Wearing a dark navy or grey two-piece business suit to an interview was once considered a necessary component of dressing for success. The poll suggests it may not be necessary to wear a suit to an interview to land a job. Although business casuals are becoming more acceptable even for interviews, style is still essential. Many people integrate more casual separates, and mix and match for a more relaxed, but individual, look.

The US-centric survey is quite relevant to India too. Workplace attire in India is increasingly turning casual, making employers wonder where to draw the line without being seen as oppressive or old-fashioned.

The change has been evident over the past few years and the `blame' is automatically laid at the doorstep of the IT, entertainment and media companies, which have brought in many lifestyle and behaviour changes in society

And some of the software companies that employ huge numbers, declined to discuss "workplace dressing" saying it was a "sensitive" issue.

The dressing-down trend seems more visible among women than men. Even once staid newspaper offices now have rookie journos appearing in peasant skirts, tees and jeans. Saundarya Rajesh, CEO, AVTAR Career Creators, a Chennai-based HR firm, says that industry and culture drive the dress code. Banking, stock broking, personal finance, insurance, management consulting and telecom are "serious" industries. They deal with customers in the backdrop of "serious" discussions. But on the other hand, the entertainment industry, fashion, creative arts, etc, actually encourage an informal atmosphere, where anything goes.

Anita Gupta, Senior Vice-President, JWT Chennai says that even within casual wear there are boundaries, and shorts at office are a strict no-no. Formal wear for men is shirts and trousers, while casual wear can be jeans, corduroys, linen trousers and T-shirts.

Anita says that formal wear for women definitely covers saris without plunging necklines or glimpses of the belly button. It also includes salwars, trousers and jeans, but not the torn, frayed or clinging variety. E. Balaji of Ma Foi, a Chennai-based HR company, says that organisations allow some informality in the dress code to bring an element of change and vibrancy. Some companies have set Friday aside for casual wear for all employees.

He thinks western norms have influenced formal wear concepts in India. The concept of what is proper office wear is debatable and also a sensitive matter among women workers. Many offices have formed committees spearheaded by Human Resources. These committees include mostly women and they discuss and arrive at what is appropriate for their organisation.

Christine F Jamal, Vice-President, Tata Coffee, says that people's behaviour is dictated or controlled by how they dress. The minute the dress code is made totally flexible, people almost always come dressed as if they are going for a party, or too casually, as if on a picnic.

She feels the workplace should generate healthy respect amongst colleagues. When men and women dress inappropriately, discipline is often a casualty. Christine says the fact that you have taken care to dress appropriately means that you respect yourself and those whom you meet. On a personal level she has found that when dressed well, people respond better.

Anita points out that dressing up is extremely important. Fortunately or unfortunately it is the basis on which opinions are formed. Keeping all things aside, it does give you the little bit "extra".

Dress-code tips

Top five dress code tips for the workplace from Yahoo! HotJobs and Banana Republic survey.

Some of them are relevant to India while others have to be adapted to Indian conditions.

* Avoid anything sloppy or too sexy at all costs. Even though the workplace has become more casual, sweat suits, ripped clothes and anything too exposing are definitely out. This fall in particular, a slim, tailored silhouette is the norm. When unsure, it is always best to pick a neutral colour palette, which can be chic, and is definitely "in" this season.

* Dress for the job you want. Appearance has a lot to do with getting noticed and becomes an important factor in career advancement.

* Try and keep a jacket handy and ladies, an extra pair of shoes is recommended. These are handy in case you get called in to a last-minute meeting and need a more elegant look.

* If you are unsure about the unwritten rules of dress code in your workplace, ask a supervisor or take directions from a respected co-worker.

* Stock up on different tops and accessories to give your work wardrobe more versatility. This fall, layering is a key trend.

Mixing different elements from your closet, such as cropped jackets, knits, different handbags and leggings, currently in vogue, extends the life of your work wardrobe, making you look smart.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 27, 2006)
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