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The Designer’s Dress Code

Following on from Nathaniel’s post about personal branding, I thought I’d share with you a popular article from the archives: The Designer Dress Code. Think of it as a response from the ‘scruffy designer.’

Here’s a familiar situation. You’re networking. You’re a little bit nervous. You look around. Suits. Sharp. Breathe in. Be confident. More suits. Maybe I shouldn’t have worn jeans. You’re a graphic designer. It’s okay. Perhaps a shirt next time.

Welcome to my world. A world where identity matters, as much in brand as it does appearance. Looks matter. You know it, I know it. We just don’t like to talk about it much. But what is it about dress code that is so important?

It’s unusual that, as a designer I enjoy a prerogative to get away with dressing down. Suits are reserved for formal occasions. Ties are mementoes of school days and shoes are those things you wear with suits.

However, as a business owner and entrepreneur there’s frequent cognitive dissonance experienced by dressing as a designer for business situations. Initially I feel awkward; a bit silly. Jeans. Cons. But then I think about how uncomfortable I’d feel in a suit. I don’t mind you wearing one – not at all! In fact, I reckon you look quite smart. I just don’t feel comfortable wearing them, and if I don’t feel comfortable, my confidence might well be stifled. And if my confidence is waning, I’m not going to be at my best for you.

How I present myself and how I dress isn’t a deliberate or preconceived imperative. My sense of bad taste has evolved naturally. Even at school, I interpreted the black trousers rule as black combats. Doc Martins became my equivalent to school shoes. I hope you’ll agree that style is psychologically subversive. What I signify depends on how you deconstruct me. So what do you think when you see a dressed down designer? Does it lend confidence to know that they’re more interested in the design of your identity than their appearance and construction of their own identity? On the contrary, do designers play to the creative look? Or perhaps it just screams apathy. Not on my part.

Style infers vanity. There must be some degree of a decision-making process when it comes to what I wear. It’s certainly not utilitarian, though it’s not entirely led by what is in vogue. It’s what I feel comfortable in and since I’m developing a personal brand, the ‘look’ I project has become integral to my business and brand. A fortuitous development but not one I feel bound by obligation.

This doesn’t avoid the inevitable ‘feel-a-bit-of-a-twat’ moments. That networking scenario event I started off with. At some point, there’s usually the, “let me guess – you’re a designer?” moment. My ambivalence at this point is almost painful. Part-proud that I fit the mould, part shamed that I fit the mould.

I put the question about design dress code on Twitter after getting mixed and varied feedback on my new avatar (ranging from ‘you look like a pleased trawlerman,’ to ‘homeless,’ to ‘a weird Jesus’).  Feedback, which I put in good light and parade proudly! Freya Swenson said, “I was brought up on its better to be too smart than too casual but in creative industry, you’re just that, creative… I wouldn’t go to a meeting in sloggy clothes. I’d go in jeans, smart shoes & a smart top (guys can do a shirt).”

An article by eightyone design discussed the dress code of a graphic designer and touched on the idea of dressing to stereotype which left me asking, does dressing to stereotype help or hinder?

I think it’s more a case of dress-code versus wear-what-you-like.When I worked as a music journalist, the directors once decided to impose a new dress code on the creative team. Even though we were out of view from investors, visitors, we had to abide. Shirts, specifically. So a fellow colleague wore a shirt the next day. With the sleeves ripped off. New dress code: shirts with sleeves. The point here is, a dress code ought to be appropriate to the context.

So here’s my quandary now: at what point does designer dress-down become conceited when put in the context of business?

Much of what Nathaniel suggests resonates with my own views: comfort will help confidence. And it’s important to be memorable.

What are your thoughts about dress codes? Do you feel comfortable in what you have to wear to work? Or maybe designers should just grow up and get over it?


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