Dressed for Success

Just before Christmas, the Swiss bank UBS issued its employees with a 44 page dress code, aimed at re-establishing confidence in the bank and giving an impression of total professionalism. In case you missed it, here are some of the main points:

  • Men must wear dark grey, black or navy suits, and black knee-length socks
  • Designer stubble is strictly out, and if you wear glasses, they must not be ‘fashionable’
  • Half a page in the booklet is given over to a discussion on nostril hair
  • Women are told that skirts should be mid-knee length, black nail polish is ‘unadvisable’ (as is nail art – obviously) and only flesh-coloured underwear should be worn
  • Both sexes are told not to eat garlic, and to avoid ‘onion-based’ dishes
  • And as you’d expect from a Swiss bank, a wristwatch also helps to give an impression of ‘punctuality and precision.’ (No checking the time on your mobile.)


So that’s that, then. Mark Twain was right. ‘Clothes maketh the man.’ If you’re not at the next TAB meeting in a navy suit, white shirt, red tie and black knee length socks I’ll know you’re not serious.

But can that dress code really be right? Even for a Swiss bank? Google, Apple, Microsoft…all their staff dress casually and they haven’t done too badly. In fact, in an age where an eighteen year old who spends all day in his pyjamas can write the best selling iPhone app, does what you wear really matter any more?

Next time I go to see my solicitor, should I worry if he’s wearing ripped jeans and a Grateful Dead T-shirt?

Here’s my two penn’orth…

I think what you wear is becoming less important. In the final analysis – thank God – it’s what comes out of your mouth that matters. We’ve all been in meetings where Mr Navy suit-white shirt-red tie-black shoes (and quite possibly wearing his wife’s flesh coloured underwear) has stood up…and talked complete tosh.

But sometimes, what you wear gives you the chance to open your mouth. If I’d gone to my first TAB meeting wearing my jeans I wouldn’t be writing this blog now. You need to wear what’s appropriate, and you need to wear what your client (or potential client) would expect – and what will make them feel comfortable. That may sound like common sense, but small changes can make a difference. One of my good friends and TAB members is an IFA – and he has a rule regarding his tie. “Anyone over 60, my tie is on. Young couple, first time buyers – I wouldn’t dream of wearing a tie. I want to show that we’re on their side. That I’m not the corporate drone they’d find in the high street.”

One day last week I found myself with three appointments – and three changes of clothes. First appointment was a potential client. Traditional company and – I suspected – a fairly traditional MD. Navy suit, pale blue shirt, stripy tie. The second appointment was a 121 with a TAB member – and the tie stayed in the back of the car.

My third appointment was another potential client – a hi-tech company at York Science Park. I strongly suspected they didn’t even know how to pronounce the word ‘tie.’ But I still thought I’d be overdressed in a suit and (in particular) my smart black shoes. So out came the chinos, casual jacket, casual shoes. And if you saw someone walking into the toilets at the York Ramada carrying what appeared to be his entire wardrobe – yes, it was me. But the hi-tech company will become clients.

One final point to finish – and gentlemen, I need your help here. My wife takes the existence of the tie as definitive proof that women are more intelligent than men. As she says, ‘which sex is it that spends thirty quid on a silk tie then sits in their car and eats an egg mayonnaise sandwich?’ If anyone out there could help me with a convincing counter-argument I’d be eternally grateful. Because in twelve years of marriage, I’ve never found one…



  1. Rich Cadden · January 28, 2011

    Loving this blog Ed…..And working in three different area (PT, Diet &Nutrition and NLP) I think there are different degrees to which people expect ‘that corporate image’ look and when they expect the vibrant guy dressed in a tracksuit…..
    But as I have just realised as I was typing this…its all about the ‘expectation’. So how can I ‘mind read’ other peoples expectations?
    The Swiss Bank idea is a bit too prescriptive, but I think there has to be a degree of wiggle room in there for creative flair.
    I think there is a danger in over-thinking these things, putting too much attension on minor details, and then forgetting about the words that come out of peoples mouths and the actions that they do.

    In Fitness, its ‘expected’ to have a bit of a crazy/whacky hair-style, but as I have expanded my client-base I have toned it down, and took solice in the tag-line to ‘the mullet’….. Business at the front, Party at the back!!!! 🙂
    When I come in to business meetings, they see the clean-cut, smart guy and I do “what it says on the tin”,….but maybe, then, as I am leaving, they see the “party at the back”, and this could point to a more creative/fun side…..

    But then again, maybe I am over-thinking it too!!!! 🙂 LOL

  2. Jason Feavers · January 28, 2011

    Great blog post Ed. During the banking crisis, one of my clients had a contract for one of the bailed out banking groups. When the bank was taken over he was then involved in pitching for the combined contract. He commented at the time about how striking the difference was between dresscodes at the two banks. The now failed bank had a fairly relaxed dress code, with very few staff wearing ties. At the other bank, dress code was more formal with ties the expected norm. This seemed to be reflected in the attitude of the staff in terms of how systems were followed and, quite possibly in attitudes towards risk with the banks money.

    Maybe there’s a bit of a left brain / right brain split here. Do task orientated workers perform better if there is clear guidance on what is expected not just in terms of working procedures but dress code too? Do creatives feel stifled and less able to do their work when restrictions and regulations are over zealous?

    • edreidyork · January 28, 2011

      Hi Jason – agree there could be some right/left brain influence going on here. Interesting observations on the bank stuff – thanks!

  3. Dick Jennings · January 28, 2011

    I agree with Rich that it’s all about expectation.

    But I do add that there’s the opportunity to MOULD peoples’ expectations, not just reflect them.

    As a solicitor, trustworthiness and dependability are at the heart of what people need of me. I make sure I project that, with a sober suit, double cuff shirt with quality cuff links, silk tie. Not exciting, but pretty foolproof in my line of work. And a no-brainer to select in the morning!

    In business, best dress to impress, not for your own vanity. What impresses with Californian software designers is unconventionality. (Although unconventionality in California long ago – way back with the hippies – became a convention all of its own so isn’t all it seems to us.)

    UBS overcooked their dress code ludicrouisly, but the general drift of their requirements wan’t so stupid. ‘Cos what’s the message need to be from a Swiss banker? “Your money’s safe with me. I’m too unimaginative to steal it, and sufficiently well heeled not to need to.”

    • edreidyork · January 28, 2011

      Dick – I’m delighted to see you’re so au fait with the Swiss banking fraternity! Thanks as always for your great commentary.

  4. Rory Ryan · January 28, 2011

    Interesting Ed. I had a second meeting with a new client on Tuesday. I was wearing filthy boots, dirty jeans, an old hoodie and a woolly cap. When he walked in he was really impressed and said ‘Wow Rory, you really get stuck in’ – I was carrying out a condition survey of an old warehouse. My shabby clothes illustrated that I am a hands on guy BUT he was only really convinced when I walked him through the building a pointed out all the defects that he was unaware of.

    I would hope that what you do and say is becoming more important than what you wear but in saying that I also have a wardrobe in the car.

    As for Dav’s argument – well how many pairs of shoes does she have and how many does she wear? 🙂

    • Rich Cadden · January 28, 2011

      When talking womens shoes, I have been educated that its a totally separate subject to ‘fashion’…..thats why they have their own section in shops….and why my wife paid £500 for her wedding shoes!!!! lol

      • Douglas Adamson · January 28, 2011

        I have worked in advertising and marketing for over 30 years and seen massive changes in dress codes. I don’t go quite as far back as Mad Men where the Madison avenue guys always wear sharp suits and tap secretaries bottoms! You have to dress to match the client’s expectations. There was a lovely story of smart London agency coming up’t north to pitch for an account in the late 70’s. The agency team dressed down with wooly ties and stout, sensible shoes while the northern clients, thinking they would be meeting trendy London types dressed in wild ties, flares and the highest stacks available!

        Clothing can add presence, confidence and says a lot about the wearer. Never try to be what you are not. You have to be comfortable with yourself in any business environment to succeed so be sure to be comfortable with what you wear. If you don’t like the Swiss banker’s dress code, don’t work there.
        Doug Adamson

      • edreidyork · January 28, 2011

        Doug – good to hear from you. Love the story about the north/south mix-up. In full agreement re feeling comfortable with yourself – so important if you’re going to be authentic. Thanks

      • edreidyork · January 28, 2011

        Rich – see my reply to Rory Ryan on this – enough said!

    • edreidyork · January 28, 2011

      Rory – you know my wife well enough to know that I’m not going to get involved in an online debate about her shoe-buying habits…Totally agree that what you do/say is way more important.

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  6. Dave Rawlings · January 28, 2011

    In the old TV series “Soap”, Chester was in bed with his much younger girlfriend who’d just told him she wouldn’t see him any more. “But why?” he asked. “Because you’re badly dressed, too old, too fat and you’re no good in bed!” she replied.
    Chester was aghast, “Badly dressed ???!!”

    I suppose you preoccupations change as you get older…

    • edreidyork · January 28, 2011

      Dave – brilliant! Chester was obviously a man who would have added an interesting perspective to this little debate.

  7. Julian Smith · January 28, 2011

    Hi Ed
    Another great blog. Your musings I regularly share with my TAB members.
    In terms of dress code, for me I get the dress appropriately for the situation and person you are seeing BUT who says they will have dressed how you expect them too?
    So for me its more about being true to yourself and therefore authentic.
    Isnt it worse to feel uncomfortable and therefore not at your best in a ‘sales’ situation or interview?

    As for the wifes argument about tie wearers, my advice is dont spend £30 on a tie OR eat a runny sandwich OR buy a bib too! Women are only jealous that ties make us men look superior, which we are of course!lol
    Is that the politically correct thing to say in the wake of Skys problems this week? Perhaps not!

    • edreidyork · January 28, 2011

      Julian – I’ve just replied to Doug talking about authenticity, and lo and behold what have you said! We’re absolutely aligned, on that bit at least. I don’t want to incur the wrath of the Sky police!

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