Office dress code: How much liberty should be given?

Steve Jobs, the man who led probably one of the most successful tech companies, did it wearing turtleneck sweaters, faded straight jeans and black trainers.  Not even during product launches or during his memorable graduation speeches was he suited up.
 In the coporate world, employees are required to suit up. Net photo
In the coporate world, employees are required to suit up. Net photo

Steve Jobs, the man who led probably one of the most successful tech companies, did it wearing turtleneck sweaters, faded straight jeans and black trainers.  Not even during product launches or during his memorable graduation speeches was he suited up.

On a trip to Japan in the early 1980s, Jobs asked the then Sony chairman why the company’s employees wore uniforms. In his autobiography by Walter Isaacson, Jobs details the chairman’s reaction. “He looked ashamed and told me that after the war, no one had any clothes and companies like Sony had to give their workers something to wear each day. Over the years it developed into a signature style and had become a way of bonding the workers to their company.”

Jobs decided he would like to see the same replicate at Apple.

Sony had a famous designer Issey Miyake who created one of its uniforms. Jobs called Issey and asked him to design something for Apple. He went back to San Francisco with the samples and suggested to everyone that it would be great if they would wear them to work.  He got booed on stage.

He however liked the idea of having a uniform for himself, for convenience and a signature style, so he had the designer make him some turtle necks he liked, a hundred of them, enough to last him his entire life.

And with that the CEO of one of the most famous brands became one of the many role models for ‘rebels’ who choose to defy the traditional office suits and dress codes and dress up in whatever they feel is convenient for them.

Office dress code has probably been up for discussion since offices and formal jobs came into existence. The lines drawn between those who feel that one way to show that you respect your job and a responsibility is by showing up officially dressed and others feeling it’s never that serious as long as one is comfortable.

“Traditional formal wear, mostly suits, have been passed by time. I find them uncomfortable and a bit clunky. Being presentable is not defined by being in official wear; you can dress casually and still look decent,” Janvier Ndayisaba, who works in the IT department of high end Hotel in Kigali, argues.  

For Ndayisaba any day, be it a Monday or Friday, you will catch him in jeans or khaki pants with a long sleeved shirt tucked in. “I believe I am presentable this way and feel comfortable too. I feel awkward in suits. We don’t have a dress code in our department but other departments like catering or room service have uniforms.”

Ndayisaba’s position is quite a ‘behind the scenes’ position, he rarely meets clients, he only ensures that the system is free of hiccups. “I am not the face of the hotel or the first person a client meets when they come in. Even if I were, I would still be dressing as I often do. I believe one should be comfortable at a work place to be productive. A lot of people too have been hiding their incompetence behind suits and formal wear.”

Dress code has been associated with the respect one accords to their occupation with some like Solange Umwali, a student and a front office assistant at an insurance firm, with the opinion that if you respect your job enough you will never walk in in questionable attire.

“As a front office assistant, my attire not only says a lot about me but about the firm I work for. Respecting my work place means that I should never show up at work with clothes I would wear to a party or over the weekend. As much as most will argue that what matters is one’s productivity not whatever they wear, dress code is an important issue in any organisation.”

Umwali feels that if employees are allowed to come to work in whatever they wished, it would either turn into a competition or some employees would be distracted whenever one of them walks to fetch water at the dispenser. “If people are left to show up at work as they please in the name of freedom, then there are high chances that some people, especially ladies, will cause a lot of distraction in short dresses or overly tight pants. The point of dress codes is to ensure that the place of work remains a place of work and not something else.”

In the fifteen or so years Vianney Kamasa has been working in several micro-finance companies. He has observed dress codes almost religiously. He says that he is always dressed in pants, scuffed leather shoes under them and an official shirt and a tie not only because he is required by his employers but also because that is how serious people ought to dress.

 “Few people will take you seriously no matter how qualified you are if you show up to work in jeans on a Monday morning. If you are serious about what you do prove it by dressing like your job requires you to. Jeans or hanging shirts in the office are for people who are not serious.  Dress codes also make all employees feel equal, lowering the chances of some people looking down on each other,” Kamasa says.

Would he feel better if his bosses allowed him to come to work dressed as he pleases?

“I wouldn’t switch to casual or dress freely; I would still dress as one in my position is expected to dress. I deal with peoples savings, my look is supposed to show I can be trusted and that I am responsible.”

If you give Kamasa examples of CEOs who have always been spotted in casual wear like Richard Branson or Mark Zukerberg, he replies that one should know their position before they try out something. “Those are owners of companies and have nothing to lose, their case is different because they do not have to show up at work,” Kamasa cuts in sharply.

Vanessa Isugi, a student and employee at a telecommunications company sees dress codes as colonial and holding back employees’ creativity.

 “It should be up to employees themselves to decide what is appropriate and what is not, when it comes from them it will be more sincere and they will do things because they mean to and not because they are forced to. It is in places with dress codes that you find employees keen to take off whatever they were wearing the moment they step out of the office even if it is going for lunch. They are always eager to leave work.”

Igugi feels there should be boundaries of what employees can and cannot dress in to work. “At times people go over board by showing up to work in shorts or ripped jeans, so it would be good if the Human Resource policy would clarify on don’ts rather than impose dress codes. With that people will know that they are free to choose convenient attires as long as they don’t cause others discomfort.”

The first and probably only point of agreement is that whatever is agreeable on is that no matter the agreement on what’s appropriate, people ought to be comfortable with what they dress in to work. With all their varied opinions they agree that comfort from attire has an impact to ones productivity. The more comfortable one is, the higher the chances of good results.



Dress Code: How to dress for work

Work. Chances are, you will find yourself employed at some point in your life, but dressing appropriately for your workplace can be a tricky endeavor. We’re helping you navigate these waters. Starting a job — hell, staying at a job — is hard enough without feeling uncomfy or worrying about what you’re wearing. These tips should guide you as you shop for office-friendly outfits, and work for the typical workplace

Dress to feel like yourself.

If you look uncomfortable, it more than overrides the professionalism of a getup.

“Professional” doesn’t mean “dowdy,” it doesn’t mean “feminine,” it doesn’t mean “expensive.”

It means exactly what it sounds like: dressing to do your job in a well-groomed and non-distracting fashion. No one is forcing anyone into sexy-secretary getups, here.

You can dress for work on the cheap.

Avoid cheap prints, for the most part, but with a little tailoring, dirt-cheap solids can work. I am also a serious advocate of second-hand.

When in doubt, just don’t do denim.

Unless you’re that person who always wears jeans and rocks them and that’s your thing (in which case you have it figured out and don’t need any guidelines anyway), I’d say just take that huge hunk of guesswork off the table. After all, we’re talking about making this as easy as possible, and even if “dark denim” or pencil skirts or something is just fine for your office, you want to get to a point where you don’t ever need to wonder if something’s appropriate.

Not everyone wears heels.

For many they’re too girly, for others too hard to walk in. You certainly don’t need to. But! If you’re really stumped, or feel like you look young and if you’retrying to find the formula to a professional uniform, a pair of sensible, comfy (yes, it’s relative) low heels is a good shortcut. Now, if it’s not you: don’t do it!


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