The business world is changing, but as we are shifting to a more mobile professional dynamic, does that mean our workwear needs to change too? Or do we still need to suit up to meet the expectations of our corporate peers and clients?
Before we get into the expectations of the suit, we first need to take a look at what it is that makes a good, modern, timeless suit in the first place.
According to Sam Abouhassan, master tailor, Sam Abouhassan Custom Clothiers, there are a few key features to look for in a suit that will keep you looking professional and up-to-date. “Classic and modern could go together if you update from your basic navy, grey, or black suit with subtle tone-on-tone patterns in the fabric, and those colours never go out of style,” Abouhassan explains; however, “the timeless staples that you should keep in your arsenal are the black, grey, and navy suit—and, for some men, brown.”
“As good as your suit is,” Abouhassan warns, “you must not forget the importance of the shoes and the tie.” You can have the most classic of suits and still look unprofessional or uncoordinated with the wrong colour or style of shoe or tie.
Then, of course, there’s the fit. “The fit of the suit is more important than the colour and make,” Abouhassan emphasizes. “A good-fitting suit and shirt should make you feel great and confident.”
Janel Dickin, owner, Hye Fashion Inc., agrees. “The most important consideration for a classic suit is fit. When a suit fits your body well, there is a much better chance that it can be made to look like it’s new, on-trend, or in style.”
Katie Cruickshank, store and marketing manager, Hye Fashion Inc., explains that, “For the jacket, you want the shoulder seam to fit snug without being tight. It should pull in at the waist and flare out slightly for women, and it should be cut straight from the waist for men to create the inverted triangle. For men with bellies, it’s best to leave the jacket unbuttoned for the most ‘square’ look. Too much horizontal pulling makes the jacket look too small. For the pants: a flat front, fitted style with a slim but not too skinny leg are classics for both genders.”
“Suiting in both genders is trending toward a narrower leg,” Dickin adds. “This elongates the silhouette and, for women, allows the pants to be tucked into a boot. But when I say a ‘narrow silhouette,’ I don’t mean skin-tight. Bottoms don’t need to be snug across the backside—and shouldn’t be, in a professional environment, unless they are paired with a jacket or blazer that covers the backside.”
“Over the past several seasons, there has been a trend in womenswear to wear a blazer open. For this reason, designers have come up with styles that have no closures. This is a timeless look—provided the blazer is not a sloppy fit,” says Dickin.
Cruickshank adds that, for a classic blazer, you want a, “Medium-width lapel—not too skinny, not too wide—with a notch feature. A two-button style is the most classic for both men and women. One-button is also good. Black is always good, but navy and grey are the new classics.”
But how necessary is the suit in the workplace today? Is casual becoming the new professional in more office spaces?
“For a casual meeting, sure,” says Abouhassan. “For the serious transaction, though, a suit, or a jacket and pants, and tie should be worn.”
“Clients still expect the pros to look like pros,” he explains. “You don’t want to over-dress, but you also don’t want to underdress. You should have a feel of what those expectations are. It is true about the first impression. If you are dealing with hi-caliber clients or co-workers, you are not going to get away with a lower-quality suit that does not fit.”
“Dressing appropriately ensures you’re taken seriously for the position you’re in or aiming to be in,” Dickin agrees. “Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘dress for the position you want, not the position you have’? A well-fitting suit immediately gives a first impression of overall competency; You are viewed as the authority and the expert because you look the part.”
‘Looking the part,’ however, also means taking into consideration the appropriateness of the attire, and that is something that is seen as a greater challenge for women.
“I think women get more flak in their dress because, traditionally (since the 1960s), there have been more options for womenswear than there have been for menswear. It’s impossible to make a dress code that covers every possible parameter,” Dickin explains. “Therefore, with men, the dress code is often, ‘shirt, tie, jacket, dress slacks, and dress shoes’. Conversely, for women, the dress code needs to attempt to address the many varying styles women can wear while still looking professional.”
Like, for instance, leggings.
“I cannot stress enough that leggings are not pants!” Dickin expounds. “Leggings need to be worn with extreme caution, particularly in the workplace. Think of leggings as pantyhose or tights; leggings must be paired with a tunic, dress, or skirt that covers the back and the front of the body.” The “fingertip test” is the best bet for ensuring the appropriateness of your leggings, she adds: “stand with your arms comfortably at your sides. Your tunic/dress/skirt should be at least the length of your fingertips, or longer. If in doubt, put on pants or an appropriate-length skirt instead.”
That doesn’t mean Dickin opposes the idea of professional workplaces moving away from the reign of the suit. On the contrary, she loves the juxtaposition of wearing one dressy piece with a more casual item.
“A good rule of thumb,” she says, “is that, if you’re wearing a more casual piece (i.e.: cardigan, jeans, or t-shirt), ensure the remainder of your outfit compensates for the casualness of the least formal item.”
“In certain workplaces, clients or colleagues may find you more ‘relatable’ when you’re dressed closer to the way they are dressed,” suggests Dickin. “However, to ensure they aren’t offended and that they take you seriously, I still believe it’s important to look professional and dress a level above the individual(s) you’re meeting with and selling to. When you are dressed on-trend, you appear to be up-and-up with the latest fashion trends, thereby giving the impression that you’re in tune with the latest trends in your industry.”
You still need to be dressed appropriately for the workplace, though, Dickin warns. “Regardless of how you dress, be sure to familiarize yourself with and adhere to your company’s dress code. Dress codes are in place not only to uphold the appropriate image of an organization, but also to ensure the organization’s employees are dressed to complete their jobs safely.”
“If a firm is moving away from professional attire, they should be doing so strategically,” agrees Adel Hanafi, director of RE/MAX Excellence Commercial Division. “From a branding perspective, a company’s standards for attire and style of clothing provide an implicit means of immediately conveying the corporate culture, target audience, and level of competence.”
“In commercial real estate,” he continues, “performance is often considered the determining factor when our clients retain us as their service provider or business partner. Performance and competence can be immediately conveyed through a well-designed suit. That being said, not all professional service providers hang their hats on these traits, and if a firm’s unique selling proposition is collaboration or creativity (for instance), then their professional attire can reflect this.
“Professional attire definitely influences a client’s perception. If a company intends to move away from formal wear and suits, it is important that they understand who they are working with and the type of clients they would like to attract. In this sense, the company could be tapping into a niche market by differentiating themselves from other professional firms.”
“Dressing appropriately means assessing existing perceptions, but more importantly, it shows an understanding of purpose,” Hanafi concludes. “Like most things in business, I think it boils down to what your objectives are. Understanding the goals of an interaction, the attributes you’d like to convey to support these goals, and how this can be achieved through your attire will help guide your professional style.”