Workforce tailored to new era of austerity … almost

Retrenchments have sent the casual clothing crowd packing. But Julie Ihle finds corporate wear is still just as eccentric.

First published in SMH in 2002

Take a look around the office these days and it’s quite a different scene from two years ago, at least in the clothes department. Gone are the jeans and the funky T-shirts, the pump-action joggers and the scooter are no more, and in their place is the suit.

We have come full circle from the days when things were rosy, the dot com kids were millionaires on paper and everyone turned up to work dressed as though they were going to a game of power basketball. The downturn, the retrenchments and the blame game have all made their mark on the corporate attire.

And about time too. Who can turn up to work wearing King Gees and a Simpsons T-shirt and feel like putting in a solid day’s work? Who can appear for meetings dressed in a caftan or a Moroccan-inspired pantsuit and not feel as if they are about to go backpacking? And who can possibly be serious about finetuning the company’s corporate strategy while wearing trakky daks and aqua trim sports pumps?

Whoever it was who had the bright idea that people would be more productive wearing their weekend gear to work got it seriously wrong. It is a fact of life that when you are wearing corporate gear you feel corporate, and when it’s the weekend and you’re wearing your jeans or pyjamas it feels like the weekend. And you can’t mix ’em. Whichever now defunct dot com company it was that initially persuaded us otherwise got it very wrong. No wonder they went bust.

But although the days of wearing jeans to work have now gone, the casual corporates have left their mark on the workforce in a very strange way.

Take this season’s suit, for instance. After a corporate decline you’d expect something very straight, very severe, a suit that’s not able to be compromised, a navy straitjacket sack kind of thing. But this year’s suit is quite the opposite. Non-formed, non-structured, textured and covered in flowers. And the flowers themselves are not demure dainty little things – they’re huge swirling statements that scream out FLOWER. It’s like some kind of bizarre denial: you can take my job, you can take my shredder machine, my share options, my leave entitlements, my dignity and my pride, but, hey – leave those flowers alone.

And for women it’s not just flowers, or butterflies, but velvet, romantic pirate cuffs, swashbuckling belts, frilly business shirts and cutesy little black slingbacks. It’s as though the suits have never heard about corporate collapses.

It’s the sort of suit that thinks it is going on a long picnic on company time and not coming back.

And for men who can’t quite see themselves in all-over flowers, the tie is back. But it’s not the tie of old. Admittedly there are no dancing bears or gyrating golf clubs, but it’s not the sombre tie you’d expect after a financial bust. Instead it is a tie of muted pastels and pale, embossed polka dot patterns and ever so faint swirly patterns.

But as a result of decisions made by the boys in the baseball caps on backwards, going to work these days is anything but a picnic. A decent cup of coffee from the office coffee tin is a thing of the past and anything but no-name tea bags in the cupboard is a cause for celebration. The office biscuit tin – which used to contain the Arnotts Assorted, Saladas and Scotch Fingers – has long been cut from the budget.

In today’s workforce just finding a pen that works in the stationery cupboard is a major achievement. Being given a brand new manila folder that didn’t once belong to some retrenched employee is like some kind of ’90s flashback. Against this backdrop, it’s perhaps no wonder the workforce is resorting to butterflies on the suit and pale purple polka dots on the tie. Everyone is in denial.

Still, the butterflies will eventually fly the same way as the shoulder pads and the polo necks. In five or 10 years we will look back in horror at these happy-go-lucky suits. Cargoes, bandanas, pump-action runners and one-armed shoulder bags aren’t the answer, but neither are fairy suits. It’s time the business world got back into the proper suits and ties and started making some proper money. Then I’ll break out the butterflies.


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