· Features

Has the office suit had its day?

The suit is so passe, according to a new study on business dress. Smart-casual is the new look. Where does this leave HR?

The fact that organisers of Royal Ascot had to issue a special statement clarifying the meaning of "formal dress" this year (women should not show their midriffs or wear G-strings), is a sign that appropriateness is a constantly moving feast. Lauretta Roberts, editor of fashion magazine Drapers, says she certainly finds it depressing that "the art of dressing smartly and appropriately is being lost". She adds: "Should race-goers really have to be told that?" she reels. "It's ridiculous. But I suppose what some people consider black-tie attire these days also beggars belief. Some men don't wear a tie while their partners look like they're at a dodgy nightclub."

This relaxed attitude towards dress code has also moved into the workplace too. For the past seven years image consultancy The Aziz Corporation has been monitoring the evolution of business dress. But this year's study marks a new tipping point: for the first time ever, more employers (51%) are ditching the suit for 'smart-casual'.

Since the study was launched in 2001, the suit has gradually become less and less common in everyday business life. Replacing it has been a gradual rise in the acceptance of casual clothes. There is even a decline in the number of people who believe that a suit should be worn in business meetings (see right).

Khalid Aziz, chairman of The Aziz Corporation, believes that, as well as reflecting that "generation Y is not interested in wearing suits", the research also "speaks to a bigger agenda". He says: "Cradle-to-grave loyalty to a company has gone, people are more independent and patterns of work have changed. There are many more assignment-based projects now where someone might work for nine months then go off scuba-diving for three months."

While there is still a hard core who prefer wearing a suit everyday, these are aged over 50 - 36.3%, compared to 28.3% over the whole sample. Confusingly, though, 86.2% of those under 30 still believe a suit should be worn for business meetings, indicating a lack of conviction about whether the suit really is a label of the past.

So, where does this casualisation of dress code leave HR directors? Jane Finnette, director of European marketing at internet search engine company Mozilla Europe, oversees company image, of which dress code is a part. She welcomes the trend. There is no formal dress code and staff at Mozilla come into work wearing jeans, shorts or "pretty much anything they please", she says. "It's pleasing to learn that more than half of businesses are going casual. It makes for a happier working environment." For her, the sign of the times is that employers are realising that people should be allowed to be more expressive in the workplace, encouraging individuality and personalities to shine through, which helps boost creativity as well as productivity. "The suit is too professional and too serious for our modern age," she says.

There are signs that even in the most traditional of sectors, such as finance, there is a certain relaxing of rules in a bid to create a better office atmosphere. Abbey, for instance, has a dress code that is constantly reviewed and acknowledges that work attire can contribute to an employee's performance and that, at certain times, a relaxed dress code is appropriate. "It's important to promote a positive working environment and have engaged employees," says Abbey's HR director, Steve Williams. "By allowing people to choose what they wear to work, we give them additional empowerment, which should help to translate into a more contented workforce." He stresses that this choice is obviously "within certain boundaries", with customer-facing staff still expected to wear their uniform at all times and office staff to sport a suit and jacket combination.

But not everyone welcomes the research, or indeed believes its findings. Sue Stedman, director of the company of the same name, has been dressing the corporate world for 20 years. She has never advised HR directors on how to dress down the workforce. In fact her clients all want staff to look smarter. "I disagree that the workplace is getting more casual. Sloppy dressing just doesn't work. A jacket and trousers adds gravitas," she says. Stedman points out that many banks and other traditional institutions (such as Barclays) have reversed dress-down days or casual dress codes. In many cases this was because staff were confused about what to wear and some employers also noted that, with the relaxation in dress, there was a drop in professionalism.

While Aziz is convinced that the general trend away from suits in the workplace is set to continue, he concedes that, during tougher economic times, people may well dress smartly. "In recession, everyone starts wearing a suit and tie because they don't want their bosses to think they aren't seeing lots of clients," he says. His view is supported by fashion editors. "With the credit crunch, male grooming and styling has become more important,"says Bill Prince, deputy editor, GQ magazine. "After all, it is a very confident or foolish man that turns up to an interview looking like he's about to clean the car."

Nevertheless, Prince admits that he was surprised how far the dress-down trend had gone when he recently wrote an article on City workers. His explanation for this relaxation of social codes? "Too many people are taking their lead from celebrities on TV". GQ has always, and will continue to, encourage men to wear suits and dress for the "job you want, not the one you have".

He adds: "The suit is practical and efficient. To us, the suit as a vehicle of professionalism has never really been improved upon. We believe the switch to relaxed dress is unnecessary. Now men spend more time wondering if they should buy a new shirt or trousers, which is not good for productivity. Men have entered the hell that women live in, of having to decide what they're going to wear every day."