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January 16, 2019

Formal wear wins the business day

Formal wear wins the business day


More and more young executives are becoming aware of the power of personal branding. In Africa, the older generation seemed to get the power first and not bother too much about the branding. That said, they all became brands, from Kenneth Kaunda to Milton Obote, and more recently the late middle-aged commercial lions of Africa like Aliko Dangote or Chris Kirubi.

It may surprise you, but in the time it takes you to read this introduction, others will have formed an opinion of you. In business, initial impressions can be very positive or potentially damaging.  It is during these initial critical seconds that reputations are begun or damaged – in a phenomenon known by psychologists as The Primacy Effect.

In Zambia last week I found that the English advice to young ladies ‘always look at a man’s shoes first ‘ was still very current. But the only Nigerian in the room added instantly ‘and his watch!’

For younger people, one of the big dilemmas is how much to dress down. I do not mean formal dressing down as mandated by the company. There you have no choice, everyone from the paunchy CFO to the messenger gets to wear the same branded polo shirt. And as the shirt has normally been supplied by the lowest bidder (who is often a relative of a procurement person) these shirts look terrible after the first month. Plus, what trousers or skirts do you wear with something that would look better on a gardener. Chic pencil skirts, crisp mohair trousers with a designer belt? Ah, that is a tricky one.

The dress down decision was prompted by a generation of business school graduates who decided pro-suit was anti-tech – and losing the suit gained instant credibility.  Anne Hollander, fashion historian and author of Sex and Suits, compares this trend to the plight of the skirt in the1970’s, when feminists boasted, ‘I don’t own a skirt’.  The casual trend began in the mid 80’s when HR departments in the USA decided that a weekly dress-down would be fun and free an employee perk. 

But dress down became a huge corporate image dilemma. Bankers like Morgan Stanley suffered from DDSS (dress down stress syndrome).  “Morgan Stanley’s London Trading floor was a fashion shambles”, said one employee  “Some in suits still, some in suits with no tie, visiting Americans in Banana Republic gear and a few in T shirts and jeans.  Casual wear is a struggle.   Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley joined the growing ranks of corporations that have decided suits will no longer be required working wear. 

Back to young people, who have some leeway in how they dress for the office. The role of the suit may have changed forever, but it still connotes many things from authority to sharpness of intellect. Young people would be unwise to abandon it. Personal branding is about image. The essence of image is about feeling good.  When you feel good you project success. So for men, the big choice is often tie or no tie. Deciding no tie means you better have a smart shirt that fits you well. Perhaps a recognisable brand; or at least of a recognisable quality. And without a tie, double cuff shirts with cufflinks become more impactful.

Am I going to remain silent on business dress for women? I am. It seems a safe course of action on a continent where women spend many hours a week on hair and beauty, and toothcomb the clothes shops and markets leaving no cloth unturned.

Shelly Lazarus, now retired as chairman emeritus of Ogilvy & Mather often came to work in jeans. She is famous four saying ‘ clients aren’t paying me for my clothes, they’re paying for my brain.’ But then again, we are not all Shelly Lazarus.

Merrill Lynch was one of the first large corporates to re-institute “dress-up” policy. One executive noted:  “dressing-up has improved the general work ethos.  Our people are taking their work more seriously.  For the foreseeable future, anyway dress-up will stay”


Chris Harrison has 30 years experience of marketing and advertising. Most of them spent in Africa. He leads the African operations of The Brand Inside; an international company that helps organisations deliver their brands and strategies through their people.

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