Found myself in an unusual situation recently. I normally dress reasonably formally for work. I work in an office setting within a University, a context in which a shirt and tie has traditionally been the default setting. Despite the fact that most of my colleagues no longer feel bound by these norms, I tend towards the traditional.
In addition to that primary work location, my role occasionally requires that I do home visits, sometimes to people I have not yet met. On one such occasion recently, I found myself with a minor wardrobe crisis.
If people have met me before, especially in the office, they quickly recognise that I dress more formally than most and take both it and me with a pinch of salt. However, for someone who would encounter me for the first time within the close confines of their home, where they were likely to be dressed down, I felt it probably was wise to try to tone down myself.
However, given that this was the first time I would meet this person I didn’t want to turn up looking too casual, because that might give the wrong impression, that I wasn’t taking this meeting very seriously. You only get one chance to make a first impression, after all. So my aim was to dress down whilst still looking reasonably professional.
I quickly discovered I didn’t really have that category in mind when my wardrobe was constructed. I could offer 1 of 4 categories of work dress:
- dressed up and professional
- very dressed up and professional
- even more dressed up and slightly ludicrous
- dressed down and chillaxed.
I didn’t have a category of dressed down and professional.
Partly that’s because this is not a category I need very often; if I’m dressing down I tend not to aim for professional. Partly it’s because my default dress direction is up… Had I met the person previously, I would not have been overly concerned about what I was wearing. They would already have formed an impression of me, and I of them. Moreover, I would have had a better sense of where to pitch myself.
In the end I went for the most casual blazer I own, combined with short sleeve shirt, tank top jumper and chinos. I was aiming for nondescript and not too dressy. The key sticking point was shoes. I don’t really have any shoes that fit into the category of nondescript and not too dressy; they’re all pretty exceptional.
If you are in an office environment your shoes are often under your desk and therefore not exposed for too long. So if they’re fairly extrovert, no biggie. However, if I’m sitting in a small living room, my size 11s become painfully obvious as soon as I cross my legs. They get in the way too.
Eventually I settled on one of my least dressy shoes, an older pair I’d been thinking about culling because I hardly wear them these days.In the end I think I achieved the look I was aiming for; non flashy, relatively nondescript, professional. But it required quite careful thought.
Not for the first time, however, it struck me that dressing formally is pretty easy. There are pretty clear rules of expectation. Similarly, dressing casually is also pretty easy. There are basically no rules. It is in that no man’s land of semi-casual or semi-formal that it gets really complicated….